Volkswagen make a big deal about the connections between this Up GTI model and its predecessors. Particularly the original Golf GTI, to which it’s comparable in dimensions, power and performance.
It’s a bit of an unfair comparison. The Mk1 was an after-hours passion project, the Up a carefully constructed exercise in expanding the GTI brand. But who cares where it comes from if it can deliver some of the same enjoyment that made the GTI badge famous.
Unlike the Mk1 Golf, the Up doesn’t hide its GTI character under a bushel. Everywhere you look are nods to other current GTIs and the car’s heritage. Externally there are 17-inch alloys (the Golf came with 13s), the red trim line on the grille, door stripes and red brake calipers. Inside the iconic tartan interior is complemented by a red “pixels red” dash trim and GTI logos dotted on steering wheel, gear knob and sills.
VW Up GTI
Price: £14,455 (£16,530 as tested)
Engine: 1.0-litre, three-cylinder, turbo, petrol
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Top speed: 122mph
0-62mph: 8.8 seconds
Economy: 50.4mpg (WLTP)
CO2 emissions: 127g/km (WLTP)
There’s also a 15mm drop on the standard car’s suspension and a bigger roof spoiler but underneath this is still the same city car that’s usually powered by a 59bhp naturally aspirated engine.
In the GTI, though, there’s a turbocharged version of the three-pot putting out 114bhp and 148lb/ft
It doesn’t sound much but the Up only weighs a tonne and it makes the GTI my kind of hot hatch. Four-wheel-drive and 300bhp is all well and good but the Up’s 114bhp,front-drive and skinny tyres make for a car you can fully exploit and have fun with at sensible speeds.
The little engine doesn’t have huge power but it has a raspy characterful tone that makes you feel like you’re going quicker than you are. It also makes you want to wring everything out of the engine via the tight six-speed gearbox. When you do work it you make rapid, fun-packed progress.
It feels quicker than its 8.8-second 0-62 time but what really impresses isn’t the Up GTI’s straight-line speed but how you can maintain and use the pace on you’ve built it up.
Get the revs up and it buzzes with restless energy like a toddler that’s had too many Haribo, darting this way and that through quick, sharp steering. The tiny wheelbase makes it a little vulnerable to bouncing on bumpy roads but means the Up feels like it’s pivoting around the middle when you change direction.
It’s the kind of agility and deftness that’s lacking in a lot of bigger, heavier cars and it’s guaranteed to put a massive smile on your face every time you venture out.
Broad, sweeping A roads and motorways might not be quite such fun, exposing the limitations of what is, after all, a tuned city car, but it feels built for the tight, knotted B roads that litter our countryside. On the same roads its Polo GTI big brother felt heavy and inert in comparison.
Beyond the engaging driving experience, the Up GTI is like any other Up – a nicely finished small car. Space is not its strong point and although it comes with air conditioning; heated seats and smartphone connectivity other city cars are more generously kitted. But none of them offers the kind of fun found in the Up.
In that regard, the Up is in an odd position, its nearest real rival is the horribly-handling Renault Twingo GT and beyond that is a Suzuki Swift Sport, but that’s bigger, more powerful and more expensive. Really, it’s in a field of one but VW should be applauded for building it. It epitomises what a hot hatch should be – it’s nimble, direct and fun but it’s also accessible, affordable and offers endless thrills at safe speeds.