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(Pocket-lint) - Everyone remembers their first car. Old, a bit rubbish, really quite slow - right? First cars make you fond of them because they create powerful memories.

Which is an odd way of introducing the Volkswagen Up GTi. Which, we should add quickly, isn't rubbish or particularly slow. But it did rouse powerful memories: driving the fastest version of the Up reminds us immensely of our first car, in all the good ways.

We made new memories with this car, because we had fun when driving it. We went out with our mates. We laughed. We parked it without a care in the world (because it's so small). And - unusually for a modern car - we found it largely-free of modern car technology.

The Up GTi one we tested is priced around £14k. A lot for a small car, you say? We'd argue it's not a lot for what's on offer...

Our quick take

Is the Up GTi a very Pocket-lint type of car? It's hardly jammed full of tech, doesn't sport any driver-assistance tech, nor green credentials. The engine is pretty normal for the present day, really.

So, how come we like it so much? It's simple ­- the Up GTi delivers smiles per mile. It's hard not to form an emotional bond with it. Oh, and did we mention that on the motorway it'll actually do 50mpg? Therefore it should be cheap to run and we think for what it offers, it's pretty affordable. We loved being in it - and the way it looks. But most of all we loved driving it. 

It's that sort of car: one that makes people smile and seems perfect for our busy, hectic world and crowded spaces. And that's the reason why, the Up GTi's biggest problem, is that if you want one, you're looking at a few months on the waiting list in order to get hold of a new one. After a week with one, though, we think it's well worth the wait.

Volkswagen Up GTi review: Old school fun

Volkswagen Up GTi

4.5 stars - Pocket-lint recommended
  • Fun factor
  • Engine note
  • Great handling
  • Good value
  • Simplicity
  • Ride can be hard at times
  • Doesn’t have all the tech features

How to GTi your Up experience

Volkswagen is famous for inventing the GTi. It's a badge that became shorthand for the hot hatch. Generally theyr'e small, powerful, front-drive hatchbacks. Most people know the GTi as a Golf. More recently, there's been a Polo GTi, too. And VW has diversified from GTi (the 'i' standing for injection) into GTDs (diesels) and GTEs (electric-hybrids).

For the Up GTi, Volkswagen has made numerous tweaks to the suspension, added a set of really cool 17-inch alloys, attached some neat trim - including the GTi honeycomb grille and badges - and then plonked the signature and GTi checker-covered seats inside.

The Up GTi still makes do with a 3-cylinder petrol engine like its lesser siblings. It's just been uprated from 75bhp to produce 115bhp instead. And while that's still not a lot of power by modern standards, it's powering along a car that weighs less than a tonne - which is lightweight.

Back to basics 

Numbers are only half the story. The magic happens when you get in and start driving the Up GTi. The doors are light. The rev counter is tiny. There's no big touch screen, and, on first inspection, what appears to be a 1990s phone holder which isn't big enough for an iPhone X (closer investigation revealed we'd missed the hidden button on the back to make the holder spring open fully). 

The Up GTi starts by twisting a key in an ignition barrel. How quaint. And you'll be changing gears yourself, as there's no automatic option. Which is brilliant, because the Up's character is dominated by this infectious quality of making the most of the little it has, while involving you, the driver, in the action.

And because it's so little (by the standards of most modern cars, anyway) you can take liberties and chuck it around out of town, and whizz into gaps you wouldn't otherwise attempt to fit into when driving in the city.

The clutch is light, the gearchange is quick, and as you set off, the engine zings its way up through the rev range, making an appealing, fairly loud burring noise (like all 3-cylinder engines do). You can insert your own cliché about it sounding like half a Porsche 911 engine if you want (not that we'd go there, honest).

Bring on the fun

It's great to drive, but importantly for a car which might spend a lot of time in the city, it's easy to drive too. And because the Up is small, and its sides upright, it's really easy to see out of and place on the road. The rear end is dead upright, so even if it didn't have rear parking sensors (it does), you'd be able to reverse it into a space with ease, just by sight.

When you get going and really thrash the Up, the ride can get a bit hard and crashy - because the wheelbase is so short and the track (the width the wheels are apart) isn't wide. But we were pretty impressed on our sessions with the car on North Yorkshire's country roads.

It's joyful because you can drive it really hard without breaking the speed limit and because it communicates pretty well how it's going to behave in extremis. It's also unlikely to scare you because the stability control can't be switched off - so you can't get yourself into that much trouble.

The joy of it all is that you feel like you're going quite fast, but 115bhp isn't actually enough to see you into licence-losing speeds very often, if at all. Therefore, unlike many modern hot hatches which are now producing 300bhp, you can drive the Up GTi without being a reckless hooligan.

There's something really rewarding about this, because you're working with the Up to maintain momentum and taking the best line through bends, rather than relying on lazy power. The result is that there is something visceral. It makes you smile. It might even make you a better driver.

Simple pleasures

That simple and pleasant approach continues inside: the seats are nice to sit in, even if they are mounted a little high so you feel like you're sitting on rather than in the car; the speedo is big and easy to see; and there are enough features to keep you happy, without the overkill to distract. You get remote central locking, electric windows and airbags, digital radio, Bluetooth and a USB port.

You can then download VW's Maps and More App to run navigation, for free, on your phone. That's where that is-it-isn't-it holder of questionable size comes into play. Of course, it's actually better just to run Google Maps or Waze, because these are better than the VW system navigation at avoiding traffic.

But it's nice that you get a holder for your phone which positions it where you can see without taking your eyes too far off the road. And with the USB port on the top of dash, if you buy a short connector you needn't have a wire trailing all the way down the centre stack of the dashboard. Would it be better if the Up came with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto? That's debatable - it's hard to see what you'd really gain over this setup, because the Up doesn't have a touchscreen in its dash.

Our car also came with heated seats, parking sensors (£300 but bundled with cruise control) and five doors - all of which are options (the three door versions better positioned for those without kids we suspect). It also had a city emergency brake system (£380) and Beat Audio (£370) - the latter we'd be tempted to select, purely for the fact it upgrades the in-car system to eight speakers. 

Accommodating value

There's also reasonable space inside. We sat in the back where even six-footers can fit in. Kids and their car seats proved no problem too.

Even with four on board, the Up GTi didn't feel that limited. Despite the firm ride, out on the motorway it's a perfectly respectable place to while away time - the ride settles down and it's reasonably quiet with a 6-speed manual gearbox.

You'll find the boot won't accommodate much, but it's good for a few bags of shopping - and has a false floor which liberates a bit of extra space below. As a second car, or for a couple who could use the back seats for luggage come holiday time, we think it'd be just fine.

Is its £14k asking price good value? That's the crux of the question with the Up GTi. If you perceive value relative to space and size only, you'll think not. That also puts it in the ballpark of basic superminis like the Renault Clio, Ford Fiesta or Seat Ibiza - all of which are a lot more car; each being physically bigger and feeling a lot more grown up. But at the entry level of £14k, in those, you'll be stuck with the least powerful engine, and the basic spec. Interior and features, not to mention performance, won't match up to what you'll get in the Up GTi.

If you're looking at the Up GTi because of its performance mantra, it's better to compare to rivals like the Suzuki Swift Sport. The Swift is larger, but several grand more, while the sort-of comparable Renault Twingo GT is an oddball - much less fun to drive, with less power.

Given most people buy on finance deals these days, perhaps the real competition is from the new Fiesta ST. But that again is a lot bigger, a lot faster and around £5k more to buy, which probably translates to about quite a few quid extra on a monthly finance deal. We suspect it's the main rival to check out if you're considering an Up GTi because you love driving, though.

To recap

Small car, bigger engine is always a fun recipe, and although the Up GTi isn’t outright fast, it’s quick enough and lots of fun to drive. Great to look at, nice to sit in, and good value for what you get, it’s an old-school sort of car that takes you back to your first car by forming an emotional bond, and making you smile when you get behind the wheel.

Writing by Mike Lowe.