With cars becoming crazy powerful and increasingly heavy I've been yearning for something very simple and low powered for some time now. I've considered MX5's, GT86's and other such offerings but it was only recently that the very practical UP GTi really captured my imagination and compelled me to take the plunge.


This little car is so much fun and just gives you such a lovely array of sensations on every single drive. It's actually difficult to convey just how pleasurable it feels and how joyous it is to steer, even at a paltry 60 mph in a straight line. To put it another way, in it's own environment it's as much fun as any of the best cars I have ever owned or driven and has completely restored my faith in driving enjoyment in the south of England. A tall statement perhaps but it's all true and also proof that driving is driving, a small selection of sensations, a fairly simple recipe of input and output, a relationship of man to car to road. It is not goverened by price, horsepower or ring times, electronics, or forged carbon, 22" rims, or any of the other stuff we get bombarded with so much.


A small caveat first though. I am no stranger to lightweight or underpowered cars. In fact I have a singular fetish for the slow and also the ordinary. I recently owned a 2006 1.8 Mondeo for example and had an absolute blast in making it go fast. Extracting the maximum, trying to keep up, relying on driver skill rather than the greatness of a bunch of ctalented engineers is a huge pleasure to me. Your mileage may of course vary.



So why it's so good then ? Well firstly, unless you are used to a very small 1000kg city car on a daily basis then the compact footprint, ultra low weight, agility and half pint dimensions is an immediate novelty the moment you move off the driveway. The car feels flighty and light to the touch and very undemanding. It's doddle to steer with easy control weights, like a little effortless rollerskate.


Unlike the unflappable hot hatches of today though, the UP has dynamic limitations, flaws, foibles and lots of intrinsic personality imbuing it with a sense of the old school. First of all the springs are fairly soft so rather than the lightning quick damping and body control we expect these days, the shell moves around quite a bit on the suspension. This equals fun though and even the way the body flows over a typically undulating straight piece of British tarmac is a source of considerable pleasure.


If you are attacking the twisties and the surface is a little rough then things can sometimes actually get a bit too bouncy, something you actually need to keep an eye on, something you need to manage. You are also aware that the UP is a fairly skinny titchy thing and on occasion on the back roads you will go for the brake pedal prematurely for a confidence check. The UP GTi definitely has a little of the fear factor of the hatches of old; you can't just wind it up to 10 leptons in this thing in part because you know that any mishaps of any kind would end up very very messy.


Continuing the theme of 'management', the UP also doesn't have an infinite reserve of grip and it can sometimes really struggle for traction especially if the surface is less than perfect (very very much unlike the Golf R !). So if you were expecting an infallible 'grip and go' car then look elsewhere.


In a similarly imperfect fashion, in a straight line the UP can gently wander a little rather than tracking arrow straight so often requires small inputs not unlike an older 911. And finally, there's the power. There's basically not really very much of it so you can't just go around hyperspacing from one corner to the next, looking at a distant point on the road and then in a second or so, actually being there.


So the car clearly has a few flaws and some definite limits especially relative to the performance cars we are so used to these days. If you are sick of the merry go round of these ultra capable pieces of engineering (my Golf R was super boring after a few months) then none of these constraints will perturb you though. You will likely see them as morsels of colour and character, things to be conscious of and drive around, facets that will prompt a deeper exchange between you and vehicle. You can't just jump in this thing and hammer down a B road at an average of 85mph, you have to have a dialogue with the car and actually drive it and manage it to get the best out of it. The lack of grunt will also likely make you drive better, harder and with more momentum. There is much enjoyment to be had from the sense of building speed and pace in a car with such modest performance stats.



So we know that it has limitations. What about the positive standout points of the UP ? You'll be pleased to know that there are quite a few.


First of all VW have done a superb job on the motor. There's a sonic box of tricks somewhere under the dash but I don't really care because the 3 cylinder lump sounds genuinely fruity and engaging tone from the driver's seat. Not only that but it's a torquey little thing and whilst it revs happily and pulls nicely to the soft limit, a lot of the time low down power can be used to make good progress. 6th is an overdrive but even still, it's pretty effective for overtaking on the motorway and one needn't shift into 5th.


Although the UP is actually more capable and can be driven harder than it perhaps first appears, it is also a car that never really feels particularly slow. Some of this is the lack of inertia, the tiny size and the colour inherent in the chassis but some of it is probably down to the generous amount of torque on offer.


The gearchange is another plus. It's no Honda S2000 box but it's better than the Golf change and is genuinely pleasurable i'd say. It also falls to hand in the perfect place and on my test drive I found that I couldn't stop flicking between cogs. You will likely be doing a lot of the same in UP, it has a little of that intimate touch and feely ergonomics of an elise where your constant physical mumurrings on the pedals, gearlever and wheel are a complete delight. The compactness and spatial immediacy of all the controls makes the car feel engaging and driver centric.


Thirdly, this is a VW and that means teutonic quality and design, and sensible logical ergonomics. Although at the cheapest end of the catalogue there is still a feel of quality to the car as whole, from the physical interior to the general way it moves down the road. The dash is well built, the dials and infotainment superb, the wheel a delight and the iphone cradle / App setup works pretty well too (although I only ever display Waze). In motion the car's damping for the most part exudes the sophistication we have come to expect from a VAG product and the UP GTi has a robsutness and a basic rightness about it when moving along.


The brakes also seem rather decent. I've done a few really hard emergency stops and the car will come to a standstill in just a few metres; there really isn't a lot of mass to halt here. I will know more once she's been on circuit and down a few descending Alpine passes but for the moment, the brakes seem very good for a car of this type. There is also a fair bit of wiggle and squirm if you do brake hard and this is yet another source of enjoyment.


Despite what's been said in the press I would say that there is some adjustability in the car's attitude. As you would expect it will understeer if you go in too hot and an abrupt lift will rotate the car back round. It can be kind of fun but certainly more fun in the wet. You don't tend to induce much understeer mid corner or on exit however simply because there's either not enough power to provoke it or the traction control kicks in and you remain in a steady state.


The final strength of the UP I'd like to mention is its high speed stability. You'd think that a high sided, stubby wheelbase, lightweight car with a lot of bounce and a chattery chassis would not be so great at higher speeds but the first time I ever got the UP onto a Motorway and showed it's nose the horizon I was genuinely laughing out loud. Even flicking from one lane to the next and immersing yourself in the way the car moves around is a joy all by itself. At triple figures plus this car is very surefooted but also exhilirating !


The stability of the UP is impressive and bang up to date but as you'd expect with the bouncy spring rates there is a slight waywardness to the UP at high speed, like you're riding a hot hatch of old. It's an awful lot of fun and a real sense of not much physical car being there (just like a 205 GTi), but then take it through the M40-M25 sliproad, a very very fast downhill combination of 2 very high speed right handers and you will be suprised at the sheer speed you can carry in those fast sweepers and the amazing stability on offer from entry right the way through to exit. Although the little UP likes to jiggle and bounce and wiggle around a fair bit, the truth is it can actually be leant on very very hard and has incredible composure in the faster stuff.



Other more subjective pluses for me are the funky 'four corner' pocket rocket looks which I personally love and also the fact that the car has a decent slice of practicality. The boot opening is really rather large and when you fold the seats down you can get a really good amount of cargo in the back.


I've been to Hayling island in it and also up the M40 and back and it handled those 2 long journeys with aplomb. This may surprise you but I would have no hesitation in jumping in it and driving straight to the South of France. In fact I am going to do that very thing next month.


I also like the price. Mine came in at £14,600 with a couple of options. A rude amount of fun for such a small outlay.



I have two or negatives on the car. Firstly it's very hard to heel and toe. I've managed it a few times when braking very very hard but otherwise the throttle pedal is just way too low to accomodate blips.


Secondly, and perhaps a little more important, is the fact that there seems to be some very noticeable fore and aft play in the front suspension. Now whilst the damping is generally good - albeit quite harsh and unrefined on sharp smaller bumps - the front axle can sometimes feel rather ragged and loose. At first I was actually slightly concerned that this might have been a problem in say the top mounts or some of the bushings simply because we are not used to feeling this type of play in a car's suspension but I have since learnt that it's part and parcel of the car and it's best to ignore these sensations and just drive through them.


I wonder if attempting to lessen this movement in some way would actually detract from the driving experience and take away some of the fun ? It seems obvious that VW have engineered some fun into the chassis by not rendering it too capable and perhaps this movement felt in the front wheels is there for a reason ? Anyway, if you have any answers on this be sure to let me know.



So there you have it. Ignore the tiny price, the miniscule size and the puny power figure, this car is as enjoyable as any I have experienced. It's restored my faith in the ability to have fun on English roads and on everyday journeys and even the most basic trip to the shops is replete with so many nice sensations and the true essence of driving.


It's also suprisingly versatile. It does the city car thing extremely well of course but it's also fabulous on longer journeys as well; a few hours on the motorway keeps you thoroughly entertained. It's great on the twisty UK lanes and it could be good for a roadtrip and even the odd social trackday. I saw that RSR have just bought one as their cheapest Nurburgring hire car and it looked to give a fairly good account of itself around there in their video, even if it was decelerating up to Flugplatz and the Karussel !


As I touched upon, I will be taking her on a road trip to the Alps in September so will know more after that. It will be interesting to discover if we can keep up with a gaggle of Porsches and also find out just how convincing it is on a dedicated driving holiday so stay tuned. For the moment though, I can't keep out of the damm thing !



The Jackals Racetrack http://www.jackals-forge.com/lotus 1998 Richard Morris