VW Up GTI Review: The Hot Hatch The World Needs Right Now

VW’s refreshing and entertaining Up GTI begs the question: why aren’t more manufacturers doing this?

Even when the drop-off at the side of the road started to become perilously steep - with only a small, broken-up curb to stop me from tumbling to a picturesque doom - I didn’t feel the need to slow down.

The reason for my confidence on that shonky road in southern France earlier this week? I was in a VW Up GTI, a masterclass in giving you just enough. Just take the engine for example: it’s broadly the same 1.0-litre inline-three turbo found in the most powerful non-GTI Up, with a modest power boost from 89bhp to 113bhp. Meanwhile, torque has gone from 118lb ft to 147lb ft, all of which brings the 0-62mph down from 9.9 seconds to 8.8 seconds.

VW Up GTI Review: The Hot Hatch The World Needs Right Now - Features

This would have been considered rather quick about 40 years ago, when the Mk1 Golf GTI was launched. The power-to-weight ratio and indeed the size of the Up GTI is roughly the same as the first GTI’d Golf, a fact that VW likes to point out quite liberally in the former car’s press material. Because that’s precisely the point of the car: it’s trying to recapture something we’re starting to lose from the hot hatch world: fun.

Don’t get me wrong, I like charging around a track in a semi-slick-shod, 300bhp+ mega hatch as much as the next petrolhead, but these cars have all started to get very, very serious. The Up GTI on the other hand - with its fizzy three-pot engine and comically over-sized fuel gauge - is a car you can’t possibly take seriously, and I mean that in the best possible way.

There’s still plenty of engineering jiggery-pokery going on behind the scenes, though. There are new dampers, lower, stiffer springs, a beefed up rear axle, and 15-inch brakes that required the creation of a new steering knuckle just to fit them in. The electric power steering has had a software fiddle, and there’s a functional boot spoiler to give more downforce for the rear axle. It probably doesn’t do a whole lot, but it does look brilliant. As do the tartan seats in the thoroughly solid cabin.

VW Up GTI Review: The Hot Hatch The World Needs Right Now - Features

All of this adds up to a car that’s a noticeable step up from the 89bhp version of the city car we drove last year. Yes, you still have to thrash that 999cc engine mercilessly to make decent progress, but there’s a satisfying punchiness to the mid-range torque delivery that makes this particular Up feel faster than it actually is. Just don’t change into second gear too aggressively - do that, and the traction control cuts in quite dramatically and sticks around way past it’s welcome. It’s worth noting that it can’t be switched off, or turned down into an ESP sport off but not quite off kinda deal, but given the low power on offer, the un-switchable electronic aids rarely feel the need to quell the fun.

VW Up GTI Review: The Hot Hatch The World Needs Right Now - Features

There’s a newfound crispness to the way it turns in, and enough meat in the stiffened suspension to stop it tipping onto its door handles when you properly commit to a corner. In fact, there’s a lot less body roll that I’d been expecting. There’s some nice weight to the fast steering, with the usual EPAS lack of feel you’ve probably all been waiting for me to mention.

It doesn’t take much effort to unstick the front end - VW Group’s fancy ‘XDS’ torque vectoring system isn’t present here - but I’m just fine with that. Just as this car isn’t supposed to be mega fast in a straight line, it isn’t supposed to be mega capable either.

The back end is surprisingly tied down though - don’t expect easy lift-off oversteer shenanigans here. But hey, don’t forget that there is still a handbrake fitted…

VW Up GTI Review: The Hot Hatch The World Needs Right Now - Features

There’s a lot to like about the Up GTI. There’s a commendable honesty to it, from the modest power output to the lack of driving modes, and the way you can drive it like an utter hooligan without hitting silly speeds.

But, there is perhaps more to grumble about than you might expect. The six-speed manual gearbox’s action is just OK rather than being anything particularly memorable. The front end can get a little flustered if you hit a few bumps before corner entry. The extra noise from the exhaust and from the engine (we’re guessing one of VW’s ‘Soundaktor’-type elements is being employed here) results in an annoying and surprisingly loud drone at 70mph. And even though the car’s 1.0-litre lump is one of the more satisfying three-bangers I’ve tried, it’s still not the most eager thing to rev up thanks to the inherent compromises of engines configured this way.

VW Up GTI Review: The Hot Hatch The World Needs Right Now - Features

None of these things are deal-breakers however, and with a starting price of £13,750 and decent standard equipment levels, VW has put together a thoroughly tempting little hot hatch that might just be the bargain of 2018.

It isn’t a revelation - the recipe used here is thoroughly conventional, and one that surely could have been whipped out by VW at any time during the Up’s life. But when the results are this refreshing and this satisfying, you’re left wondering why no one else is bothering. There’s the Renault Twingo GT that’s just a bit meh, the Abarth 595 which is expensive and riddled with stereotypically Italian faults, and, err, that’s about it.

The Up GTI then is clearly the benchmark. So VW competitors of the motoring world: please try and knock it off its perch. We need more cars like this right now.