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Volkswagen Up GTI (2017-2023) – living with it

With its infectious appetite for fun, and the ability to do it on a shoestring, the Up GTI delivered smiles per pound like few others

Evo rating
  • An entertaining car to drive, even if it isn’t in the conventional hot hatch manner; high quality interior
  • Some of the interior’s quality should have gone into the chassis

It says an awful lot for the Up GTI that in the 25 years I’ve been running long-term test cars I can’t recall doing more miles in any of them than the 17,000 I covered during my year with the little VW.

Things got off to an auspicious start, for on the very day I took delivery of the box-fresh KS18 XNF I immediately filled it full of race kit and drove it to Spa for the Summer Classic historic race meeting. During the remainder of the year I revisited Spa, drove to the Le Mans Classic, to Scotland for eCoty 2018 and made numerous round trips to Anglesey. What these journeys revealed was that though the Up is small, it could take big drives comfortably in its stride.

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The flat-looking seats were actually very comfortable on long runs, even if they did lack lateral support on twisty roads. Despite the tiddly petrol tank (35 litres) the Up had an easy 300-mile range and would happily cruise at elevated motorway speeds without feeling or sounding out of its depth.

Fuel economy was always somewhere between 45 and 50mpg, which considering I’m more used to stuff that does 25mpg on a good day meant the novelty of getting so far for so (relatively) little outlay always made me smile. Another thing I always enjoyed was the Up’s sense of energy and enthusiasm. I can honestly say every single journey was a pleasure, simply due to the manner in which the 113bhp, 147lb ft, 999cc machine went about its business.

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The engine was characterful and generous in its delivery, so while the thrummy turbo’d triple didn’t encourage you to rev it much beyond 5500rpm (the red line is 6500), it compensated with a surprising amount of torque and useful in-gear urge. The six-speed manual gearbox had a light shift quality and a nicely defined gate, so slotting up and down the ’box was very satisfying. The brakes (discs up front, drums at the rear) had strong bite and just a slight sense of being over-servoed, while the steering, though light, was blessed with a quick-yet-natural rate of response and finely filtered feel.

Considering it had chunky 17-inch wheels and 195/40 tyres (Goodyear EfficientGrip) you’d expect the 995kg Up’s ride to be a bit fidgety, but it was its ultimate lack of wheel control when attacking country roads that unsettled it most. Still, the occasional Buckaroo! moment didn’t undermine my enjoyment. Indeed, in some respects knowing there was a limit made me feel I was getting more from the car more of the time.

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The inability to switch off the electronic traction/stability control was a frustration, especially as the GTI had plenty of lateral grip. Traction wasn’t as strong as you might expect, so you’d feel the effects of the XDS differential (a brake-controlled pseudo limited-slip diff) pinching at the outside front wheel. Swapping to some decent performance tyres would have helped both bite and feel, but I’m pretty certain the TC would still have been a frustration.

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Often the dealership experience can be where the ownership experience is soured, but I have to say, much against my pessimistic instincts, that having the Up serviced was a pleasure. Robinsons Volkswagen Peterborough offered me a while-you-wait slot at my convenience, and on arrival I did some work from a quiet booth in the showroom while the service was completed in little over 90 minutes; that’s for an oil change, general checks (which included brake and tyre wear readings) and a clean inside and out. The bill was £149. Not cheap, but dealers have overheads just like anyone else.

Another thing worthy of praise was the Up’s brilliant packaging. I especially liked the false floor in the boot as it was perfect for stowing work bags, race overalls and anything else a bit squidgy. With the hinged floor in place I could then pile a few more bags on top, and if I had to carry a big kit bag I simply folded one half of the rear seat down and slid it in.

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Gripes? Well, apart from the headlights on dipped beam, which had the reach of a couple of fatigued glow worms, any other issues were minor. The lack of reach adjustment for the steering wheel always annoyed me if I’d spent time away from the Up and then came back to it, while as a passenger the number of times I idly reached for the non-existent grab handle when bored suggested it needed one.

There was no built-in satnav, but pairing your phone to the car and having instructions from Google Maps or Waze broadcast through the car’s speakers worked a treat. The dash-top cradle was a bit fiddly to adjust to suit different-sized phones, but again it was only a very minor niggle. And the optional 300W Beats stereo sounded just fine.

I always knew I’d like the Up, but 12 months and 17,000 miles convinced me it is one of the most unassumingly special cars to come along for many years. It understood fun in a way few do at any price, yet is affordable, cheap to run and functions brilliantly as an everyday car. As an antidote to the excesses of today’s high-performance cars and a means of reconnecting yourself with driving’s simpler pleasures, the Up GTI is just the ticket.

Date acquiredMay 2018
Duration of test12 months
Total test mileage17,216
Overall mpg46.9
Costs£149 (oil service)
Purchase price£15,805
Value today£11,250

This story was first featured in evo issue 265.

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