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.
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.