VW's dinky runaround is at its best in pocket rocket format – although you'll pay for the privilege
By Tony Middlehurst / Sunday, November 7, 2021 / Loading comments
- Available for £12,000
- 1.0-litre inline three-cylinder turbo, front-wheel drive
- Rorty, fun, tuneable
- Surprisingly practical for a little ‘un
- Good reputation for reliability
- Cheap new, not so cheap used
Search for a used VW Up GTI here.
Today we will be looking at the Volkswagen up! GTi, or as we will be referring to it henceforth to stop ourselves going mad, the Up GTI.
When it was announced in late 2016, Volkswagen allowed the UK press to believe that the price would be around £15,000. By the time the UK launch came around in late 2017, the best part of six years after normal Up production had started, there was a sigh of relief when the actual price was revealed to be £13,750 for the three-door, and £400 or so on top of that for the five-door.
That made it around two grand cheaper than the Abarth 595 and the cheapest hot hatch you could buy. Was it a hot hatch, though, when there was only a 1.0-litre three cylinder engine (albeit turbocharged) under the stumpy little bonnet? Some scepticism was warranted, as there have been a few hiccups in Volkswagen’s GTI story over the years, but it did better than OK in various magazine performance car of the year awards in which it was regularly pitted against cars with up to six times its power.
It was a fun little thing with a power-to-weight ratio not far off the Mk 1 Golf GTI’s, so you could see why people were getting excited about a return to GTI glory days when Up GTIs first buzzed around British roads in 2018.
However, for a more accurate comparison and maybe an interesting insight into the way in which manufacturers give us performance these days, let’s look at another car – the supercharged Mk 2F (or Mk 3 in the UK) Polo G40, around 500 right-hand drive examples of which were sold in the UK between 1991 and 1994. With 113hp and 111lb ft of torque from its 1.3-litre engine, a big hike on the 75hp produced by the range-topping Polo GT, the G40 was the first properly productionised blown Polo.
It was quick. According to VW, it did the 0-60mph run in 8.1secs and went on to 122mph. What wasn’t so quick was the sales take-up, mainly thanks to a price that started at £11,500, which was a hell of a lot for a Polo in the 1990s. As a result, quite a few of the early ’91 G40s hung around unsold despite VW dropping the sticker price every year until 1994, when they simply dropped it from the range. By that time you could drive a new G40 away from a VW dealership for under £10k, which coincidentally is about the minimum amount you’d expect to pay for a good G40 today.
VW’s experience with the G40 led to a drawing-in of horns with the next Polo, the most powerful version of which had a normally aspirated 100hp 1.4 motor. Both heavier and more feeble than the G40, it couldn’t match its predecessor on performance. Indeed, no Polo did until the 6N2 123hp 1.6 GTI of the early 2000s, when VW managed to muddy its own buying waters by releasing an equally powerful but smaller and lighter Lupo GTI, another slow seller that is now fetching big money used.
The Up GTI marked a welcome return to small performance Volkswagens, the key difference this time around being that the pricing was sensible. The power outputs of the turbocharged three-cylinder Up GTI and the supercharged four-cylinder Mk 3 Polo G40 were within a couple of hp of each other, and the top speeds were identical. There was a huge weight difference, the G40 being more than 200kg lighter than the far safer Up, but the newer car benefitted from big engineering advances perhaps the most significant of which was torque. Not just in the numbers – the Up GTI had 148lb ft against the G40’s 111lb ft – but also in the new accessibility made possible by modern electronics.
Although some thought that the small roof spoiler and single-pipe exhaust took VW’s ‘understated’ mantra too far, the Up GTI’s Oswald 17-inch wheels hinted at greater things, and the first road tests confirmed that all but the very highest hopes were nicely realised on the road. The sudden demand took VW by surprise. Early UK buyers who banged their orders in straightaway found themselves waiting several months for delivery. Production methods had to be rejigged to try and ease the bottleneck.
Volkswagen UK stopped taking orders for the Up GTI in April 2019 to get it through WLTP regulation testing, but the flow restarted in January 2020 when a barely changed refresh model appeared at £15,895. Today, the list price of a new Up GTI starts at £16,780, but if you’re happy to forsake the delights of ‘new car smell’ you can pick up a used one with under 50,000 miles on the clock for £12,000 or thereabouts.
That’s not just a high number representing depreciation of only £2,000 over three years, but also an interesting number because not so long ago the entry price for used Up GTIs was £11,000. Strong residual values like these suggest a very good car with very few problems. Is that the case? Let’s delve in and see.
SPECIFICATION – VW UP! GTI (2018-on)
Engine: 999cc three-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],000-5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],000-3,500rpm
0-62mph (secs): 8.8
Top speed (mph): 122
Weight (kg): 1,070
MPG (official combined): 58.9
CO2 (g/km): 110
Wheels (in): 17
On sale: 2018 – on
Price new: £16,540
Price now: from £12,000
Note for reference: car weight and power data are hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
Matched to a turbocharger that, as per modern expectations, had to deliver efficiency as well as power, the Up GTI’s engine developed its maximum power across a 500rpm-wide band rather than at a single point in the rev range. Its peak torque was produced across an even wider band from 2,000rpm to 3,500rpm. This tells you a lot about the characteristics of three-cylinder engines. Compared to the more explosive urge of something like a 595 Abarth, the Up’s three-pot power was softer-edged and more rounded. The redline was at 6,000rpm but in reality you’d only be exploring that region to find out what it sounded like, because the power rush had plateaued 1,000rpm earlier.
Three-cylinder engines have an inherent feeling of unburstability, which is useful in a small, relatively low-powered, younger enthusiast’s car that will very likely be hammered at every opportunity. The GTI’s relaxed, low-revving exhaust note meant you needed to watch yourself on tight roads because the sound didn’t always equate to the speeds you were doing or to the diminutive size of the car. Sound actuators added some vim to the GTI’s woolly thrum, but the beauty of the noise was always going to be in the ear of the beholder. Bolting a Milltek or other free-breathing pipe onto it would get its noise ever closer to that of a 911.
The Up GTI’s relatively low maximum power of 113hp meant that VW could safely fit it with a compact 6-speed manual gearbox, the only such transmission in the Up range. It was a good unit and a nice fit with the triple. Other, humbler Ups came with the option of an automated manual but perhaps thankfully that wasn’t a box you could tick on the GTI.
The youthful demographic of Up GTI owners meant that tuning was relevant. Although the aftermarket wasn’t as vibrant as it is for cars like the Abarth, you would have no trouble finding firms offering to stage 1 tune your Up to 140-145hp, or stage two it to 155hp/200lb ft in order to drop the 0-60 time to something in the mid to high six-second bracket, or stage 3 it which would typically bring 165-175hp, but which could go as high as 190hp. If you did decide to add serious power to your Up GTI and were expecting to be driving on greasy UK roads in winter, you’d want to look into aftermarket traction control modules and chassis mods. There’ll be a little bit more on that later.
Back to the drivetrain now, and specifically to reliability. This appears to be truly excellent. One UK buyer of a new 2019 Up GTI reported engine failure in the first 24 hours/50 miles of ownership, followed four months and under 3,000 miles later by gearbox failure in the replacement car, but if borne out this would be an exceptional case as we couldn’t find any other similar cases. In fact we were really scratching around to find any problems, let alone common ones.
As far as we’re aware the GTI doesn’t suffer from the clutch pedal click that has annoyed owners of lesser Ups. There was one thing you needed to be aware of after a spot of reversing, however. If, having completed your reversing move you turned the ignition off and then lifted the clutch pedal with the car still in reverse, residual flywheel action could cause the car to lurch backwards by several inches even if the engine wasn’t running. Something to bear in mind when parking hard up against an unyielding object.
The petrol tank held less than eight gallons, but official combined and high WLTP fuel consumption figures of 53mpg and 61mpg respectively along with high 40s real-world averages in normal (i.e., hard) GTI-type use meant that you would rarely be suffering from range anxiety. Indeed, it has been claimed that the GTI is the most economical car in the Up range, and we can readily believe that because the combination of torque and high gearing pretty much does away with the need to be caning it to make good progress.
Owners of more exotic/larger GTI-type performance vehicles from the Volkswagen/Audi stable are sometimes inclined to double up on servicing and maintenance with their cars but there’s no need to worry about any of that with the Up GTI, where it’s standard yearly/10k-mile servicing. VW’s fixed-price scheme for sub-2.0 litre cars that are more than 36 months old quotes £184 for a minor service and £354 for a major.
The GTI sat 15mm lower than the standard Up on a marginally wider track and on slightly stiffer MacPherson strut front/torsion bar rear suspension. The Polo-sourced steering was quicker and heavier than the standard Up’s, but given the size of the car it inevitably still felt light. Old-school drivers demanding Mini-like levels of handling and communication might claim that things were better in them days, and it is true that you weren’t always that clued-up as to what was going on beneath an Up GTI unless you hit a pothole. That you would know about because of the car’s size and the firmness of its springing. There again, hit a pothole in an old Mini and you’d be nursing the base of your spine and the top of your skull (from the rebound) for a good while after.
The Up GTI was similar to the Mini in there being no driving modes other than the one the car came with. You couldn’t disable the traction control by pressing the button as there was no button. You could knock it out if you disconnected the right wire in the fuse panel but then you’d lose the ABS too, so we wouldn’t recommend that. You could get rid of most of it by going through a magical sequence of pedal applications and button presses but that only worked at speeds of up to 30km/h, making it useful for getting out of snow but not much else.
Some owners who did a lot of track work in their GTIs found that the braking effect of the traction control system would eventually crack their brake discs. Conceptually, drum brakes at the back of anything with a GTI badge on it seemed a bit weird but they worked well enough on the little Up. They did become known for rusting, but the handbrake was great if you were into J-turns and the like. Automatic emergency braking was a GTI option.
There were no factory alternatives to those 17in Oswald alloys though, so you’d be fishing around in the aftermarket to set your Up GTI apart from the common herd. Ten-spoke DOTZ wheels looked good and a KW ST X coilover kit would give you the option of a 20-45mm lower ride at the front and 25-45mm at the back.
The standard Goodyear EfficientGrip tyres weren’t brilliant on cold, wet roads and were a strange sort of choice for a GTI badged car. Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres did a much better job.
Although the Up GTI might not have been the last word in handling, the generally excellent visibility (thickish A-pillars apart) and wheel-at-each-corner chassis meant that you were able to place it very precisely on challenging roads.
The choice of colours wasn’t that exciting. It pulled off the classic VW GTI trick of looking good in white but you had to pay extra for that, red being the only ‘free’ colour. A panoramic sunroof was a nifty option for the car and not too expensive either at just over £700. For fans of slightly leaden Germanic humour, you could have a roof sticker saying THIS SIDE UP!.
The GTI had LED daytime running lights but normal halogen headlights. That might seem mean, but you’d think differently about it if you were a young owner faced with a bill to replace a broken LED headlight.
Some Up owners have noticed fluid leaks from the rear wash-wipe. Others have experienced an annoying vibration at certain revs which can sometimes be traced back to an unprotected flexy pipe rubbing against the underbody tray on the driver’s side. Removing the undertray and fitting some sponge protector around the pipe sorts that, but of course that is not an official fix, PH accepts no responsibility etc.
Outfits like Maxton do a selection of bolt-on aero and body bits available to spruce up the look of your Up GTI, and there are bonnet vent kits too if you’re going to go down the tuning road.
Although it’s a small car on the outside, the Up is remarkably spacious on the inside. Volkswagen was smart in sticking with standard Up seats and not going for heavy seat bolstering as it eased entry and exit and allowed big people to fit in easily, broadening the car’s appeal, but the front seats were mounted quite high, and while they were fine for short trips the lack of any lumbar support adjustment made them less than brilliant on long trips.
The classic ‘Clark tartan’ Jacara seat material was a GTI tap-in birdie that you could easily imagine featuring on performance VWs until the company closes its doors for the last time. If you thought the tartan was cheesy or you didn’t like cloth in general, you were a bit stuck because there was no leather-based alternative for UK buyers.
Obviously the Up GTI didn’t get a golf ball gearknob because it wasn’t a Golf so that would have been silly. Having said that, it did get the flat-bottomed Golf GTI steering wheel with thumb controls for the trip computer and infotainment. That added to the Up GTI’s overall sense of chunky quality, although the wheel wasn’t fore-and-aft adjustable and you generally had to crank it up to its topmost position if you wanted to be able to see all the instruments, which created a less than sporty wheel angle.
The rest of the cabin was an object lesson in light operation, simplicity, and fitness for purpose. You wouldn’t call it luxurious though. The hard plastic on the doors made elbow-resting a bit purgatorial. The standard five-inch (non-touch) screen gave you Bluetooth, USB/iPod sockets and access to the six-speaker audio but there was no built-in Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. VW’s TomTom app Maps + More provided handsfree operation and call answering but it wasn’t great. There was no fixed sat-nav to become obsolete overnight, just a dashtop cradle to hold your mobile. As such the quality of your infotainment and navigation depended to some extent on what sort of phone plan you were on.
GTI options were thin on the ground, but they were attractively priced. Souping up the audio to a Beats system cost just over £300. £85 paid for a height-adjustable passenger seat, and climate control was £280 if you thought you needed something more than the perfectly adequate standard air-con. Ditto the reversing camera, that was very much an unnecessary frippery for such a boxy little car. Even if you went mad with your bingo dabber on the options sheet, you’d struggle to spend more than £16,000 all told on your new Up GTI.
You wouldn’t buy one for relaxed autobahn cruising, but if you did need to take four people somewhere it would do it as long as your passengers didn’t mind raising their voices above the tyre and engine noise. There was plenty of cabin storage, which was just as well with a 251-litre boot, or less if you had the Beats setup with its space-robbing subwoofer. The Up’s boot may have been small in absolute terms, but it was a practical shape and the back seats were 60/40 foldable to boost cargo space to 959 litres.
In the bumf for the Up GTI Volkswagen called it ‘the people’s supercar’. Even after the most liquid of lunches VW’s marketing types must have known that was a stretch, but when you realised the GTI was only £4k more than the most basic Up you could sort of see what they were getting at.
The Abarth 595 was faster. It was also a chunk more expensive, but if you forgot about the performance and just looked at the overall package, jumping out of a 595 and into an Up GTI would probably reinforce any nationalistic preconceptions you might have had about build quality.
Today, an Up GTI makes perfect sense as a carefree second car, especially if (as per the legendary bumper sticker) your first car really is a Porsche 911. It also makes sense as an only car, or as a first car. If you’re on a tight budget the running costs are usefully low. Not just on petrol, tax (£155 for 12 months) and relatively affordable insurance (cheaper than the 595 but a bit more than a Twingo GT), but also on unforeseen repair costs because owner experiences suggest that these are going to be rare. GTI Ups appear to be every bit as reliable as ordinary Ups, and that’s plenty reliable.
There were a handful of recalls on earlier Ups for Takata airbags, poorly welded towing eyes and the like, but as far as we’re aware there have been no recalls specific to the GTI. Thatcham gave it four out of five for theft resistance. If a thief managed to winkle his way into your one it was warmly comforting to know that the little darling would be well looked after in a crash thanks to the 5-star Euro NCAP rating.
Talking of rare, which we were a paragraph ago, these cars are not exactly common on UK roads. That rarity – along with the character of the car, its evident reliability, and its smile-inducing mix of fun and function – is underpinning the Up GTI’s very strong secondhand values. Prices are tightly sandwiched in a narrow band running from £12,000 to £16,000. Of the 30 cars on sale in PH Classifieds at the time of writing the most affordable was this 2018 in red at £12,399. This silver 9,000 miler seems good value at £13,694 if you don’t mind it being a five-door. If it must be a white three-door, £14,990 will buy you this 2019 car with 8,000 miles. Minty.
Search for a used VW Up GTI here
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