Better late than never, VW turns out a slightly sporty version of its smallest car
So here’s the Up GTI. Or, as Volkswagen would have it, the up! GTI. I don’t know why they’re still persisting with the lower case and that exclamation mark thing. It reminds me of the band Therapy? And they only had a question mark in their name because they hand-applied letters to the design of their first record sleeve, noticed there was an uneven gap at the end and filled it with a random character off the Letraset. Since VW isn’t a trio of metallists from Northern Ireland I presume they had a few more marketing meetings about this one, and then a few more to decide that for the GTI there would be no Up, or up!, badge on the outside. It just says GTI on the back. And on the front and the sides, and again on the steering wheel and also the gearlever. I’ve had a quick go in Up GTIs twice before and on reacquaintance this one feels as I remember, which is to say it’s whizzy and the three-cylinder engine makes an amusing noise, but it’s not hyperactive or restless. In many ways it feels like a normal Up with a tiny dash of hot sauce stirred in. Mmm, you’ll think, this is very wholesome and tasty, and then moments later you’ll turn to the person you’re having dinner with and say, “You know, this has actually got a bit of a kick” and then they’ll ask to try some and later want some more and you’ll get into an argument which ends with you saying, “Well if you wanted this you should have ordered it” in a tone that makes you sound like someone’s mum.
I’ve parked the GTI next to my neighbour’s normal Up this morning. On two separate occasions I’ve heard professional car designers of my acquaintance raving about the design of the basic Up, and neither worked for Volkswagen. I was intrigued by the idea that the smallest VW could actually be a real designers’ car so I asked a automotive design consultant I know if this was the case and he said yes, designers love it because it’s got fantastic proportions with short overhangs and wheels out to the corners, all stuff designers admire and aspire to, and the surfacing and detailing is very “clean”. He also noted that it looks especially good compared to the crease-covered nonsense VW is coming up with at the moment. So yea, the Up is a bit of a designers’ car, and I imagine they’ll be particularly impressed with the GTI which takes all that goodness and then adds the other thing car designers like, which is massive wheels. The large alloys don’t ruin the ride, which is actually very acceptable, although they do introduce a bobbling sensation over rough roads, as if the suspension is struggling to contain the weight of the dumbells attached to it. It’s not really an issue, but it’s there. Maybe you could fix it with some fancier dampers, but then the actual ride quality could go to cock. The rest of the GTI-ifying design process is quite subtle, amounting to a new front bumper and roof spoiler and, if you order a red, grey or a white one, black stripes up the side. If you have black paint you don’t get those. And there are only four colour choices. Inside, there’s tartan upholstery – mmm, references – and a dashboard panel that’s red at the top and then, if you look closely, is printed with tiny squares which start to space out and look like they’re falling off toward the bottom. It’s the only bit of the design that’s a bit cheap and tacky, although I’m not totally sold on the gearlever graphics which appear to be from a low quality 1980s cop show. Tonight on PRECINCT 1-6R… Otherwise, it’s all bob-on for design in the sophisticated, not-too-showy way that’s been the tradition of VW GTIs for a while. If you know, you know. If you’re not paying attention, you might not notice that this isn’t granny’s shopping car. Although it’s running 17-inch alloys so you might wonder if granny has been to that DZK WHEELZ place on the bypass. Jeez, this is like when she had TSW Blades put on her Nova 1.2 L.
Two things you need from a hot hatch are, firstly, the ability to zoom about feeling lively and interesting. The Up isn’t the most up-and-at-‘em hatch in the world, but it’s got enough pep to be fun without constantly wearing you out with its puppyish exuberance. And the second essential is practicality. At their best, hot hatches work because they give you a sense of having it all. I can put a smile on my face, and the component parts of an Ikea wardrobe in the back. The Up, of course, is rather small but you could, at a push, get some grown ups in the back without first dismantling them and, as I discovered on a trip to the supermarket today, the boot is serviceable, especially if you remember that under the strangely high floor – it’s level with the lip, which is unusual – there’s a cavernous well covered with a sturdy false floor. If you’re a family of five or a keen mountain biker or a piano removal company this is probably not the car for you. But if you’re single, or this is your second car, you don’t need more room, surely? Especially since it’s plenty spacious up front. It would be nice if the wheel adjusted in-out as well as up-down and the fancy tartan seats lack side support because they’re just normal Up chairs covered in Jackie Stewart’s pyjamas but nonetheless this is a comfortable car.
There’s a sense to the GTI, as there is to all Ups, of denseness and, from that, quality. Remember when the iPhone 4 came out with those flat sides and it felt very solid and very expensive as a result. The chunkiness of the Up has a similar effect. Of course, it’s still a small, cheap car so some of the interior plastics aren’t amazing but nor are they total cack and there are some details that make it feel pricey, like the design and finish of the steering wheel and the display on the stereo which is tiny but of uncommonly high resolution. I find myself staring at it in traffic today, admiring how detailed it is considering its job is really only to tell you that 6Music is on and the track Marc Riley is playing is called Wobble Wah Bum Bum by The Pleated Jesus. Or something like that. This lavishly glossy screen is all the more confusing when you realise that VW really wants you to use the high-quality screen we all carry with us everywhere because there’s a phone cradle on the dashtop which holds your mobile in landscape aspect. This can be annoying because while some apps you need, like Waze, work fine lying down, some others, like my preferred podcast player, do not. The answer is to download the dedicated Up app (or maybe up! app!) and control everything through there. As a bonus, the app gives you some auxiliary gauges you can call up if you want, which you’ll probably try once or twice and then forget about.
I’m going for an proper drive. First a bit of motorway cruising, which the Up copes with perfectly well. It’s a bit noisy but its German genes shine through in the way it’ll sit in sixth at speeds a bit more than motorway, a bit less than autobahn, tracking straight and true for miles. It’s a bit more complicated when you get to country roads. At low to medium speeds through corners it does that VW thing of rolling slightly and then settling onto its springs, so you turn in, wait for the first movement of the body, and then slightly adjust the steering to take account. But when you really lean on it, hammering that hilariously strumming three-cylinder engine, smacking changes through the narrow gate of the sweet gearchange, wringing every last drop from every part of this tiny terrier of a car, it’s as if the chassis steps up a notch and becomes more serious. Oh, you DO like driving? Right, come on then. And the speed you can carry though corners is impressive, largely because the front end is really grippy and, when the tyres start to let go, it feels like all four do it in unison. It’s not all great, mind you. It revs hangs more than you’d like, the throttle response is a bit soft and this, along with unhelpful pedal layout, means it’s not a car for easy heel ‘n’ toeing, nor is the steering giving masses of feedback from the road below, though what modern car does? Overall, it’s quite a soft thing and, being small and light and on big wheels, it gets distracted by ruts and pits in the middle of corners, but it’s still hilariously good fun to whip to within an inch of its little life. The good bits are good, and the less good bits are aspects you just work around and in their own way become part of what engages you with the car. Ultimately this is that rare thing in 2018; a car with performance and handling limits you can touch again and again without feeling like someone is going to die, and that alone is worth smiling about.
A trip into town today, and the chance to enjoy another aspect of Up-ness. There aren’t a lot of very small cars around at the moment. Smarts, yes, but they always feel quite wide. And the Aygo/108/C1 family. The Up is small. And sometimes that’s a joy in itself, particularly if you live in a big city. With a small car you can slot into spaces other people can’t use, and that makes you feel cheeky and clever all at the same time. Of course, you could feel this benefit with any version of the Up, but only the GTI lets you surprise people away from the lights (as long as they’re not in one of the many dozens of faster cars on the road).
Some cars fit into your life and some don’t. Personally, since I live in London and spend a lot of time in the city, I’m putting off buying, say, a De Tomaso Pantera. An Up GTI, on the other hand, slips seamlessly into my world. It’s good in the city, it’s practical, it’s fun enough when it gets out of town but isn’t constantly screaming “PARTYYYYY” in your face when you don’t want it to, which was the bit no one mentioned about, for example, the old Fiesta ST. I find myself thinking I could be very happy with an Up GTI and that perhaps I should order one. If you felt the same the only thing you would need, as it turns out, is lots of patience because if you walked into a dealer today with a briefcase of cash, first of all what is wrong with you, haven’t you heard of debit cards? And secondly, did you know you’ll be waiting up to ten months for your new Up to arrive? I emailed VW to double check this and they confirmed that demand has rather caught them by surprise, even though they expected it to go down well in the UK because, apparently, we’re the biggest market for Volkswagen GTIs of all sorts.
The Up is going, much though I considered hiding it behind the bins and pretending it had been stolen. You might have read about this GTI already and got the impression it’s the greatest hot hatch in a long time. Well, it’s not. If you really like driving, as in belting down a B-road tickling the underparts of the dynamic repertoire, the Suzuki Swift Sport is the better machine. It’s sharper, and livelier, and faster too. Yet I find the smaller, cheaper, nicer looking Up the more desirable thing which just goes to show that how a car behaves when it’s on its door handles isn’t the only concern. A car’s appeal is based on a whole load of things and ultimately some cars just draw you in, the same way there are some people you just get along with. You don’t need to dissect why nor worry about the ways in which they’re imperfect and annoying and can’t say David Bowie’s name properly. Some human beings are just going to be your friends. And some cars just make you want one. In the Up’s case there’s a final element to this appeal and it’s the price which is a very reasonable £14,055 for the base and 400 quid extra if you want five doors. There are some options too, but nothing much you’d miss if you didn’t bother. Frankly, I’d take it without because its value-for-money is what makes it especially alluring. It feels like it should cost more for what you get, yet also manages to be even more than the sum of its parts.
The car talked about here is a Volkswagen Up GTI. It has a 1-litre, three-cylinder, turbocharged petrol engine making 114 horsepower. VW claim it can go from 0-62 in 8.8 seconds and on to 122mph. It costs £14,055 for the three door and £14,455 for the five door.