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We knew that the 2018 Volkswagen Up GTI was probably going to be the greatest car ever made last May. A year later, and after a week of driving it across Europe, I’m happy to confirm that the 2018 Volkswagen Up GTI is, in fact, the greatest car ever made forever and ever, amen.

It’s just a shame that you, an American (provided you are one) cannot own one. Sorry about that.

(Full Disclosure: Volkswagen very kindly lent me a 2018 Up GTI for a week in France, and also came to my rescue when the car blew a tire on the last day I was scheduled to drive it, which was more than I ever could’ve asked for.) 

One quick note before we begin: Volkswagen styles Up with an exclamation point at the end, like “up!,” which I actually love, but looks weird in writing. So I’m going to go with “Up.” It’s this attention to detail that I know you have come to rely on me for.

What is it?

It’s Volkswagen’s answer to the Fiat 500 Abarth, a three-cylinder beast that looks great, can navigate cities, highways, mountain passes, and (I’m assuming, though I didn’t do it) race tracks. It’s not coming to the U.S., but this car deserves to have its praises sung on our shores, and for our readers overseas. It’s that good!

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Specs That Matter

Here in America when we say GTI, we think of the Golf GTI, as it’s more commonly known in other markets. That differentiator is important because in places like Europe there are even smaller ones, like the Polo GTI and the Up GTI. The latter, the car reviewed here, is the smallest.

The car has a turbocharged three-cylinder engine just like its weaker sibling, the regular old Up, but engineers have somehow coaxed an additional 25 horsepower out of it, mainly by tweaking the fuel injectors and pistons, meaning the GTI version tops out at 114 horsepower, or more than enough for a car that weighs just 2,400 pounds. Still, on paper, the car is seemingly pretty slow, going from zero to 62 mph in 8.8 seconds, and topping out at a paltry 122 mph.

What I can tell you is that, despite those stats, which come straight from Volkswagen, the Up GTI just feels faster than that, perhaps because, since the car’s so light, it also feels insanely nimble.

The sole transmission offered, a six-speed manual, helps. It’s smooth and easy to work through, and, while it contains one more gear than is necessary (a five-speed manual, like the one the regular Up can come with, would’ve been just fine), I have no real complaints about the six-speed. It was fun on the highway to constantly downshift to fourth or third to get up to passing speed, before working your way back up to sixth again. It gives you something to do, and an excuse to make some noise with the engine.

What other upgrades do we get? Many of the usual performance things, like bigger, 17-inch wheels; a stiffer suspension (but not too so stiff as to be uncomfortable for daily use); and a stiffer anti-roll bar. The GTI also sits 0.6 inches lower to the ground, while the track is slightly wider than the regular. There’s a cheeky rear spoiler, which surely maximizes the downforce.

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What else? There are disc brakes up front, but, a bit surprisingly, drums in the back. Despite that, braking was assured. Here is a photo of the drums:

What’s Great

Let’s start with the sound. The sound in the cabin is genuinely good, a purring kitten at idle, a pleasing kitten roar with the pedal to the floor. Now, here’s where I tell you that the sound, like most cars these days, has been designed to be great, since what you’re hearing isn’t, exactly, what’s coming out of the ultra-quiet exhaust. No, it’s been artificially enhanced. That doesn’t mean you have to tell anyone that, including yourself.

The car is an acrobat, capable of doing almost anything you ask of it. Do you want to punch it, and pretend like you’re some kind of racing person? Sure, give it a go: That’s what I did in Monaco, where the walls for the Grand Prix had already been erected and, for a brief moment I hit the gas and felt like a real racing person.

But you expect that, since that’s what you get with a GTI. What I liked about this GTI, though, was how it excelled at everything else. It’s hill-start feature was, at first, a little quirky, but once you got the hang of it, did well in dicey restart areas, like being parallel parked on a hill. The car has cruise control, which is useful. The climate control features worked. The sunroof opened. The legroom up front was more than good enough for two humans.

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More important and better than all that is the Stop/Start System, which cut the engine when you were stopped and in neutral. I’ve used this feature in new cars with automatics and I’ve found that I completely hate it on those cars, mainly because there’s usually too much of a delay when you hit the gas before when you want to get moving again.

On the Up GTI, though, the system somehow made all the sense in the world. And the difference was the clutch. Depress the clutch, and the car starts up, and you’re good to go, and it was that small difference that made all of difference. The delay felt less significant since you were doing something while the engine once again fired up. Each stop and start felt like a new lease on life, and pressing the clutch was genuinely exciting, as if the pedal had somehow unlocked an entirely new use after all these years.

Also great, of course: the plaid. Man, more cars need plaid.

What’s Weak

There were no major bad things. I mean to say there was one major bad thing, and that was that the car I was testing, like many cars these days, did not come with a spare tire. That’s a fact I normally wouldn’t have given any thought to until one day, when I was driving in southern France, disaster ensued. I had gotten a flat.

That white bullshit is the useless mousse.
Photo: Erik Shilling

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Fine, I thought at first, this is 2018 and surely Volkswagen has included in the car the proper tools to fix the situation, at least temporarily, so that I may continue on my way and find a shop. And so I opened the fifth door, uncovered the carpet and found the well for the spare tire, though the tire itself wasn’t there. What was there instead was a mousse kit, which ended up being completely useless, though I was sure I’d followed the instructions closely.

Sad.
Photo: Erik Shilling

All of which is to say, do yourself a favor and get yourself a jack and a spare. When I got home to New York, and began telling colleagues what happened, their mousse reaction was universal: “Oh, yeah, that shit never works.” Ah. Hmm. I see now. A Volkswagen spokesman told me that all of their cars come with either a spare or the mousse. Fear the mousse.

My only other complaints about the car are less complaints than they are quibbles, and they might even be more cavils than quibbles. Take the Up GTI’s version of a shift light, which is a thing that appears in the dashboard suggesting when you should shift from a given gear to another gear, like from fourth gear to fifth gear, or from first gear to third gear, for example.

I appreciated the (possible) utility of this feature when it comes to saving fuel, but in practice it seemed to want to rush you up the gear ladder more swiftly than is recommended, or necessary. And, again, I’m assuming this exists for fuel economy reasons (already not bad at a combined 37 mpg in cities and on the highway), but you really don’t need to be rolling in sixth gear at 45 mph, as it would frequently suggest. Here is an impossibly fun car instructing you to drive as boringly as possible.

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What else? The back seat was tiny and would probably be uncomfortable for large-ish people like myself, though the four-door version, like the one I tested, is still probably superior to the two-door version. You’re not going to lose any performance, and, during everyday use, which this car is made for, you will appreciate the flexibility. You can also fold down the seats for more rear boot room, or not! For a week in Europe driving in various places, my lady and I found that it had plenty of space for two with luggage, though any more than that might have been pushing it.

Casual Driving

The Up GTI is excellent for city driving, has enough cargo space for regular living, and has a good amount of power. And not too much power, which would make it feel less fun and more tense, since any wrong move with the gas pedal might send you lurching into the car in front of you, or, worse, something living. The Up GTI is sensible with its power. It’s looking out for you.

Aggressive Driving

As we’ve noted, it’s not the quickest car on paper, but I promise you that that doesn’t really matter. The Up GTI bangs. It’s quick but not too quick. It’s fun without being too much fun. The handling was comfortable on turns, and the braking was reliable; you never felt in less than full control of the car.

Sometimes driving it reminded me of karting in the woods when I was a kid. There was something cheerily flippant about it, even at 35 mph. The Up GTI knows it’s not the fastest or the quickest off the line, but also knows that it’s stylish as hell. If you’re not having fun, then you’re doing it wrong.

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Value

The car I drove had all the bells and whistles, like cruise control and the sunroof, and would cost you £16,245 if you were buying it in Britain, or about $21,739. Which isn’t nothing, considering that the regular Up starts at £13,750, or about $18,400. Still, a similarly-equipped Fiat 500 Abarth would come in at just over $23,000 here in the U.S., so I’m declaring the Up GTI a winner on the cost front. It’s not cheap, but it’s not wildly expensive either, and $21,739 is reachable for your average broke-ish enthusiast.

Verdict

I guess you could argue that the Fiat 500 Abarth is saucier. The Abarth is definitely quicker and more powerful, but, consider, too, that the 500 Abarth is, at this point, played out. You see normals driving around in Abarths. It’s not the car’s fault, but in the category of tiny cars made in Europe that are quicker and more fun than they have any right to be, the Up GTI, pound for pound, is the new king.

It’s a shame that, for now, VW has no plans to bring the Up GTI to the States, probably because Americans are large and don’t appreciate or buy small cars to begin with. So that’s on us, really.

The 2018 Volkswagen Up GTI, though, is as pure and good as they come.

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