Neo-classical up! digs into big brother’s closet for GTi classification
It is hard to believe that VW’s up! model is nudging nine years of age and a surprised Iain Robertson suggests that even priced just shy of £16k, in terms of fun-per-mile and fun-per-Pound, the GTi three-door (five are available) is virtually unbeatable.
Although I never had a big brother, I was one to my younger sibling and I can still recall him trying on my shoes, jacket and scarf, when I was fifteen and he was ten. We went to separate schools, which upset him, because he wanted me to fight some of his battles but, when I was at home during term holidays, he would nip at my heels during family walks and would attempt to emulate the way I spoke, as he made his own way in life.
Volkswagen had no choice in the matter, when it released its smallest car wearing the iconic ‘GTi’ badging. That signature alone has an automotive worth markedly larger than the sum of its spare parts. Mind you, it took long enough for the company to allow its up! to mature into its big brother’s boots. The hints of a potential GTi were dropped at the tiddler’s launch party but it was always believed that a punchy 1.4-litre engine would provide the motivation. After all, VW spare parts operation has a wealth of possibilities on the power front.
Instead, the company turbocharged its 999cc three-cylinder unit, whacking up the potency from a modest 72 to 113bhp, accompanied by an equally impressive 147lbs ft slug of torque. It may only possess small lungs but, by jiminy, it fills them well. While accelerating from 0-60mph in 8.5s is virtually identical to the original 1.8-litre Golf GTi, a maximum speed of 122mph is a measure of performance intent that belies the city car engine capacity. While on the subject of figures, we are also talking about 53.5mpg and CO2 emissions of just 110g/km, numbers that the Golf owner can only dream about.
Emitting a gruff but sweetly edged tune, it is a pity that the GTi transformation did not include twin exhaust tailpipes, perhaps with a freer flowing bonus. As with the standard (non-turbo) motor, the unit in the GTi punches considerably above its weight classification. It gets the power down most competently, even troubling the traction control warning light, if there is a smidgen of moisture on the road surface, but that is all part of the fun element and, while you can feel the front tyres scrabbling slightly on bends, it is never to the detriment of what are actually quite sound dynamics. Not intending to compare, while the latest BMW Mini Cooper S tries hard to be a teenage roustabout, it cannot do so with the same aplomb as the VW up!.
In fact, the beefed-up suspension applied to the up! GTi is only marginally firmer than the previous lowered suspenders option on the regular model. In all ways, this a good thing, because the up! (and its Seat Mii and Skoda Citigo counterparts) possesses one of the best ride and handling compromises of any small car, providing a near-sublime ride quality, considering its sub-compact dimensions. On the GTi version, allied to quick steering and the added grip of 195/40×17 summer tyres on handsome 6-double-spoke alloy wheels, directional stability is phenomenal, roll is controlled tautly, grip levels are high and the handling is positively kart-like.
Of course, the GTI-ification of the up! goes considerably beyond some impertinent badges and red exterior trim fillets and brake callipers. The ‘tombstone’ front and split-folding rear seats are upholstered in a charming red/grey plaid cloth, in a theme carried across the colour-fade dashboard panel, red stitching on the steering wheel rim and the red/black 6-speed gearknob. I forgot to mention that the up! GTi benefits from six forward ratios, a factor that aids its fairly high, top speed.
Yet, there is no nifty PDA (removable mini-tablet) attached to the mounting bracket atop the hard plastic dash-top, which was a key feature of the various branded versions of this model, when it was first launched. VW insists that its downloadable sat-nav app to an owner’s personal communications device meets muster, the only advantage of which might be more real-time updating of information, although the former device could do that remotely in any case. Still, if it helps VW to improve its profitability…
While the seats do look flat, featureless and, thus, lacking potentially in support, they do prove to be quite comfortable in daily use. Access through the wide-opening doors is superb, although a lack of memory facility on the flip-forward front seats (to allow access to the rear) smacks of senseless cost-cutting. As highlighted earlier, a five-door variant is available, I just prefer the sportier looks of the three-door. The cabin is spacious, with more than enough room for a two-metres tall driver, even though the steering wheel is only adjustable for tilt but not reach.
Crack open the metal-framed, glass rear door and a fairly deep trough is revealed. It provides 251-litres of boot space, which is on par with several superminis but is capable of carrying a week’s worth of grocery shopping. If more space is required, the back seats flop forward, leaving an unfortunate lump but more than treble the available boot room.
Regular readers know that I will not tolerate pseuds in the car scene. Despite dipping into the Golf GTi parts bins, the sportiest up! is actually a very complete and competent car in its own right. I would even venture to suggest that, for a car firm infamous at creating ‘classics’, the up! GTi is entirely self-supporting, despite carrying a truly hefty price tag. Does it offer value-for-money? In truth, the answer lies in your perceptions. From my viewpoint, no, it does not. It is probably £2,000 overpriced. Yet, it has almost no rivals and VW realises it. The fact that it is not exactly over-muscled does help its cause most measurably and is where it scores heavily.
Conclusion: If you can remember when cars were fun, before safety addenda and excess trim baggage ruined them, the up! GTi might present all the car you would ever need. Eminently wieldy in the urban sprawl but equally zesty on the open road, there is no dichotomy to juggle.