Cars can be fun in loads of different ways. Flooring it in something powerful is fun. Pottering about with the roof down in a roadster is fun. Wrestling with a fly-weight track car, in any circumstances, is fun. Having a massage from the driver’s seat of your luxo-cruiser is fun. Beating a sports car off the red light in your Mum’s old Astra is fun. There’s no end to it.
But there is a convincing argument that the simplest, most honest interpretation of a fun car, is this: The Volkswagen Up GTI. It won’t leave you with hypothermic cheeks and bleeding ears, and it won’t bust your bank balance, your driving licence or your insurance premium. It also has four seats and a boot so you can most likely live with it quite easily.
It is, shockingly, a car that’s realistically attainable for the masses (a very keen £13,750 for the 3dr, or a smidge over £14k for the 5dr) and yet promises to be flipping brilliant on the public road. A simple, yet oddly quite rare breed of car. A Renault Twingo GT, Smart Brabus, Abarth 595 or perhaps the forthcoming Suzuki Swift Sport, are about its only direct rivals. But is it everything that we all want it to be?
Well, it certainly looks the part – inside and out. The Up GTI gets the full tartan cloth treatment inside, plus a pair of smart, supportive and heated sports seats, some glossy GTI badging, and a 5.0in colour screen with a USB port and all the connectivity stuff that you’d want (although you’ll have to use your phone for sat-nav).
It looks just as good – if not better – on the outside. You can get it in red, white, black or dark silver (check out the gallery below for some pics of the white car), and with the trademark GTI red highlight underlining the bonnet lip, the striking alloys, and double-stripes down its flanks that are reminiscent of the original Golf GTI Mk1, it looks the absolute business.
How does it drive?
We’ll start with the engine. What a cracking little thing it is. Floor the throttle and the turbocharged, 113bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder warbles its way throatily up the rev range, delivering real vigour to this baby GTI.
Sure, the 0-62mph time of 8.8sec sounds fairly pedestrian, but it doesn’t feel it – not even a little bit, as you slingshot from corner to corner, or rollick around town. This is an appreciably quick little car, and the engine is a joy to rev out, even if it is also torquey enough to deliver fair acceleration if you leave it in a higher gear, just as long as you keep it on the boil somewhere over 2000rpm – it’s a bit flat below that. The six-speed manual gearbox is also light and slick, and lets you make the most of the characterful engine.
So let’s get to the point – the Up GTI is great fun in corners. Maybe not the mobile, throttle-adjustable, light-footed entertainment of bigger and faster hot hatches – even stuff like the Minis and Fiestas of this world. But proper, no-frills, chuck it in and get involved without fearing for your life sort of fun. It delivers a very friendly handling zing, that means you can steer the Up into the tightest and trickiest of bends and the worst that will happen is it’ll understeer a bit, but given the generous grip and reasonable steering feel, you’ll probably find the line you were aiming for. If you don’t, lift off the gas and it’ll be right back to where you want it.
If anything, because it lacks any fancy drive modes and adjustable stuff, it feels a bit more gritty and raw than the Polo or Golf GTI. It doesn’t quite do it all for you like that oh-so-slick, oh-so-grown-up bigger GTI. And we like that about it very much indeed. Especially given that the ride, while firm, is well damped and controlled enough that it’s not going to rattle your bones over patched-up UK roads.
We do have one quibble, and that is the pedal placement. There’s a big enough gap between the brake and throttle to make it tricky to heel-and-toe. Which is doubly annoying since this is a car that warrants that sort of treatment and would benefit from it very much. At least the brake feel and response is very good, so there's no issue there.
While we’re nitpicking, the Up GTI is pretty buzzy on the motorway, too, but then you don’t buy a fiery little car thinking that you’re getting a continental cruiser, so it’s hardly likely to bother you.
Around town it’s like a regular Up, just with a bit more zing. It’s small size and added vigour means that you can take advantage of those smaller gaps in the traffic with ease. Parking is a piece of cake too.
Should I buy one?
Yes, yes and yes again. Being insurance group 17 makes it cheaper to insure than a group 26 Polo GTI, and economy should be very manageable - the GTI manages 50.4mpg and 127g/km according to the new, more realistic official economy and emissions test - and by any standard the sub-£14k asking price makes this fantastic value. Even a high-spec, 89bhp VW Up is only £750 less, so you’d be mad not to make the jump to the GTI from there, and you can easily see the perky little VW stealing sales from bigger cars like the Ford Fiesta and Seat Ibiza.
It’s just a stonkingly entertaining car that’s bob-on perfect if you want something that looks great, doesn’t cost much to buy or run and will put a smile on your face every day without being a pain to live with. It’s also ideal for UK roads; Light (a mere 1070kg, in fact), narrow, easy to drive quickly, and great fun whether you’re doing a roundabout in Milton Keynes or Wales’ finest driving nirvana. What more could you possibly want?
Gallery: 2018 VW Up GTI first drive
2018 VW Up GTI 3dr