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Quick spin: 2019 Volkswagen up! GTI

by Ronan Glon

We drive the smallest, cheapest GTI on the outskirts of Wolfsburg.

There is a subset of the car enthusiast population that holds the letters GTI sacred.

Its members scrutinize every GTI-badged car that Volkswagen releases to determine whether it lives up to the formula set in stone by the original, Golf-based model introduced in 1975. Getting it right sends the members of this group into a state of excitement matched only by the citizens of a newly-founded republic. Getting it wrong summons a dark cloud of disapproval that lingers for years on end.

Volkswagen consequently walked a thin line as it prepared the up!, its entry-level model in Europe, for GTI duty. It could have called it anything else: up! S, up! GT, up! and away you go, and so on. It chose to the hollowed acronym because engineers felt confident that they had created a car worthy of wearing it. We took one for a quick spin on the roads around the company's headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, to find out if that's the case, or if it's going down in hot hatch history as a dud.

What's up!?

The up! is Volkswagen's smallest and cheapest model on the European market - and, yes, it's spelled exactly like that. It's two sizes below the Golf. Its main rivals include the rear-engined Renault Twingo, the Toyota Aygo, and the Kia Picanto. Don't fret if none of those nameplates ring a bell; they live in a segment of the new car market that's non-existent in the United States.

If you're into numbers, the up! stretches 139.4 inches long, 64.6 inches wide, and 58.6 inches tall. The Golf GTI checks in at 167.5, 70.8, and 57.2, respectively.

The GTI, then, is the range-topping version of Volkswagen's entry-level model. We've been here before. Volkswagen GTI-fied the Lupo, another one of its entry-level models, between 2000 and 2005. This time around, the people's GTI receives a turbocharged, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine tuned to deliver 113 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, and 147 pound-feet of torque between 2,000 and 3,500 rpm. It's the first three-cylinder engine ever mounted in a GTI-badged car, and it spins the front wheels through a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission.

In Germany, its home market, the up! GTI carries a base price of 17,300 euros, a figure that represents approximately $19,500 at the current conversion rate. To add context, the entry-level up! starts at 10,750 euros (about $12,000).

Low-key does it

The up! GTI looks the part. By that, we mean that it takes a well-trained eye to tell it apart from the tamer model it's based on. Those in the know will identify it right away: it wears a deeper front bumper, GTI-specific side skirts, a small spoiler that extends its roof line, and 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped by low-profile tires. Red accents create a visual link between the up! and the other current and past members of the GTI family. But, all told, it's low-key, and that's how GTIs have always been.

It's less low-key inside; again, that's how the GTI deities ordered it. Volkswagen added sport seats with integrated headrests for the front passengers, tartan cloth upholstery, and red contrast stitching on a number of parts, including the steering wheel. There is no touch screen for the infotainment system. Instead, drivers need to use a plastic mount tacked onto the dashboard to hold up a smartphone, and rely on the app of their choice to get navigation directions. It's a solution that's common and normally acceptable in the up!'s segment of the market, but we expected an upmarket (up!market?) model like the GTI, whose base price approaches a Golf's, to come standard with a higher degree of connectivity.

The materials found inside feel adequate. They're not great, and it doesn't take much poking around to find cheapness, but that's part for the course in this corner of the automotive kingdom. While we wouldn't put the up! in the big and tall aisle, two average-sized adults can travel in the front seats without feeling cramped. We'd leave the rear seats to smaller occupants, though. Trunk space checks in at about 8.8 cubic feet with four passengers, which is an impressive figure for the category.

Back road terror

The triple starts up with a little growl that's artificial; Volkswagen fitted the up! with an exhaust note synthesizer. It sounds good, but we wish it was genuine, a little bit raspier, and a few decibels louder. Before we move the shift lever into first gear, the light clutch pedal reminds us that we're behind the wheel of a car designed primarily for big, crowded cities. We release the clutch, and immediate notice the engine is wholly unremarkable... until the tachometer needle crosses the 2,500-rpm mark. After that, and up until its 6,000-rpm redline, the responsive 1.0-liter eagerly keeps up with the pace set by the driver, whether you're downshifting into a turn or accelerating out of one. It never feels like it's out of breath, and it's a marvel of an engine if you keep it in the upper half of its rev range. Your author has criticized three-cylinder engines in the past because they're often unrefined, and they tend to feel like less than the sum of their parts. This is one of the better exceptions, especially when dropped between the fenders of a car that weighs just 2,200 pounds.

The sprint from zero to 60 mph takes about 8.8 seconds, so the up! GTI is not a lightning-quick car that pins your spine against the seat's foam. That's not its calling in life. It's happier on back roads with just enough bends to keep the driver engaged. The suspension is firmer than stock, though it still allows some body roll, and manageable understeer makes its presence known under hard cornering. It sounds flawed, right? It certainly could be better and more dynamic, yet this car is a blast to drive partly because of how easy it is to become comfortable and familiar with the way it handles. The steering is quick and precise, though we'd add weight to it if we could go back in time and intervene in the development process. The brakes (front discs; rear drums, surprisingly) are up to the task of slowing the up! down.

The GTI cruises effortlessly on the Autobahn, and it shows yet another side of its personality as we return to Wolfsburg. It drives like a normal city car. It's not unhappy to glide from roundabout to roundabout, and its compact dimensions make it easy to park. The suspension doesn't have a mother-in-law-friendly comfort mode, so it's firm all the time. It's fine on smooth pavement, but it's noticeably less forgiving than a standard up! on rougher roads, like in a construction zone.

Leftlane's bottom line

The GTI treatment completely changes the up!'s character. It's no longer cute as a button; it's pissed off at the asphalt under its tires, and it wants revenge. As a hot hatch, it's an endearing model that made us look for every possible excuse to drive it - no matter how far-fetched it was - while we had it at our disposal. And, fear not, skeptics. The up! is a true GTI in the sense that it's exhilarating to drive when the road loosens up, but serious and docile when it needs to be. It's even relatively practical, which is an important ingredient in the composition of a hot hatch.

The fact that it exists at all is worthy of praise. Most of Volkswagen's rivals have either given up on the hot-rodded city car segment, or steered clear of it entirely. It's not sold in the United States, and that's not changing any time soon, but it's a car we'll be keeping an eye out for when early examples turn 25.

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