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VW Up GTI review: lightweight baby hot hatch tested at last

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VW waits five years to make an Up GTI, and a week after the first pictures, you’re driving it…

I don’t want to get bogged down in the logistics. I want to tell you all about this car. An email arrived, asking if we’d like to spend a day thrashing a showroom-standard, production-ready, undisguised Up GTI ahead of its world debut at the Worthersee festival of VW worship and pageantry.

I was quite literally on the next flight to Hannover, for a date with the car we’ve been begging VW to make since we first drove the superbly over-engineered, oddly named city car and thought ‘this would be even better with some more power…”

And some tartan? Tartan on the seats, surely?

Okay let’s jump straight inside. The chairs are the same one-piece cloth jobs from a normal Up. There are no big bolsters, and they don’t drop any lower, but the driving position is good. ‘Clark’ tartan is standard, and looks fabulous. You reach forward and grab a steering wheel from a Golf GTI. Flat bottom. Chunky spokes, with the buttons for radar cruise control blanked off. The Up GTI has no such gadgetry. It feels ace. 

The rest of the cabin is well-kitted: you get climate control, a reversing camera, heated seats and mirrors that adjust electrically. There’ll be a DAB radio as standard and a cradle for securing your smartphone to work as a sat-nav. This one is a five-door, but you can have a cheaper three-door instead. There are five colours. You want white. All are manuals. It’s not a poor-man’s Golf GTI, this. It’s a patient soul’s 911 R.

The only downer is a curious and ugly red’n’black pixel pattern on the fascia, which looks like VW’s skinned a red salmon and nailed it to the dashboard. There’s no dimpled gearknob either, just a smooth, glossy ball offering six forward speeds. Immediately you get the sense VW’s had to be careful where it spends money to keep the Up GTI’s price attainable, but it feels none the worse for it inside. It’s a classic hot hatch cabin.

And the price is?

We won’t know for sure until the Up GTI goes on sale in early 2018. That’s how early we are to a fully finished, undisguised example. It’s also why VW has sent along a few minders too, because this one’s worth quite a bit of money and if I bin it, they’ll have to send me into witness protection before the Worthersee disciplines find out. But, VW has estimated a £14k sticker, well below the £18,500 a Polo GTI costs, and on par with the likes of the Abarth 500 (fun car, if flawed), and Renault Twingo GT (flawed car, and bad).

A quick run-down of the important GTI changes before we go, please?

We don’t have a full and complete list of every washer and screw that’s been swapped, but we do know the 1.0-litre, turbocharged three-cylinder engine develops 113bhp and 170lb ft, which is about 20bhp more than a regular Up TSI, and buys you a second in the 0-62mph stakes. VW claims the sprint is dealt with after 8.8 seconds, and it’ll top out at 126mph. 

In a straight line, the 997kg Up GTI is closer to a 1974 Mk1 Golf GTI (109bhp, 810kg) than the old Lupo GTI, but don’t worry about raw stats. Don’t fret, either, when you twist the key, tick-tock off down the road and all feels worryingly normal and refined. The Up always was terribly well-mannered…

A few more notes on the tweaks: the steering’s faster and a tad weightier, the car sits 15mm lower and is a mite stiffer, you get disc brakes up front and drums on the rear, and the tyres are 195mm wide and wrap around handsome 17-inch wheels.

All pretty standard stuff. Has VW undercooked the GTI makeover?

It’s got it utterly spot on. Let’s start with the noise. Downsized three-cylinder engines tend to be peppy, rorty little things, and the normal Up’s is no different, but VW’s borrowed the sound-symposer trick from the Golf R which pipes echoes of the revs building up the A-pillars and uses the entire windscreen surround like a tuning fork. 

So, at 1,500rpm, the Up’s turbo wakes up, the traction control light flashes encouragingly if it’s damp, and an earnest burble trumpets into the cabin. It’s much more authentic than dubbing noise through the speakers, al la RS Clio, and adds genuine sense of occasion. It also makes you feel like you’re going faster than you are, growling about the place. In a car that when all is said and done, isn’t that fast, that’s crucial.

The rest of the Up GTI is a Goldilocks tale. The ride’s stiffer, sure. It’ll cock an inside rear wheel at mini-roundabout speeds, but once in tripod mode, the body lean doesn’t require an admiralty to stomach. It’s fine, and still retains the Up’s uncanny comfort and control.

There’s not much feel from the front and until the front tyres really wash wide, but the steering’s accurate, it’s dartier, and hey, you’re gripping a meatier-feeling wheel. Little tweaks like that press all the right buttons in your petrolhead limbic system. The brakes are strong, it stops straight and true even though there’s next to no weight pushing the rear tyres into the surface, and if you promise not to tell the VW minders – between you and me – the GTI likes handbrake turns. 

Sounds like proper back-to-basics fun!

One button missing from the Up GTI’s kitted out cabin is one marked ‘Traction Control Off’. Das ist verboten. But I’m going out on an limb to say that’s the right call. This is a GTI aimed at a younger customer. It doesn’t have much power, and the grip reserves are reassuring. So you know the drill: you’d hop straight in, bash the button to turn off all the nannies and probably overreach yourself quite quickly. Shortly after uttering the show-off Lord’s prayer: “watch this!” 

The important thing is that the safety nets aren’t joy sponges: they let you dangle a rear wheel in the air, or catch a flick of lift-off oversteer before they step in and halt playtime. This all speaks of a team very, very into the simple joys of playing with simple cars spending a lot of time setting this one up. And they’ve created a proper tonic: good-looking, comfortable, exciting and satisfying, but all the while ready to look after you.

What more can you ask from an entry-level, my-first-fast-car than that? If VW keeps its word at fourteen grand, I want one.

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