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VW has added a third member to the GTI family - but is it worthy of the badge?

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Two’s company, but three’s enough for a performance model family. That seems to be the logic on which Volkswagen’s strategy is being founded, with its long-established GTI sub-brand having just received a rare third product pillar.

The new Up GTI makes it a happy triumvirate of go-faster VW hatchbacks alongside bigger brothers the Polo and Golf. We’ve only been treated to that many GTI production models once before: between 2000 and 2005, when VW’s Lupo GTI was in production. And what a cracking little driver’s car that was.

There’s nothing that says ‘sporting intent’ quite like red front brake calipers, is there? They really stand out against our test car’s white paintwork.

The Volkswagen Upright, narrow, diminutive Up is a very different prospect than even the Lupo was; so what dynamic DNA can a modern, warmed-up city car share with its larger, more powerful and more by-the-book GTI hot hatch stablemates? And does this car really make the GTI family stronger - or does that famous three-lettered badge on its rump imply more performance purpose and credibility than the Up can carry off?

First confirmed in 2016, VW’s go-faster city car made its public debut in prototype form at the annual GTI Meet at Wörthersee in Austria last year, before UK order books opened last month. Since it broke cover, VW has been quick to draw comparisons between this newcomer and the original Golf GTI of 1976; but, as you’ll go on to read, there are some problems with that association.

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At present, the performance city car class into which the Up GTI is launching is – funnily enough – a compact one, populated by the likes of the Renault Twingo GT, Abarth 595 and pricier Smart Forfour Brabus. That its rivals are few doesn’t necessarily mean that the Up GTI will stand out, though. To do that, the little VW must not only deliver the compelling and composed driving experience its model identity promises, but retain those dynamic characteristics that are fundamental to the appeal of any good city car.

So, how well does it strike that balance between performance and inner-city practicality? Let’s find out.

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Volkswagen Up GTI 2018 review on the road rear

As with the regular Volkswagen Up, the GTI sits on the VW Group’s New Small Family platform, with a transversely mounted engine sitting in its nose and driving the front wheels. Powering the car is a 1.0-litre, turbocharged three-cylinder motor from VW’s ‘EA211’ family of engines. It develops 114bhp between 5000rpm and 5500rpm, and 148lb ft between 2000rpm and 3500rpm.

The latter seems like a particularly generous portion of pulling power for a car that tipped the scales at our test track at just 1003kg, and gives the Up GTI a much better torque-to-weight ratio than either the original Golf GTI or the Lupo GTI had. However, will a three-cylinder engine with fairly heavy counterbalance measures, that’s dropping away from its power peak by 5500rpm, encourage you to chase the redline as keenly as the screaming four-pots of great pint-sized hot hatchbacks of the past? We’ll see.

I think a lot of people will like the car’s oddball, old-school temperament. You have to wrestle a bit to get the best from it, but that makes the results so much more rewarding when they come.

The Up GTI gets a six-speed manual transmission, as opposed to the five-speed gearbox available in the standard car. No twin-clutch DSG option is offered.

Suspension is made up of MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear, the car’s overall ride height having been lowered by 15mm in comparison with the standard model, and its tracks widened by 8mm both front and rear. The car rolls on 17in alloys of 6.5J rim width. The wheels, designed by VW’s R Division tuning arm, are each of 4mm less positive offset than the standard Up’s alloys and therefore deliver the car’s track width increase without any further hardware changes. VW press material on the car makes no mention of any specific changes to the car’s dampers or anti-roll bars, but it’s safe to assume both have been either retuned or uprated.

The sporting modifications haven’t been limited to the car’s underpinnings, either. The Up GTI gains a more sporting exterior design, with the ‘transverse rod’ styling feature that spans the width of the front end having been finished in glossy black, and a splitter element marking out the bottom of the bumper. The car’s detail upgrades have certainly been cleverly handled.

As for the car’s overall dimensions: if you’re looking for convenient similarity with those of the original Golf GTI here, you’ll look in vain. The Up GTI is 105mm shorter, with an 88mm taller roofline, than the Golf GTI Mk1, which are differences large enough to expect the Up to be subject to quite different dynamic challenges than its famous forebear was.


Volkswagen Up GTI 2018 review cabin

Within this powered-up Up you’ll find the seats are upholstered in VW’s GTI-familiar Jacara cloth tartan check, and there’s a three-spoke steering wheel not only bound in leather but subtly flat of bottom too. So far, so modern GTI.

The next things you’ll notice are that the gearknob is branded – so too the door sills – and that the dash’s trim garnish gets an eye-catching red pixel motif that’s attractive, albeit a shade too dark to match with the vibrant red hue of the contrast cross-stitching elsewhere. The roof-lining is also black, which does more for the sporting cause than you’d think. Meanwhile, the cabin’s matt chrome trim is a welcome and effective trick in making a city car seem worth a list price that’s closing in on £14,000.

I usually sit low in hot hatches, but I found the driving position improved with the seat cushion set at middling height. For me, it’s about compensating for the limited steering column reach. But it works.

With no changes to the car’s architecture, you still get the same deceptively capacious packaging and good ergonomic attention to detail that makes finding various controls effortless - although the dials are a touch more stylish within the instrument binnacle than in lesser models.

The Up GTI’s infotainment system comes in two parts: one supplied by Volkswagen, the other by you. The former is a 5.0in colour screen that displays basic functions such as radio and phone, and features Bluetooth connectivity. The latter is your smartphone, which can be mounted on a neatly integrated cradle atop the dashboard, with a USB socket via which to recharge it and connect it to the car.

Given the physical growth of smartphones generation on generation, it’s something of an oversight that the frame only accepts devices with screens up to 5.5in (the latest Apple iPhone, for example, is 5.65in). However, should yours fit, you can control the navigation functions – and more besides – via the Up’s physical controls by downloading VW’s free ‘Maps + More’ app onto iOS or Android devices. There are physical ventilation controls neatly clustered in the middle of the dash, too, just below the smartphone mount.

Space? There’s more in here than you’d credit. In the back, an average-height adult will be tolerably comfortable over short trips, while the standard car’s class-leading boot space remains intact. Which is to say, the boot’s small, but usable.

The cabin of this diminutive hatch has never been an exhibition in daring design and that’s still very much the case here. However, as you might expect, such a hearty complement of GTI paraphernalia does give the space an element of punch, and makes the car fun in the same minimised fashion of a perfectly pruned bonsai tree. You can’t help but slide in for the first time with a grin on your face.


Volkswagen Up GTI 2018 review engine

At this price and strata of the performance car market, quality of performance matters much more than outright quantity. You expect junior hot hatchbacks to set a slightly unspectacular standard against the clock, but it matters greatly that they make up for what they may lack in pace with free-revving willingness and readiness to be wrung out. In some ways, the Up GTI strikes that compromise well, but not in every detail or across the board.

The car’s three-cylinder turbo engine doesn’t have perfect throttle response, but it fronts up with grunt in sufficiently strong and immediate fashion as to seem both energetic and likeable. Through the middle of the car’s rev range, the rush of torque that accompanies your every dig into the right-hand pedal’s travel makes the Up accelerate keenly even at middling revs and in third and fourth gears.

The chassis doesn’t exactly dive into tight corners, and will understeer if you’re brutish on the exit, but it’ll slide just beyond a neutral attitude before the ESP intervenes.

The car’s quickest 0-60mph run against our timing gear was timed at just 8.3sec in one direction. That would be less than half a second behind that of an Abarth 595, and is also a shade quicker than VW’s 8.8sec 0-62mph claim would lead you to believe it might be. On the road, there’s enough potency here to make the car feel peppy and enthusiastic right the way up to motorway speeds – at which point, the car’s available acceleration is quite a lot less distinguishing.

But, while working that engine hard between 2500 and 5000rpm is certainly a cheery treat, keeping your foot in and chasing the car’s 6500rpm redline is an act less compelling than it might be. You simply needn’t use the last thousand revs of the Up GTI’s engine’s range to get the best out of it and in a car like this, that seems like a lost opportunity.

Likewise, although the shift quality of the Up GTI’s six-speed gearbox is respectable, it’s not desperately special. The car’s shift planes seem a little oddly spaced, and there’s also only an ordinary sort of precision and slickness to the way the lever moves through the gate – and not quite enough to entice you to swap cogs just for the tactile pleasure of it.

Details like this matter as much in a cheap driver’s car as they do in an expensive one and, as far as we’re concerned, there’s no reason they can’t be provided. The encouraging firmness, progressive feel and outright power of the Up GTI’s brakes suggest that VW had an eye on some of those details, but it’s clearly missed some too.


Volkswagen Up GTI 2018 review side profile

The all-round ride composure, remarkable road-appropriate suppleness, assured grip level and progressive body control that are the dynamic hallmarks of VW’s bigger GTI hatchbacks aren’t easily conjured in any modern hatch; they were always going to be lofty expectations of a relatively narrow, high-set city car.

As a drive in any of the Up GTI’s rivals would quickly prove, some key compromises have to be made if you want to make significant improvements to the handling of this sort of car. The Up GTI can’t cheat physics, and so it makes those compromises almost as plain as many of its opponents do. Equally, though, it also really has its moments – snatches of plucky, lively dynamism and driver reward that will redeem its overall driving experience for a great many.

Transmission bumps aren’t dealt with cleverly by the car’s stiff torsion beam rear suspension, which skips and can divert the body without too much speed.

The car rides like an Up that’s been lowered on its springs, and firmed up in its suspension in more ways than one – though perhaps not so carefully honed. It’s a busy, reactive, excitable car to be in when travelling at a decent clip on a typical country road, and plainly one of a fairly short wheelbase that falls into plenty of sunken hollows and rebounds out of them.

The car’s ride composure is often somewhat lacking when serious questions are asked of its chassis, and its anti-roll settings are also quite unforgiving, so it can fidget laterally as well as fore and aft. Because it’s high-of-profile and no natural athlete, meanwhile, the Up GTI doesn’t exactly dart into corners or change direction with anything like the balanced abandon of, say, a Mini Cooper. Instead, it’s as if it has to gather itself on its outside contact patches and think, for an instant, every time you turn the wheel.

This isn’t a car that rolls to extremes; in fact, it maintains surprisingly flat body control. Once you’ve got it turned in, however, you’re made aware that the lateral grip level at your disposal is quite delicate and that you can move the car around underneath you, by deploying power or taking it away, quite freely. Freely, that is, up to a point: when the non-switchable stability control system calls time on your fun and activates the brakes to bring the car’s rear axle back into line. It doesn’t need asking twice.

Once you’ve overcome the car’s initial reticence to turn in, the Up GTI can rotate remarkably keenly underneath you, and show off a gameness you just didn’t expect it to have.

Even at this point, your enjoyment of the car isn’t entirely unqualified because, while the chassis is pleasingly sensitive to a trailing throttle and is ready to be quite playful, VW has only developed the stability control system enough to allow fleeting glances of the car’s off-throttle adjustability in advance of pretty unreconstructed brake interventions – and it can’t be disabled. But, at the right moment, the car can paint a pretty broad smile on your face in spite of it all. When it works, it’s great: zesty, tenacious and a lot of fun. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t work better more of the time.

Even so, there’s plenty of fun to be had finding out how much licence that ESP system will give you, not least because the car communicates the limits of grip under those all-important front tyres quite well.


Volkswagen Up GTI 2018 review on the road

With a starting price of less than £14,000, the Up GTI has a combination of affordability and desirability that deserves to be celebrated. It’s a bona fide hot hatch with plenty of richer VW-brand material touches that’s also cheap enough to make a mid-level, 89bhp Vauxhall Corsa look a touch pricey, and to undercut both an Abarth 595 and a Renault Twingo GT.

It’s frugal too. How rare is it, even in 2018, to find a car you can genuinely be excited by that’ll also better 50mpg on a fairly conservative touring trip? The Up GTI will, and would probably average better than 40-to-the-gallon for most owners.

The Up GTI is not only cheaper than its rivals, it outperforms them in the depreciation stakes, too.

Cost of insurance will be of interest to plenty of younger buyers here. The Up GTI is in group 17, making it significantly cheaper to cover than an Abarth 595, though costlier than a Renault Twingo GT.

The car’s options catalogue is unusually short, too, so it’s easy to buy. You can pay extra for automatic climate control, a premium audio system, a sunroof, a reversing camera or cruise control if you want to – but none feel like must-have options.

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Volkswagen Up GTI 2018 review four star car

The Volkswagen Up GTI is as genial and charming a car as any pint-sized ‘pocket rocket’ there has ever been – and may be even more desirable than any. That it isn’t quite the driver’s car we’ve embraced in this performance niche over the years, however, is at once plain and slightly regrettable.

The car’s engine, while torquey and characterful, isn’t quite compelling enough for that sort of reverence. Its chassis, in turn, has moments of swivelling brilliance; but it doesn’t cover the dynamic basics quite well enough, or have the all-round polish needed, to wear a GTI badge entirely comfortably.

It's no performance landmark, but the Up GTI delivers plenty of bang for your buck

Paint the story of that driving experience on a backdrop of a sub-£14,000 asking price, however, and complete the package with the Up GTI’s brilliantly judged perceived quality and visual allure, and it’s very hard to argue with what’s available here.

Compare how much driver appeal this car offers with what it needs to offer to compare favourably with a mid-spec supermini or indeed any direct rival, and you can only judge the Up GTI a very creditable success.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volkswagen Up GTI First drives