Thirteen years after Lupo GTI production ended, VW has finally produced a GTI version of its popular Up city car. Common sense would suggest that as the Up replaced the Fox, and that replaced the Lupo, VW would proudly proclaim the Up GTI the long-awaited successor to its popular Lupo GTI. However, this wasn’t the case.
Instead, the Up was cited as a contemporary interpretation of the iconic Mk1 Golf GTI, with no mention of the car many assumed it shared a stronger bloodline with. The plot thickens when you realise that for the Lupo GTI launch, guess which car VW put forward as its inspiration? Yep, the Mk1 again. VW itself clearly doesn’t want to make comparisons between the two sub-Polo GTI pocket rockets, but we’ve come to the challenging roads of South Wales to do just that.
Has the Up GTI has got the makings of a future classic – just like the Lupo back in the day – or is it just a cynical exploitation of those iconic three letters to boost the company’s post-dieselgate image? This is going to be good….
Making an impression
Even though it’s old enough to vote, the Lupo takes an instant lead in the eye-candy stakes. Up front, Audi RS4-style flared arches join the doors and bonnet in being aluminium, transforming the normally slab-sided Lupo into a curvy hunk. Standard gas-discharge headlamps, twin-exhaust tailpipes, sculpted bumpers, 15-inch alloys, red callipers and extended sills complete a thorough external makeover.
Inside, grey sports seats with red stitching (also available in a more inspiring red fabric) and a Polo dashboard seem a tad ordinary compared to the exterior, but snazzy silver-bezel instruments, red seatbelts (who said ‘MG Metro’?), alloy pedals and a gorgeous leather/alloy gearknob help make amends for the otherwise monochromatic theme.
The Up is textbook GTI, combining numerous subtle and inexpensive styling cues to make a package that’s sufficiently distinctive even non-fanboys will see it coming a mile off. A black panel set into the front bumper, red grille stripe and classic GTI badge do the business, while side-on there’s no mistaking the gorgeous BBS-style 17-inch alloy wheels and sill extensions. There are even some stripes that perfectly mimic those of the Mk1 Golf GTI, although black cars sadly miss out on them.
At the rear, a pert roof spoiler, 3D red stripe, GTI badge and chrome tailpipe all gel perfectly. You can even have a black roof. OK, there are no flared arches, but does it really need them? The standard Up styling is a lot sharper than a vanilla Lupo’s, and the big wheels, combined with 15mm lower suspension, do wonders for its stance, emphasising those chiselled haunches.
Inside, the GTI- clan ‘Jacara Red’ tartan makes a welcome appearance, albeit looking slightly incongruous on the undernourished seats common to every Up. The red theme continues with a colourful ‘dashpad’ that spans the full width of the dashboard. The Up’s plastic gearknob lacks the glamour of the Lupo’s, while the plain pedals and seats belts are both standard Up fare.
All this can be forgiven though, thanks to a flat-bottomed steering wheel nicked wholesale from a Mk7.5 Golf GTI. While the accountants have clearly sharpened their pencils since the pricey Lupo, you get the feeling that even they couldn’t say no to this inclusion.
Heading for the hills
This well-used but mechanically tip-top 2002 Lupo feels unexpectedly plush. Road noise is well suppressed and the fresh VW dampers and original springs provide an almost magic- carpet ride quality (the relatively small wheels undoubtedly help). The standard exhaust system keeps things hushed, even with a lofty 3,500rpm on the tacho when cruising at 70 mph in 6th. Clearly this extra gear, introduced in 2002, wasn’t dropped in for economy, but to shorten the ratios to keep the normally aspirated 1,595cc 16v engine spinning in the upper half of the rev range – to hell with emissions.
It’s this very old-school way the Lupo goes about its business that defines it. Drive it like a modern forced-induction car and progress will be pedestrian, with not an awful lot happening below 3,000rpm: the official torque peak. Drop a gear or two, though, and at 4,000rpm that free-spinning engine comes alive with a growl, a distinct second wind occurring at 5,000rpm that’s sustained all the way to the rev limiter – just north of the 6,500rpm power peak. Proper fun when you’re in the mood, but a little tiring when you aren’t.
The chassis harks back to the bad old Mk4 Golf days, when an overly comfortable ride was always at the expense of agility. Thanks to the new hardware fitted here, damping is well controlled, but pitch it into a corner and your head will initially go into mayday mode, the amount of roll triggering unnerving sensations unfamiliar in modern performance cars. Get used to this though, and once fully loaded, it digs in enthusiastically, the shifting of its modest 978kg unladen weight compressing the 205-section tyres into the tarmac without overloading them. Maybe the costly lightweight panels, accommodating a wider track, were money well spent after all?
Sitting behind the wheel of the Up GTI, little readjustment is required. Both lack reach adjustment for the steering column, but this is soon forgotten thanks to the ergonomic perfection elsewhere. At idle, the Up actually feels more industrial than the Lupo, with the off-beat three-cylinder idle sending subtle vibrations through the bodyshell. This sensation continues once you get moving: a sound actuator pipes up, providing a pleasing R32-like crescendo at higher revs. At first, the gearchange, just like the Lupo’s, feels a little imprecise, but you soon adjust.
Where it differs massively is through the gears. While the Lupo hits 60mph at 5,000rpm in third, the Up nearly cracks it in second. Long ratios aren’t a recipe for fun, but with turbocharging bringing such an abundance of torque (147lb ft from 2,000-3,500rpm) and with so little weight to contend with (1,070kg) this really is no handicap to progress.
Rest assured that fun is also in abundance. Just like the Lupo, peak power is at the top of the rev-range (115hp between 5,000 and 5,500rpm) and the sweet-spinning 999cc engine is quite happy to reach up high and grab it. Sorties to the soft rev limiter will be a regular occurrence.
While the chassis’ ingredients are similar to the Lupo, with MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam rear, it’s clear that chez Wolfsburg has had a change of chef in the intervening 18 years. The ride is undoubtedly firmer but rarely agitates, the trade off being superb body control. And yet with one-size-narrower tyres, it’s easy to unexpectedly breach the limits of lateral grip in the chilly conditions we experienced. It’s not that the Up GTI is skittish, more that its unexpected turn of speed gives the front end a lot more to do.
Managing these relatively low grip levels is what makes it such an engaging drive. Remember too, all this can be done at sane speeds, unlike in most modern performance cars.
Wales is famous for its choirs, so it’s fitting that we found these two pocket rockets to be singing from different hymn sheets. The Lupo remains big fun and it’s totally understandable why it has such a following. While it’s an unexpectedly good motorway car, you can also grab it by the scruff of its neck, get the rev counter needle vertical and the chassis a long way from the horizontal.
It’s the bit between these two disciplines where the car shows its age, with lazy response at low revs and pretty heavy fuel consumption. Yet, as a hot hatch to get out of the garage on summer weekends and drive to great roads, the Lupo is the one.
Allowing for inflation, the Up GTI is around 30% cheaper than the Lupo was when new, yet it carries over most of the good bits while attending to any weaknesses. It has the unusual ability to satisfy both head and heart.
Maybe that Mk1 Golf GTI comparison wasn’t so tenuous after all, as the Up GTI is bringing the fun back into daily driving – just as its iconic ancestor did all those years ago. No doubt in another 42 years, we’ll be coveting any remaining examples of the newbie in much the same way we do the old stager today.
Say hello, then, to the newest nominee to that future classic hall of fame: the sensational Up GTI. It’s the rocket that’s easy on your pocket.
- Go-faster stripes: a history of hot Volkswagens
- Retro Road Test: Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1
- Loyal customer celebrates 50 years of owning Volkswagens