The Volkswagen up! city car has always been the most desirable option in the segment (if not the cheapest or best) and when it was facelifted in 2016, the addition of the 1.0-litre TSI turbocharged petrol version opened up the tantalising possibility of a GTI range-topper. Well, here it is - with the engine from a 115hp SEAT Ibiza or Volkswagen Polo dropped into its nose, plus some useful chassis tweaks and the usual Volkswagen GTI styling accoutrements inside and out. This totally simple, charming little machine is an absolutely storming driver's car that's bursting with fun. The only 'but' is that Volkswagen Ireland won't be offering it for sale officially...
In the metal
It's kind of hard to ignore the parallels between the Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI and this up!, arriving a little more than 40 years after the original. They're about the same physical size. They're about the same power. They're... well, they're not quite the same weight, as the up! gives away a colossal 260kg to its venerated ancestor, but the principle is the same: they're both relatively light. Perhaps more relevant, given the passage of four decades since the Golf set the modern hot hatch template in stone, is the link to the 1.6-litre Lupo GTI of 2000-2005, a 125hp tearaway that won glowing reviews at the time and which is beloved by a hardcore cognoscenti, yet remains a performance Volkswagen that can often be unfairly overlooked in nostalgic retrospectives of the brand's fast-car history. Save for its lack of a turbocharger, the Lupo GTI is probably the direct historical link to the up! GTI.
Anyway, the recipe for the up! GTI is refreshingly simple. Take one up! TSI and replace its 90hp/160Nm version of the three-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual with the 115hp/200Nm iteration that is used in larger Volkswagen Group superminis and a six-speed gearbox, then add a sound actuator to make the motor's tune sportier. Dress the up!'s diminutive bodywork with twin side stripes, red pinstripe detailing, a discreet roof spoiler, 17-inch 'Oswald' alloys, honeycomb grilles and GTI badges, splash Jacara tartan seat fabric, red stitching, a GTI-specific steering wheel and more GTI logos within, and finally tinker with the chassis, giving the up! GTI 15mm lower suspension that's 15 per cent stiffer at the front and 30 per cent at the rear (mainly through the use of uprated bushings).
And that's it. There are minor changes to the steering and brakes, with the callipers switching colour to red, too. And the car's bulk is kept down to a mere 1,070kg, giving a power-to-weight ratio of 107hp-per-tonne. The up! GTI also has the distinction of being the first Volkswagen to be tested under the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP) for economy and emissions, meaning it comes out with 5.6 litres/100km (50.4mpg) and 127g/km. On the old NEDC system it would have that former figure at 4.8 litres/100km (58.8mpg).
So the up! GTI is trim, suitably powerful and reasonably focused, without being too hardcore. Intriguing stuff. Does all of this gel together and work harmoniously on the road, then?
A big contributor to the joy factor of driving the up! GTI is the unerring simplicity we've already discussed. There are no selectable drive modes here, no fancy adaptive dampers or variable-ratio steering - the Volkswagen is merely always in its liveliest and yet simultaneously its comfiest mode at any given moment. It's up to you, the driver, to decide how fast you want to make it go and then elicit increased pace with a bit of skill. There's a cracking little six-speed gearbox and a well-judged throttle pedal that allows you to make the most of this car's talents, and that's about your lot.
And, talking of talents, it has a broad spread of them. All the attributes that make the regular up! the most grown-up, premium-feeling thing in its class are preserved, the GTI riding with a genuine fluidity and grace on its 17-inch wheels (with 195/40 tyres) and fixed-rate springs/dampers. It also wonderfully mutes external noise contributors at steady road speeds and provides beautiful body control, never feeling like the cabin is tilting over at an alarming angle or diving under heavy braking. The standard steering, a little light but not unpleasant, and brakes do a fine job regardless of velocity, too.
So if you want to go, all you need to do is select a lower gear and plant the throttle. And you should fall in love with the up! GTI within just a handful of corners. It is a dynamic delight. The noise of it, for a start, is marvellous. OK, it's artificially augmented, but the soundtrack is not offensive and it makes a gorgeous gargle that we've not yet heard from any other application of this Volkswagen Group TSI engine. Furthermore, it absolutely gorges itself on revs - it'll spin right out to 6,500rpm with no issue in terms of strained noises or harsh vibrations through the pedal.
But it lugs too. It has such reach, operating smoothly from about 35km/h right out to 110km/h, that on tighter, twisting roads you can just leave the up! GTI in third and work it from bend to bend on the mid-range torque, focusing on your driving line and braking inputs. However, you'll have more fun stirring the lever, making that 1.0 TSI talk to you in its various voices, heel-and-toeing downshifts with impunity - and revelling in the fact the GTI is a proper hoot from 1,000rpm and upwards. There's little understeer to talk of, a feeling of genuine throttle adjustability to the back end and a robust 200Nm of torque, which not only provides performance that's considerably more fleeting than a mere 25hp/40Nm uplift over a 90 TSI might suggest, but which also never once threatens to overwhelm the front tyres' grip on the tarmac and introduce ugly torque-steer to proceedings. Seriously, if you can't have some fun behind the multifunction wheel of the up! GTI, we suggest you might want to check your pulse to see if you're still alive.
This is the point where the Golf GTI Mk1 reflections are inevitable. The up! is a truly old-school hot hatch. One-size-fits-all and pure. You can thrash it through the first four gears and while you might be breaking certain speed limits if you do so, you won't be going at the sort of preposterous velocity that would have you a) in deep trouble with the law and b) deep in the scenery if you get things wrong. Indeed, although the traction control cannot be fully disengaged, the GTI is nevertheless remarkably forgiving if you need to make mid-bend adjustments.
Granted, it's no tearaway, the up! GTI. It doesn't have the rawness of an old Renaultsport Twingo 133 and there's a slight softness to all its major controls that allows its personality that stunning duality, without recourse to a switch that changes throttle, damping, steering and so on. So don't expect it to be some sort of pseudo-track warrior in a city car disguise. But do expect one of the most well-balanced, hilarious, accessible and genial road-biased hot hatches that's available at any price point right now.
What you get for your money
Volkswagen Ireland will not be offering the up! GTI for sale, as there is no perceived demand for a more expensive version of the car. We estimate it would cost not far off €20,000 to import. For that, you get all of the Volkswagen's dynamic goodness, immense quality and rakish looks, as well as an improved roster of standard equipment to include a Composition Colour radio system, six-loudspeaker stereo, a USB interface, air conditioning, heated seats, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors and front fog lights with static cornering lights.
If you've not already guessed, we completely adore the Volkswagen up! GTI. We kind of suspected it would be good when we saw the spec sheet and factored in how capable, likeable and well-sorted the 90hp TSI model is, but this latest addition to the GTI fold has incredibly managed to surpass our high expectations. Sure, it is not going to satisfy drivers who need the remorseless thump of one of the 300hp mega-hatches on sale in 2018, but as a highly entertaining contrivance that could be used as a younger driver's primary mode of transport or a secondary, 'sunny Sunday' fun vehicle for a family or owner of a much larger, more potent sports car, it's utterly, utterly brilliant. Massive shame then that it'll not be offered to Irish enthusiasts.