Used test: Abarth 595 vs Volkswagen Up GTI

These two tiny tots both offer maximum bang for the buck, but which one makes more sense used? Read on to find out...

Used test: Abarth 595 vs Volkswagen Up GTI

The Contenders

Abarth 595 1.4 T-Jet 145

  • List price when new £15,510
  • Price today £10,500 *
  • Available from 2009-present

Sharp styling and a potent turbocharged engine make this a desirable little hot hatch

Volkswagen Up GTI 1.0 TSI 115 3dr

  • List price when new £13,750
  • Price today £10,100*
  • Available from 2018-2019

This most powerful Up variant shared a lot of its DNA with the original Golf GTI of 1976

* Price today is based on a 2018 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

Part of the original recipe for a hot hatch, way back in the 1970s, was that your pocket-rocket should go like stink but still be reasonably compact in size. The original Golf GTI was tiny by today’s standards, and so were the competitors that flocked to share a bit of its glory in the years following its debut. 

Now, though, a hot hatch will often be based on a family hatchback that can, once decked out with spoilers and wings and wide wheels, be quite a struggle to fit into a conventional multi-storey car park parking space. 

New Volkswagen Up GTI vs Abarth 595

Not so these two diminutive tots. The Abarth 595, an affordable and desirable hot hatch based on the regular Fiat 500 city car, has been providing driving thrills for the best part of a decade. For a long time, it had things all its own way, but in 2018 Volkswagen unleashed a GTI version of its smallest model, the Up, with a lineage that could be traced all the way back to that original Golf GTI. 

Alas, tougher emissions tests were to put a premature end to this Up GTI just over a year into its life; despite which, healthy sales mean there are now plenty to choose from on the used car market. But which of these two makes the most sense when bought at a couple of years old? Read on to find out.

New Volkswagen Up GTI vs Abarth 595

What are they like to drive?

Fire up either car and you’re treated to a fruity soundtrack, albeit one that’s enhanced by a speaker in the Up. There’s no trickery in the 595 – just a very vocal pair of tailpipes. We like the thrummy tunes of the Up’s 1.0-litre three-cylinder motor, but it’s the 595’s raspy note that will get your pulse beating faster. And it’s not like the 595 is all mouth and no trousers, either. Its 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine gives it a 30bhp power advantage over the Up (143bhp to 113bhp), and even in slippery conditions it can scrabble from 0-60mph in a brisk 8.0sec – nearly a second faster than the Up.

 The Up’s permanently activated traction control is partly to blame for that. While the 595’s TTC (Torque Transfer Control) button allows just enough wheelspin for a quick getaway, the Up’s system is far too eager to intervene, making rapid launches frustratingly tricky.

New Volkswagen Up GTI vs Abarth 595

On the road, the difference is much smaller. The Up’s engine pulls harder from low engine speeds and its manual gearbox has six gears to the 595’s five. This means the Up’s gears are stacked closer together, aiding responsiveness. You’ll need to change down more in the 595 to keep up, although this is no hardship because the gearlever is close to the steering wheel, the shift is pleasingly light and the 595 is still the faster car when you thrash it. The Up’s ’box has an even shorter throw and is more precise, though.

Tykes like these are less about straight-line speed and more about agility and entertainment. Both initially feel nimble and resist leaning over in corners well, despite being relatively tall and narrow.

However, the 595’s steering doesn’t communicate what the front tyres are doing particularly well, and hitting the Sport button just adds a lot of unwelcome weight (as well as sharpening accelerator response). Whichever mode you’re in, you’ll be amazed at how huge the 595’s turning circle is – a trait that quickly annoys in city driving.

New Volkswagen Up GTI vs Abarth 595

 The Up has much better-weighted steering, a greater sense of connection to the front tyres and a turning circle that isn’t beaten by the QE2. You can also trust its front end more, because the Up grips at cornering speeds that will have the 595 running wide.

However, neither car has the kind of boisterousness that marks out a great hot hatch. In the best of this breed, you can feel the car moving entertainingly beneath you as you enter and exit corners, but the 595 and Up are restricted by stability control systems that can’t be turned off and stop you venturing close to the limits of grip. That’s great in a sensible family hatchback but not in a car that’s supposed to be fun.