Road test: 2020 Volkswagen Up GTI
The Volkswagen Up GTI was an instant hit for the German brand when it launched in 2018. This compact hatchback provided a new entry point to coveted GTI ownership, and promised a near identical power-to-weight ratio as the original Golf GTI. However, emissions regulations quickly caught up with this little car, with it being taken off sale in 2019 after just over a year on the road.
Considering the waiting lists the newest GTI family member generated, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the car has returned for 2020. Thanks to a few minor tweaks, the most potent Up is legal and back on the road. So what’s so special about the baby GTI?
The regular Up is a funky little Tetris cube of a car with its boxy proportions all being part of the charm. In a world of evermore complex designs, the simplicity of the city car is refreshing. Having the letters G, T and I tattooed to the boot lid of this Up means that it comes with a batch of suitable visual upgrades.
The first thing that captures your attention are those 17-inch alloy wheels that give it a somewhat concept car look. These polished snowflake styled alloys really fill the wheel arches and kick-off this GTI’s sporting stance. More distinctive bodywork has been incorporated such as an athletic front and rear bumper, more prominent boot spoiler, and a chrome exhaust tip. Door stripes further reinforce that this is no garden variety Up. Then you have the obligatory red scoring above the grille that immediately identifies this car as a GTI.
Its overall look harks back to the tiny kid’s toys of Micro Machines from the 1980s. This caricature of a hot hatchback might be small, but its personality is big thanks to the somewhat exaggerated GTI DNA. We think it looks great, positively brimming with personality.
It’s fair to say that in comparison to other GTIs in the range, the interior of the Up is rather basic. A simplistic instrument cluster, pop-out rear windows and a tiny screen to display radio and phone connectivity are all par for the city car course. The cabin features plenty of hard plastics, but it does have a sturdy durable feel to its build quality.
Unique to the GTI is a mesmerising red and black patterned dashboard that does a good job of changing the mood of this space. You’ll also find that the seats have been re-trimmed in the obligatory GTI tartan, although they are effectively the same seats found in the standard car. While the steering wheel lacks reach adjustment, it is a fantastic looking thing being flat-bottomed and proudly wearing the GTI insignia. The cabin also comes to life at night thanks to some intense red mood lighting as standard.
There’s a surprising amount of space in this small car, with clever packaging allowing four adults to take a seat with respectable head and leg room. Its boxy proportions have allowed designers to maximise interior volume, creating something of a TARDIS effect. The ‘bigger on the inside’ trick continues in the boot with 251-litres of space trumping rivals and approaching the same level as larger cars such as a Mini.
Technology and equipment
Being based on a city car, the Up GTI was never going to be a Volkswagen Arteon when it came to tech. However, it has much of what you’d expect of a small modern car including DAB radio, Bluetooth, 12V and USB sockets, electric front windows and air conditioning. However, GTI models also come with the additional luxury of heated front seats for those frosty morning starts.
You can option some more gadgets at pretty respectable prices. Things like the Cruise and Park Pack adds a reversing camera, rear parking sensors and cruise control for £440. There’s also a Beats audio system for those who value a richer sound from their speakers.
There’s no sat-nav in this GTI, and so your smartphone becomes quite a key component of the infotainment system. We’d say the Universal Smartphone Holder was an essential item to lock your device into the centre of the dashboard, and so it’s a shame that VW will charge you an extra £195 for it.
The Up GTI keeps things simple, which is not always a bad thing.
On the road
The 2020 Up GTI is powered by the same 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine as before, producing 114bhp and 148lb ft of torque. It’s an enthusiastic little motor with a deep thrum that makes itself known under hard acceleration. This car’s turbo affords it a considerable slug of low-down torque that quickly gets the car up to pace. The nature of this engine encourages you to take it by the scruff of the neck and exercise the rev needle. Officially speaking, the 0-62mph run is done in 8.8 seconds, but that in-gear shove would make you believe it was a tad faster.
Swapping cogs is the responsibility of the driver alone in the Up GTI, and quite right too with this being a ‘back to basics’ hot hatch. Unfortunately the most disappointing part of the whole car is the six-speed manual gearbox. It’s ok, but its motion is imprecise and as a result isn’t very rewarding to use. This is a great shame as a snappy gearbox is part of the joy when it comes to manual hatches.
Thankfully redemption is to be found in the grin-inducing way in which the Up GTI moves. This car has been criticised for not being as focused as its GTI stablemates, but in a world of 242bhp Golf GTIs, maybe it’s time to regress and simply enjoy a car for being fun to drive.
Weighing just 1,070kg, the little GTI eagerly throws itself into corners with that short wheelbase enabling a quick change of direction. There’s strong levels of grip to be relied upon as you seemingly hop skip and jump between undulating bends like a Saturday morning cartoon character.
Body roll is present through fast complexes, but this helps inform the driver of where the weight is being transferred. Push hard on the reassuringly firm brake pedal, let the mass shift forward, and then use the lack of weight pushing down on the rear wheels to pivot around sharp bends. Its agility and dinky scale make it a riot on country roads. The car lacks that ‘glued to the Tarmac’ feel of other GTIs, but keeping on top of how the Up is behaving is half the fun in this instance.
Of course the Up GTI can do the day-to-day city dwelling, too – it’s what makes a hot hatch so alluring after all. It goes without saying that its small stature grants the car ease of parking even the smallest of spaces, something amplified by good visibility. Pottering around town, this GTI is easy to live with, although those large alloy wheels can send a thump through the cabin if you hit a pothole too hard. Generally speaking, the ride is firm but not uncomfortable.
The Up GTI can hold its own on the motorway also. A trip to Silverstone and back revealed a surprising lack of droning in the cabin, and the aforementioned torque meant that the car never felt out of its depth.
The Volkswagen Up GTI isn’t the fastest hot hatchback, it is not the most spacious, it doesn’t pack every gizmo under the sun, and it won’t win you a game of Top Trumps. Factor in that the seats could do with more lower back support for longer trips, and that the 2020 car has received a price hike upon its return, some people will start to wonder why they should buy one at all. However, 20 minutes behind the wheel of this car on some good roads will put a smile on the face of anyone who enjoys driving.
So many cars today take themselves far too seriously for their own good. In the real world who cares about Nurburgring lap times or 0-62 sprints? What ever happened to finding a car that makes you feel good while driving it? There’s some intangible thing that has been baked into the Up GTI that just makes you fall in love with the cheeky little car.
A supercar is fun on a race track, but an Up GTI is fun everywhere.
Facts and figures
Model tested: Volkswagen Up GTI 5-door
Engine: 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Power / Torque: 114bhp / 148lb ft
0-62mph: 8.8 seconds
Top speed: 122mph
Boot space: 251-litres