My dad owned a 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI when I was a teenager, and I loved that two-door hatchback and its focused feel from the moment I first (legally) slid behind the wheel upon obtaining my driver’s permit. Fast forward to last year, and VW’s reveal of its new, not-for-the-U.S. Up! GTI for Europe instantly brought me back to my old man’s car; the German company drove the point home even further with references to that original Mk1 GTI in the press release. The Up! GTI, which is based on a model about two sizes smaller than today’s Golf, finally hit European roads this year, and I quickly made plans to hit up VW for time in the pint-sized performance hatchback. An extended summer trip to England allowed that to happen.
The Up! GTI screams cool just as loudly in person as it does in photos. It’s roughly the same size as a Fiat 500 but looks even smaller, and spot-on proportions serve as a strong foundation for the chunky, aggressive aesthetic. Buyers have the choice of two or four doors; my test car was the former. The two-tone, 17-inch wheels are a perfect size for the lowered stance, and retro black and red exterior details contrast the white paint. Inside, the classic, plaid seat fabric is great, but I could do without the somewhat garish red and black checked dash trim—it quite frankly looks out of place. But it’s a very usable cabin, with impressive passenger and cargo room considering the micro exterior dimensions.
The three-cylinder engine in the Up! GTI displaces just 999 cc—yes, it rounds to a mere 1.0 liter—but thanks to the magic of turbocharging, it punches above its size with 114 horsepower along with an impressive 148 lb-ft of torque at a very-low 2000 rpm. And those numbers only have to move 2,400 pounds or so, more than 700 fewer than today’s Golf GTI. The engine mates exclusively to a six-speed manual, so anyone looking for an optional automatic transmission to will thankfully be disappointed. In its specifications, this is a simple car that’s all about simple fun, and one for the shift-it-yourself crowd who value the importance of the conventional handbrake—just as a diminutive GTI should be.
Firing up the suitcase-sized engine begets a surprisingly throaty burble. Sadly, that soundtrack is synthesized through the audio system, making it ultimately feel quite contrived. Sliding the shifter into first and heading off, there’s a diesel-like lack of torque just off idle, but the turbo spools quickly to deliver the (relatively) substantial grunt of the small triple-cylinder. The gearbox is decently smooth but it’s rather light in action and the linkage lacks the crispness of top-spec manuals. Acceleration feels quicker than the numbers suggest—VW quotes zero to 62 mph in 8.8 seconds—although the engine places a premium on torque rather than high-rpm fun. You end up short-shifting often, as the small engine is happy to be economically lugged at low rpm. Again, similar to a diesel.
The ride quality is very good most of the time, especially considering the low-profile, 195/40VR-17 Goodyear summer tires. On rougher roads, the stiffened suspension reveals evidence of the Up! GTI’s economy-car origins, the beam-axle in the rear being one example. The budget is also highlighted in the steering and handling; while the Up! GTI is entertaining to thrash, the steering is slightly slow and offers little in the way of feel. Additionally, the front end runs out of grip early. Throw in a typical English rainstorm and you dream of a more feelsome helm to assist in the search for adhesion on the narrow, undulating roads. As if VW clearly knows the chassis’s limitations, the flat seats offer limited lateral support and there are no provisions to dial back or fully disable the stability control. At least the overall tuning of the electronics has been made with minimal interference in mind.
I was hoping for more with the Up! GTI. There were times when I was thoroughly entertained and grinning like mad driving the little VW quickly on U.K. roads while still averaging more than 40 indicated U.S. mpg. But I don’t feel it fully lives up to those iconic three letters. I take that ‘GTI’ badge very seriously, and I will never forgive VW for the lackluster GTI versions of the Mk3 and Mk4 Golf.
It is important, however, to get a realistic handle on what exactly the Up! GTI is. First, it’s miles better than any of VW’s past Golf GTI mistakes. Plus, today’s Golf GTI costs more than twice as much as the Up! GTI in the U.K. While it almost definitely will never happen, if VW of America were to bring the Up! GTI to the States with a similar pricing relationship, it would only cost a touch over $13,000.
But if it did come here, I’d prefer VW remove the “I” from the badge and call this current car the Up! GT. Then I’d ask the company to have its engineers create a truly hot version to earn back the final letter. It would need more substantial seats (the fronts in the 35-years-old Rabbit GTI were miles better), a limited-slip differential, an ‘ESP Off’ button, and retuned steering and suspension. A proper Up! GTI would also need more poke in the engine’s upper range and a tighter shift linkage. Oh, and tweaked pedals, as they’re currently spaced in such a way that makes heel-and-toe shifting too tricky.
Don’t get me wrong, I still really like the Up! GTI in its current form, especially considering the price and its impressive build quality. But it simply needs to be edgier to wear such an iconic badge, with a chassis and overall driving experience that lives up to the promises made by the rest of the package. Then, yes, send the tweaked Up! GTI to America as an affordable way to court a new generation of enthusiasts, and to augment the Golf GTI and Golf R in VW’s hot-hatch lineup. We truly need a proper modern Rabbit GTI—and I certainly don’t mean the special-edition Golf GTI that VW has planned.