Driving fast is A Bad Thing in 2018. Anyone who tries to make progress on UK roads will attract scorn from Honda Jazz drivers and the kind of people who upload dashcam footage to YouTube. Which makes the success of hot hatches such as the Volkswagen Golf R hard to comprehend. The current range of super hatches have all the subtlety of Donald Trump, yet people can’t snap them up on lease deals quick enough.
The truth is, most modern hot hatches are too powerful for UK roads. As technically competent as the Golf R is (not to exclude the likes of the Honda Civic Type R and Ford Focus RS, of course), it’s massively infuriating to use on real roads with real people.
This is why we get excited about fun cars with modest amounts of power. Cars like the Mazda MX-5 and Suzuki Swift Sport. Not only are they very rewarding to drive, you can explore their limits at sensible speeds that won’t risk you attracting the wrath of Daily Mail readers. Indeed, their lack of oomph is anything but a hindrance – you learn to maintain momentum rather than relying on a a massive wodge of power whenever you hit the accelerator pedal.
This is why we were rather excited about the Up GTI when we saw it in (very) near-production form at last year’s Worthersee GTI festival.
Volkswagen does insist on drawing comparisons between the original Golf GTI of 1976 and today’s Up GTI. While we’re loathe to jump on the marketing hype (the press material for the Up mentions the Mk1 Golf a total of 34 times), it’s difficult to talk about the Up’s appearance without highlighting its GTI traits.
From its diddy dimensions (the Up is 105mm shorter than the Mk1) to its modest power output (115hp versus 110hp), the Up GTI is admittedly closer to the original GTI than any fast Golf on sale today.
Other exterior highlights include a plethora of badges, a red stripe across the radiator grille and double stripes along the side (the same width apart as those applied do the original Golf, dontcha know?).
GTIness aside, it looks rather like a beefed-up, er, Up. And we quite like that. With its 17-inch Brands Hatch wheels and ride height dropped by 15mm, it packs some serious attitude. Not everyone will appreciate the boxy ‘wheel at each corner’ design of the Up, but we think it looks the business – especially in red (black, white and silver are also available).
Tartan seats, a GTI gear knob and red stitching. Yup, it looks the part inside too. Add red ambient lighting, a red and black dashboard and various chrome highlights and it starts to feel rather classy. The interior is an area where you may expect compromise in a sub-£14,000 hot hatch (cough, Fiat 500 Abarth), but you don’t get that impression at all in this junior Volkswagen. It feels just as upmarket as the Golf, while the ergonomics make everything easy to find.
Of course, it’s still a city car, so the one compromise is its size. You may or may not fit, and most people will find the driving seat a little high. But that’s part of the character of hot hatches. And, of course, the boot is pretty small (but comparable with rivals) and people won’t thank you for making them sit in the rear.
This is the bit you’ve skipped forward to, right? Let’s start by looking at the facts and figures. Its 115hp might be similar to the Mk1 Golf, but it’s significantly heavier: 1,070kg compared to 810kg. That doesn’t hamper performance, though. Due to the magic of turbocharged engines, it’ll hit 62mph in 8.8 seconds (compared to the original’s 9.0 seconds).
Is an 8.8-second 0-62mph time enough to be exciting in 2018? Erm, no. Not ‘exciting’ per se, but it is fun. It’s a massive cliche to describe the three-cylinder turbo engine as ‘half a 911’, but we’re going to go there, because it really does sound like that. Properly boomy and bassy (if a bit fake), enthusiastic acceleration is rewarded with a characterful soundtrack. The noise might get tiring if you expect to cruise along the motorway at 80mph – the same way you can in a fast Golf – but don’t buy a warmed-up city car if that’s what you’re after.
In cooking-spec, the Suzuki Swift and Ford Fiesta punch well above their weight in times of handling and driver enjoyment. This is why their respective manufacturers have managed to turn these superminis into cult modern classics (if not direct rivals to the Up GTI in the case of the Fiesta). Giving a great chassis more power turns it into a heroic hot hatch.
The standard Up is fun, in a razz-about-town kind of way, but it’s never felt like it’s hiding an eager chassis desperate for more power. Fortunately, giving an Up an extra 25hp doesn’t exactly expose a weakness in the platform, but it does emphasise its strengths as a functional city car rather than a dynamic handler.
It does result in safe, predictable fun, however. It’s not the well-sorted driver’s car we were hoping for – it lacks the mid-bend right-foot adjustability the most hardcore of drivers will want from their pocket-sized GTI, instead preferring to understeer while providing a modicum of information through its Polo-derived steering. But that means it’s reluctant to spit you off the road in a moment of lift-off oversteer, and you learn to drive to its limits rather than rely on outright driving dynamics to aid progress. And that’s kind of what these kind of cars are about.
The gear change is lacking a little precision, too. It’s not something we’d normally pick up on in the Up – most buyers won’t care – but if you’re an enthusiast looking for a snickety change, you won’t find it here. It errs on the side of sloppy, while the pedals aren’t naturally designed for heel-and-toe. It is, essentially, a city car after all.
So, despite such a promising start, why are we feeling ever-so-slightly flat about the Up GTI? Not because it’s a bad car. It’s very good, and lots of fun, and we really like it. We’re almost tempted to part with our own money for one… if only it had a little more flair. Maybe we’re spoilt in the age of 300hp hot hatches – and there’s no denying the Up GTI looks like excellent value – but it’s hard to get over the fact that this seems little more than a high-spec Up with some nice trinkets and a bit of extra power.
We suspect Up GTI buyers will be split broadly between two camps. One camp is made up of VW enthusiasts: the fanboys who love the idea of a cut-price GTI. These are the ones who’ve already made their mind up and wouldn’t even consider the likes of the Suzuki Swift Sport.
And then there are the regular buyers. They’ll be looking at high-spec Ups on PCP, and for a few extra quid a month a dealer will Up-sell (see what we did there) a GTI. And, in that situation, why wouldn’t you?
- Fiat 500 Abarth
- Renault Twingo GT
- Smart Brabus
- Suzuki Swift Sport
- Vauxhall Adam S
- Up GTI three-door: £13,750
- Up GTI five-door: £14,150
Torque: 148lb ft
0-62mph: 8.8 seconds
Top speed: 122mph
Fuel consumption: 49.6mpg to 50.4mpg (based on WLTP)
Boot capacity: 251 litres