What Car? says...

There are some who will try to claim that the Volkswagen Up GTI is ‘the spiritual successor to the original Mk1 Golf GTI’. On paper, it does certainly have a strong case, with the same amount of horsepower and a similar size and structure as that iconic classic. While it might be slightly optimistic to immediately crown it with such glory, there’s no denying the little hot-hatch tries hard to make its big brother proud. 

While the standard Volkswagen Up is a wholesome value car, the fact it’s only available with a 59bhp engine or, in e-Up form, an electric motor, means it doesn’t necessarily appeal to any driver for whom driving excitement is a priority. The Up GTI, though, provides enough to escape from the city car class altogether; instead, it competes against mini hot-hatch rivals such as the Abarth 595 and Suzuki Swift Sport.

The GTI is available in three and five-door guises, and is powered by a 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine with 113bhp; that’s considerably down on the 127bhp offered by the Swift Sport or the 143bhp from the Abarth 595. But is that fact enough for the Up GTI to be dismissed as nothing more than a wannabe? Or, where having fun is concerned, are we looking at a cut-price alternative to the bigger, feistier Ford Fiesta ST or Honda Civic Type R?

Read to find out how the Up GTI fares against the competition. And, whichever new car you end up sold on, head to our New Car Deals pages for a hassle-free deal at a great price.


It’s hard not to be entertained by the cheeky little Up GTI. It’s chirpy little three-cylinder engine serves up just enough performance to be interesting, while its slick gearbox and precise, meaty steering allow you to make the most of its grippy chassis. A bargain price and low running costs appeal, although there are sharper, more involving hot hatches out there.

  • Gutsy turbocharged engine
  • Precise steering and grippy chassis
  • One of the cheapest hot hatchbacks you can buy
  • Lumpy ride around town
  • No real infotainment system
  • Low Euro NCAP rating

Performance & drive

What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is

Let’s begin with the heart of the Up GTI: its 1.0-litre 113bhp engine. When you consider that most three-cylinder turbo engines need to be worked like a washing machine on fast spin to get them going, this one’s a revelation. Okay, it's not as explosive as the Abarth 595’s, and it trails the Suzuki Swift Sport for outright power, too, but it has an impressive amount of shove from low revs. In fact you can pull away from a standstill in second gear if you’re feeling lazy, but there’s nothing lazy about the power delivery itself. The rev counter needle zips readily round to the red line; something that's made a real pleasure by the three-cylinder’s cheekily (albeit digitally enhanced via the car’s speakers) chirpy engine note.  

On the move, the Up GTI will haul itself up a hill in third gear from a little over 1000rpm. The standard six-speed manual gearbox’s well-spaced ratios play a part in the Up GTI’s verve, while its slick gearchange, positive clutch action and progressive brakes make it feel more refined than anything that’s based on a city car has the right to be. Wind and road noise aren’t overbearing at speed, either.

Now, the Volkswagen Up has always been a tidy-handling thing in regular form; with sports suspension that drops the ride height by 15mm, the GTI feels even more tenacious. It puts its power down with good effect, changes direction sweetly and hangs on gamely through bends like the jaws of a Jack Russell on its prey. When it comes to dynamics, the car wipes the floor with the Abarth 595 and runs the more expensive Swift Sport pretty close.

If you’re still hoping for some of that Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI’s spirit, the Up GTI lacks the last layer of polish to be considered an equal to its illustrious forebear. Sure, its steering possesses good gearing and weight, but little in the way of feel. However, for a car costing less than half as much as a Honda Civic Type R, that’s absolutely no disgrace, and, by dint of its small proportions and vivacious character, the Up GTI is still good fun to drive.

Although the Up GTI’s ride is pretty cushy by hot hatch standards, it’s not as comfortable as the regular Up; stiffer suspension and bigger 17in wheels mean the GTI doesn’t take the edge off sharp intrusions as adroitly, particularly over scruffy town roads, and passengers will sway in their seats a bit as a result. In comparison, a Swift Sport controls its body movements more tightly at little cost to passenger comfort, but an Abarth 595 is a real boneshaker in comparison.

Volkswagen Up GTI 2020 rear cornering


The interior layout, fit and finish

The first thing you’ll notice when you climb inside the Up GTI is its iconic tartan upholstery – another nod to that original Volkswagen Golf GTI. Those in the front get heated seats with manual adjustment and it’s easy to get comfortable, although the steering wheel only adjusts for height and not for reach, and can partially obscure the instrument dials if you don’t find the right angle. On the road, the seats could benefit from a bit more side support when cornering hard; those in the Suzuki Swift Sport are better in this regard. That said, the Up’s are wider and a bit more comfortable.

The front windscreen pillars can slightly obstruct your vision when negotiating a really tight and twisty road, but otherwise all-round visibility is as good as it gets in a modern car. The car’s boxy shape makes it a doddle to park, too, especially if you tick the box for the optional front and rear parking sensors that come in a pack with a rear-view camera.

It might only be a city car at heart, but it still manages to be stylish inside. The GTI is distinguished from lesser Ups by a sports leather-trimmed steering wheel with red stitching, and red patterned dashboard facings. Even though all the plastics are hard, they look pleasant and feel sturdy, and the the exposed body-coloured metal door tops look distinctive.  The Up GTI is certainly far more appealing inside than the dingy Swift Sport. 

The dashboard itself is simple and easy to get to grips with – there are few switches beyond those for the ventilation and radio, and all are easy to reach. It’s seriously let down by lacking a real infotainment system, though. Both the Swift Sport and the Abarth 595 come with a touchscreen infotainment system, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring. In the absence of all this tech, the Up GTI instead gives you a smartphone dock on top of the dashboard, with USB, Bluetooth and AUX-in connectivity, together with a small 5.0in colour screen for menus such as radio stations or track listings, and, if so-equipped, to display the rear-view camera picture. 

The idea is that Volkswagen’s selection of integrated apps effectively make your smartphone the hub of the car’s infotainment system, but we imagine most users will just use their phones’ native music and navigation apps rather than go through Volkswagen’s alternatives.

Volkswagen Up GTI 2020 RHD dashboard

Passenger & boot space

How it copes with people and clutter

In the context of larger hot hatches such as the Honda Civic Type R, of course the Up GTI has less space overall, but compared with the tiny Abarth 595, it’s more than roomy enough for everyday driving, and the five-door model offers easy access to the front and rear seats. 

In the front, there’s plenty of head room for tall adults and leg room is still equally generous., and, thanks to the boxy exterior shape, space isn’t too shabby in the rear, either; there's nearly as much room as there is in a Suzuki Swift Sport and much more than an Abarth 595 can offer. That means two six-footers can just about get comfortable behind a couple of beefy occupants sitting in the front. Storage space is also generous, with wide, deep door pockets and a single cupholder located centrally at the bottom of the dashboard. The glovebox itself isn’t much cop, though.

Where the Up GTI really scores over the 595 is its boot. With the rear seats in place, it has less space than the Swift Sport – the Up can hold three carry-on sized suitcases while the Swift will take four – but fold the seats down and there’s a huge 951 litres of space. That’s not far off the space offered by the Volkswagen Polo. With the seat folded, there’s a sizeable step in the extended boot floor, but simply lifting the standard dual-height boot floor to its higher setting helps to level this out.

Volkswagen Up GTI 2020 RHD rear seats

Buying & owning

Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is


The Up GTI is one of the cheapest routes into hot-hatch ownership, costing about the same as the entry-level Abarth 595 and less than a Suzuki Swift Sport. However, the 595 gets considerably more expensive depending on which version and spec you go for, while the Up GTI allows you to add some inexpensive options as you choose. It’s also very cheap on a monthly PCP finance deal. 

What do you get for your money, then? A reasonable amount of kit, as it happens, including air conditioning, heated front seats, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, interior ambient lighting, electric front windows and front foglights. You also get bespoke 17in alloy wheels that fully fill the arches, plenty of GTI badging, distinctive red exterior detailing and tinted windows to set this apart from other Ups.

Running costs are unlikely to spoil your fun; in our tests it managed an impressive 45.7mpg on a mix of roads, making it more economical than the Swift Sport in the same test – it returned 43.9mpg. Insurance is cheap for a hot hatch, too, and it’s also in a lower BIK company car tax bracket than the Swift Sport. 

In the 2019 What Car? Reliability Survey, the regular Up scored disappointingly compared with others in the city car class; the Hyundai i10 and Toyota Aygo were both more reliable, with the Fiat 500 – on which the Abarth 595 is based – finishing bottom of the table. Volkswagen as a brand finished 16th out of 31 manufacturers, below Toyota, Hyundai and Seat.

With a disappointing three-star rating from Euro NCAP, safety isn’t the Up’s strongest suit. Although you get lane-keeping assistance to help you stay between the white lines, you can’t add automatic emergency braking (AEB), even as an option. The Swift Sport, meanwhile, has AEB and plenty more safety kit as standard.

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Volkswagen Up GTI 2020 RHD infotainment