New Volkswagen Up GTI 2018 review – the hot hatch returns to its roots

Tightly priced and surprisingly capable, the Up GTI leads the sporty city car field – only lacking the last degree of involvement

Evo rating
from £13,750
  • Keen performance, entertaining handling, low price
  • Lacks ultimate engagement, could use more power

It’s got just 113bhp, will only just dip under nine seconds for the 0-60mph sprint and costs less than an entry-level Ford Focus, yet that hasn’t stopped the VW Up GTI being one of the most hotly anticipated arrivals of 2018. Channelling the effervescent spirit of the 1976 Golf GTI MkI that kick-started the hot hatch revolution, the Up appears to represent the perfect antidote to a motoring backdrop that’s dominated by draconian variable speed limits, congestion and the rapid consumption of the earth’s resources.

Until the Suzuki Swift Sport arrives later in 2018, the Up GTI essentially has the hot city car class to itself – yes there’s the Renault Twingo GT, but the less said about that the better. Even so, VW hasn’t simply added a bit more power, some red stripes and bigger wheels, then sat back and watched the cash roll in: this upgraded Up is a proper thing. Not only has the standard car’s turbocharged 1.0-litre triple been massaged to deliver 113bhp, there’s also tweaked suspension and steering, a new gearbox and more powerful brakes. Yet none of these additions come at the expense of weight, as the Up still tips the scales at a bantamweight 997kg.

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Externally, the Up plays the tried and tested VW GTI game of mixing just the right amounts of visual aggression and classy understated appeal. The utilitarian one box shape (you can choose from three- and five-door styles) is subtly enhanced by the addition of a rear spoiler that’s claimed to reduce lift, side skirts and a deeper front bumper complete with extra cooling vents and gloss black inserts. There’s also a smattering of GTI badges, some Golf Clubsport style black stripes down the flanks and, of course, the trademark red-piping for the grille. The sporty new look is set off with unique 17-inch alloys (called ‘Oswald’, which is a slightly better name than the Polo GTI’s ‘Milton Keynes’ design) that cover red painted brake calipers.

Inside it’s all fairly familiar GTI fare, with the Up’s solid and functional interior given a racy overhaul courtesy of some checked trim for the seats, a flat-bottomed three-spoke steering wheel with red stitching and an eye-catching metallic red finish for the dashboard. And as with the exterior, you also get to play the game of ‘spot the multiple GTI logos’.

> Read our review of the VW Golf GTI

Technical highlights

The Up’s compact engine bay means there’s no room for a four-cylinder engine under the bonnet, so engineers were forced to use the standard car’s 1-litre three-cylinder. Essentially the same unit that’s used in the entry-level Golf, the turbocharged triple produces an adequate 113bhp at 5000rpm with 147lb ft of torque available between 2000 and 3500rpm. Crucially, given the current climate, it features VW’s petrol particulate filter, which helps the Up meet the latest Euro 6 emissions regulations.

Power is transmitted to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox (a first for the Up), which is claimed to feature closely stacked ratios to make the most of the performance on offer.

The basic suspension set-up is the same as the standard car, which gets independent struts at the front and a torsion beam rear axle. However, the springs and dampers have been recalibrated, there are stiffer top mounts and redesigned trailing arms at the rear, while the ride height has been lowered by 15mm. Other changes include the adoption of heavily modified versions of the Polo’s steering rack and ventilated front disc brakes.

The external changes aren’t just for show either, with engineers claiming the tailgate-mounted spoiler delivers downforce that results in greater high-speed stability. It’s all very promising.

Engine, transmission and 0-62mph time

Given its modest power and torque outputs it’s no surprise to find the Up GTI’s performance is brisk rather than genuinely quick. VW claims the 0-62mph sprint is all over in 8.8sec, while top speed is 122mph.

Yet while that looks tame on paper, the Up feels feisty and eager in the real world. With just 997kg to haul around, the VW pulls strongly in-gear, with the sort of elastic energy that’s a characteristic of the best hot hatches. You don’t have to work the torquey motor hard to make progress, but the triple spins so sweetly that it’s hard to resist chasing the redline. You’re also egged on by the throaty engine note, which is surprisingly easy on the ear given that it’s essentially artificially generated by a sound symposer. It’s only at low revs when the engine’s under load that the slightly throbby soundtrack comes across as artificial.

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Accessing the Up’s performance potential is made easier by the slick, precise and short-throw six-speed manual that feels like its ratios are perfectly matched to the eager powerplant’s delivery.

What’s it like to drive?

What first strikes you about the Up GTI is the comfort and refinement. Like the standard car, the GTI is uncommonly quiet and composed for such a small machine, while the major controls have the sort of polished, easy-going precision that mark out VW’s larger models. Yes the ride is firmer, but it never becomes brittle and does fine job of filtering out the worst imperfections. It’s immediately clear the engineers have been tasked with making the Up feel as grown-up and mature as other GTI products.

Start to work the Up a little harder, though, and it begins to feel more like the pocket rocket we’d hoped for. There’s that artificially augmented yet surprisingly pleasing growl from the exhaust, while the six-speed transmission has a satisfyingly snappy shift. Acceleration is far from startling, but it’s more than quick enough and there’s real pleasure to be had from accessing what there is.

Turn into a corner and it’s the ’60s Mini Cooper S that springs to mind, rather than an MkI Golf GTI. With its compact dimensions, wheel-at-each-corner stance and decently wide 195 section tyres, the Up can carry remarkable speed through a series of bends.

You soon realise the VW’s secret speed weapon isn’t its power, or lack of it, but the grippiness and unflappability of its chassis. Sharp bumps do catch the short travel suspension by surprise, while over really rippled tarmac the Up can get a little bouncy, as the damping struggles to contain body movements, but this is only really an issue on the most testing of roads.

> Also read: Volkswagen Polo GTI review

Either way, before long you’ll find yourself hustling much more powerful machines into and through corners. Yes you’re likely to lose them on the next straight, but as soon as the road turns twisty you’ll be right back on their tail.

The Polo derived steering is quick enough and decently weighted, but just lacks the fine feedback we’d like (everyday usability was clearly the goal here), while apart from the increased engine volume and snazzy seat the Up feels quite a lot like the standard car. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the Up and its Skoda and SEAT siblings still set the dynamic benchmark in the city car class, and by quite some margin too. Buyers looking for the raw and frenetic cut-price thrills of the previous generation Renault Twingo Cup will feel a little shortchanged but then VW will claim that it wasn’t trying to deliver that sort of car. It was trying to create a quick, refined, composed and just-fun-enough GTI. 

Price and rivals

VW has priced the Up GTI quite keenly, with the three-door model costing £13,750 and the five-door coming in at £14,150. The latter undercuts the much less accomplished Twingo GT by £100 and a similarly powerful Vauxhall Adam by the best part of £4000. That makes the Up look like conspicuously good value.

VW hasn’t scrimped on kit either, with all versions of the GTI getting heated seats, a Colour Composition infotainment system, USB connection and air-conditioning.

So, does the Up GTI capture the fun and pioneering spirit of the MKI Golf GTI? Well yes and no. It’s quick, agile and fun to drive, but like all modern VW GTIs there’s a sheen of refinement that means the driver lacks that final degree of involvement that marks out the greatest hot hatches. That said, the surprising comfort and refinement will make it much easier to live with than, say, a previous generation Twingo Cup, while on the right road the VW is still fast and engaging enough to raise a smile. Factor in the price and the hot Up promises to be a hit, with both young drivers starting out on their hot hatch journey and those looking to relive their youth.

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