Big wheels, GTI badges, red stripe on the grille among changes

Big wheels, GTI badges, red stripe on the grille among changes

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Volkswagen is the latest brand to experiment with a high performance hatchback in the European A segment. What the company's engineers have created in the up! GTI is something very special indeed. 

Almost every class of car is referred to by an inaccurate name yet still we use them. SUV, MPV, Crossover. Does a Ford Kuga play rugby? Do vehicles in other categories have no utility? Which parts of a Nissan Qashqai cross over? Over what, and to where? What in particular makes the recently departed Ford C-Max more worthy of being deemed to serve multiple purposes than, say, a Peugeot 508? And so, in turn, what defines a 'City' car?

The up! GTI is nowhere near its best in cities: it longs to escape the confines of 4mph or lower average speeds, the engine comes alive at high revs and the lack of an automatic gearbox renders it entirely ill-suited to life in cramped metropolises.

Volkswagen has hit on something with the newest version of its A segment hatchback. It's perfect for anyone who wants to keep their costs down but not condemn themselves to sensibility. It looks fantastic, either with two doors or four. Even the cheap touches somehow become good things. The darkened piece of glass which exists instead of a more expensive to manufacture metal tailgate looks minimalist and says 'weight saving' rather than 'cost saving'. Especially if you notice that where the up! badge normally sits, there is one which announces 'GTI'. This is what VW also does for the Polo and Golf Gran Turismo Injection variants, so there's a clever link there to pricey, premium-feeling and above all, properly fast and refined big brothers.

It's the same feeling when you open the big doors and take a look inside. The steering wheel is thick rimmed and likely from a Polo or Golf as it looks and feels a touch too large. But you get used to that and what matters more is how expensive it looks with the red stitching and black leather covering. Even if you don't know that the Golf GTI has had tartan seat material since the 1970s, it matters not. The main thing is that it looks cool. Plus, it will help to keep the occupants that way on hot or humid days.

The key is a standard Volkswagen item and that's a good thing. Even better, it slots into an ignition barrel in what has effectively become an old school style. The up! not being on an MQB architecture, there is no electric parking brake, with the happy corollary of a handbrake looking almost retro-cool. And where is the big touchsceen which exists in pretty much every car on the market? Absent. So you can keep your eyes where they belong. Looking ahead, behind and around you. Which is easy to do as the glass areas are generous.

I wanted to take exception to there being only the one cupholder but felt ashamed of myself for even having that thought - why DO we want to drink coffee in cars? Besides, there is a second one. It's a simply designed and well positioned aft of the handbrake. Anyone sitting in the back can place a small water bottle there and it's easily reached by either front seat occupant. The door pockets are surprisingly deep too. Where some might expect to find a SatNav screen, there is a cradle to slide your phone into, and also, up here on the dash-top is where the one USB socket dwells.

Does having drum rear brakes mean stopping power suffers? Not when the car weighs just 1,070kg.

Let's talk some more about the GTI's dressed up exterior. Of course there are red brake callipers. Somehow you don't notice they are missing from the insides of the rear wheels. Yes, it's drum brakes back there. Does stopping power suffer? Not when the car weighs just 1,070kg (unladen). The 17-inch wheels and 195/40 series tyres could look comedic for their size but instead they make you wonder why every up! doesn't have them, so greatly do they - along with a 15mm drop for the suspension - improve this 3.6m long car's appearance.

As the wheelbase is 2,420mm, it's a case of almost too-short overhangs front and back though, the downside to The Mouse That Roared looks being a tiny boot - just 251 litres, rising to 959 with the back seats folded. Is there a spare tyre? No, even though there is, surprisingly, enough room for one below the boot's lift-up floor panel.

Setting aside the tweaks to the car's appearance and how greatly they improve what was already a sound basic design (on the inside too), let's look at what has really transformed this model. The engine. It's the same 999cc three-cylinder turbo that powers all manner of other Volkswagen Group models. It's even in the Golf. Here, the outputs are 85kW (115PS) and 200Nm, with drive going to the front axle via six perfectly spaced ratios.

So correctly has VW got the gearing that there is only the tiniest bit of lag and even then, it's novel and suggestive of a tiny car with an engine that's almost too powerful. Almost, but not. It's hard not to rev the thing for the joy of the resultant exhaust music rather than a desperation to move forwards at a decent pace. The up! GTI's engine is also is one of the first Volkswagen Group petrol units to be fitted with a close-coupled particulate filter.

The up! GTI has the whiff of a future cult object about it.

It sounds different - not better, not worse - to an Abarth 595, and the effect is the same. This is one of those rare cars which will make the driver grin. A lot.

There is just enough excess torque to make the front tyres chirp for a millisecond not only at take off but even in second and third gears, if you rev hard enough. How rare is that, in any car? Never does it feel anything but benign and the suspicion exists that Volkswagen let its chassis and powertrain engineers make the up! GTI car just the right side of raw. You know the electronic guardian angels will take care of any untoward behaviour so it's enormous fun to test the limits. Especially as the sound of it spinning towards the redline is addictive.

The cost of all this might on the face of it seem high for an A segment 'city' car, prices starting at GBP13,750 (add GBP400 for extra doors). To me, the up GTI is an absolute bargain. You can charge to 62mph in what feels and sounds like far fewer than 8.8 seconds, top speed is a smidgen below 200km/h (122mph) but it'll happily belt along a motorway at way above the 70mph limit. Apparently.

The engine never sounds strained and economy doesn't suffer too badly (Combined is 58.9mpg) even from hundreds of motorway miles: I handed it back to Volkswagen with an average of 44mpg showing. Would that the tank's capacity be more than 35l as this limits range far more than anything else does - the seats are comfy and there is little in the way of tiredness-inducing wind and road noise. Nor do bumpy surfaces worry it as there is zero twitchiness in the steering even at high speeds, while the ride is definitely smoother than an Abarth 595's. CO2? That's 110g/km.

How to sum up this endearing little car? Simply put, you can pay much more for a larger and faster Volkswagen GTI. A Polo or a Golf has a lot more room in the back and for luggage too. The up! though, just feels special. What's more, it has the whiff of a future cult object about it. Especially as production numbers won't be big, with a new model due out possibly as soon as 2019.