Opinion: why almost everyone is wrong about the VW Up GTI

By topgear, 13 January 2020

I like my colleagues. We agree on most things (custard creams are the king of biscuits), and respectfully disagree on others (tea should only be stirred with a tiny pipette’s worth of milk). But then there’s the Volkswagen Up GTI.

They bloody love it. So does most of the automotive world, it seems. ‘It’s a hot hatch hero!’ ‘It’s a bargain!’ Um, no. It’s neither of those things. Especially since it just relaunched with another two grand lumped on its price.

The problem for me is the missed potential. The regular Up is one of the very best cars on sale at any price. Few cars nail their brief so well. It’s achingly cool to look at (even eight years after launch), it’s dinky enough to slot through any gap or into any space, while its motorway manners rival a BMW 3 Series.

It’s an astonishingly talented car that also happens to drive pretty neatly, too. For years we all salivated at the prospect of a faster, more honed version. A tiny little tearaway that rekindled the spirit of the Ford SportKa, Peugeot 106 Rallye and Citroen AX GT of yore.

What arrived was an Up with another 25bhp and a shortage of suspension travel. The gearchange was baggy, the steering no more alert, the traction control stepped in constantly with little excuse (and could only be turned off by removing a fuse that also cuts out the ABS) and – crucially – the standard Up’s deft touch over rough urban roads had gone. Here’s a car outfoxed by speed bumps an Audi R8 would breeze over.

I’ll admit I did have a hugely fun and involving drive in an Up GTI, as I chased a Porsche 911 GT3 through the Scottish highlands on Top Gear’s 2017 Speed Week. But the fun in question was the same kind I’d have had in a regular Up, or any underendowed city car for that matter – it was the ‘rag something up to and beyond its limits for a prolonged period of time’ fun that you can normally squeeze out of even the direst of hire cars.

Volkswagen’s GTI badge and tartan seats have never been applied to the sharpest car in its respective class. The Golf GTI’s reputation is built on smooth dependability over frenzied hardcore handling, and in that regard the Up sticks to family tradition.

It’s a delightful object, its larger alloy wheels lending it the cutely menacing stance of a small angry dog and its chequered fabric interior cliched but cool. But the Golf GTI offers a much more tangible hike in excitement; this makes the Up worse as a city car yet precious little better as a hot hatch. It’s not a bad car, but it’s far from the hero many of my workmates proclaim it to be.

Words: Stephen Dobie