VW Up GTI long-term test: the seven-month verdict

Published: 19 August 2019

► CAR's long-term VW Up GTI
► It's been our little pocket rocket
► Check out our monthly reports

Month 7 of our VW Up GTI long-term test: the conclusion

You might think this is a case of coveting thy neighbour's horseless carriage. You might be right. JVW has been a no ifs, no buts blast to drive over these seven months, a piece of tartan-upholstered cake to live with and, I believe, one of the biggest performance bargains of recent years. But if it were actually mine, I'd want to start doing a few things to improve it.

I'm not alone; I've seen countless forum posts from owners and prospective buyers pondering what upgrades they could undertake to make their Up GTI a little more potent in one way or another.

That's why, just as my Up GTI is about to return to its home planet, I rope in Milltek Sport's wild child for a back-to-back comparison.

This dinky cube of white-hot fury is the performance exhaust brand's demonstration vehicle, built to show off its performance-enhancing and noise-liberating wares. But, along with the cat-back sport system, this car also happens to run on KW adjustable coilovers, have OZ wheels shod in Nankang NS-2R trackday tyres and a remap from JBS, upping power and torque to 145bhp and 173lb ft. Oh, and some truly gorgeous bespoke bucket seats from Cobra. Excluding the bespoke wrap, a five-door Up GTI with these would still cost less than £20,000.

Milltek Up GTI side pan

Quite the modification cocktail, then. And, together, they make quite a difference. The power upgrade not only makes the GTI punch harder but also makes the top end less breathless. KW's coil-overs coupled with the bucket seats allow for near-flat cornering with confidence, and Nankang's sport compound lets you put all of the power down without waking up the traction control – something that happens more often than is welcome when you're setting a fast (and imaginary) lap time on your morning commute. It's a much more serious car to drive hard but a more rewarding one, too.

New rubber would go straight on to my personal modifications list. There it would be joined by Milltek's Road+ exhaust. I'd probably avoid the blue titanium finish on Milltek's demo car, but it sounds proper. In low gears, it pops and bangs like a Hyundai i30 N or Mercedes-AMG A35, while the midrange gives you the impression you're thrashing a cube-shaped 718 Cayman. Coupled with the Up GTI's controversial Soundaktor enhancement inside (which I like, but plenty don't), the system adds a real sporty edge externally that a GTI deserves. Even one with a tiny three-pot engine.

Overall, Milltek's demo car is quite an achievement. Yes, the suspension is firmer and it's louder, but the blend of modifications is very tasty, and proof that you can do some serious tweaks without it costing the earth.

Milltek Up GTI seats

What about the standard one after seven months of ownership? Well, I have quite the replacement for it, but even so I'll miss the Up GTI. No other new car makes you smile so much for such little dosh. It also helps that it's a cinch to park, can fit four adults in comfort and looks suitably sporty. It's a fizzy, cheeky, accessible-to-anyone entry into the world of hot hatches, and you can use all of its performance all of the time. How many other new sports cars can you say that about?

Thinking of buying an Up GTI? Do it. I promise you won't regret it.

By Jake Groves

Logbook: VW Up GTI 3dr

Price £14,055
As tested £15,230
Engine 999cc 12v turbo 3-cyl, 113bhp @ 5000rpm, 148lb ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 8.8sec 0-62mph, 122mph, 129g/km CO2 
Miles this month 774
Total 6729
Our mpg 42.9
Official mpg 58.9  
Energy cost 13.4p per mile

Count the cost: VW Up GTI depreciation

Cost new £15,230
Private sale £9,155
Part-exchange £8,650
Cost per mile 12.7p
Cost per mile inc. depreciation £1.12


Month 6 living with a VW Up GTI: would you like fries with that?

VW Up GTI interior

I spend way too much time at drive-thru fast-food places. I guess I'm taking advantage of my youthful metabolism while I still have it, but also because it's so easy to swing the GTI around their tight car parks.

The flash alloys, racing side stripes and fat spoiler mean I fit in with the irritatingly-younger-than-me drivers and their modified hatchbacks taking up parking spaces in the post-twilight hours.

Then when I'm finished, the Up just eggs me on to chuck it down some dual carriageways and roundabouts with its gargly soundtrack and boosted triple. It's just so cheeky, making me act like a total yob on the simplest of drives. It would get slapped with an ASBO if it had a fartier exhaust.

By Jake Groves

Logbook: VW Up GTI 3dr

Price £14,055
As tested £15,230
Engine 999cc 12v turbo 3-cyl, 113bhp @ 5000rpm, 148lb ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 8.8sec 0-62mph, 122mph, 129g/km CO2 
Miles this month 606
Total 5955
Our mpg 44.4
Official mpg 58.9  
Energy cost 12.7p per mile


Month 5 living with a VW Up GTI: candle, meet jam jar

The Up GTI's headlights are little better than candles in jam jars. A weak dipped beam is the most obvious flaw in day-to-day (or rather night-to-night) driving. High beam is marginally better, but it's very slow to respond to the stalk. That's particularly noticeable when you're flashing the headlights, either to thank someone for giving way or when encouraging them to pull out. There's so much delay that you wonder if you should pull it again.

VW Up GTI headlight

So it's all the more unexpected that the foglights (standard on the GTI) are very good. They came in very handy when a peasouper reduced visibility to barely beyond the Up's stubby nose. They cut through like a knife through butter.

By Jake Groves

Logbook: VW Up GTI 3dr

Price £14,055
As tested £15,230
Engine 999cc 12v turbo 3-cyl, 113bhp @ 5000rpm, 148lb ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 8.8sec 0-62mph, 122mph, 129g/km CO2 
Miles this month 1243
Total 5349
Our mpg 52.7
Official mpg 58.9  
Energy cost 13.1p per mile

Month 4 living with a VW Up GTI: phone to the rescue

Up GTI LTT dashboard

Remember Maps & More? It was a portable nav system Up buyers used to be able to get as an option until 2016. After that, VW made M&M an app instead as so many folks have big smartphones now. But why bother, when phone users (i.e. all of us) already have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto at their disposal?

The Up's absence of any infotainment has provided the perfect prompt to immerse myself in Android Auto. It's mostly great: easier access to my Spotify playlists or podcasts, a choice of Waze or Google Maps for nav, and Google's Assistant for reading out messages, to which I can then voice-dictate a reply – even on WhatsApp. Handy for a switched-on millennial.

By Jake Groves

Logbook: VW Up GTI 3dr

Price £14,055
As tested £15,230
Engine 999cc 12v turbo 3-cyl, 113bhp @ 5000rpm, 148lb ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 8.8sec 0-62mph, 122mph, 129g/km CO2 
Miles this month 823
Total 4106
Our mpg 44.7
Official mpg 58.9  
Energy cost 13.1p per mile


Month 3 living with a VW Up GTI: our car vs The People

Up GTI vs the people header

It’s one thing for a car to be great on a press launch. And it’s another thing to wow us over the six months or so of a magazine long-term test. But to stand up to the scrutiny of three hard-to-impress CAR readers – well, that’s something quite separate. But that’s the treatment we’re giving to the VW Up GTI, subject of this first in a new series where our test cars get examined by three different members of the great British car-buying public, each with his or her own perspective and agenda.

The Up GTI certainly did hit the spot on that launch. It involved a combination of heavy traffic in Monaco and Nice, and some rally-spec roads nearby. It could have backfired horribly for a lesser car, but VW’s confidence was vindicated. This little three-pot cube of torque and tartan was brimming with pure driving pleasure, but could also cope just fine with congestion. And more recently, running an Up GTI as a long-term test car has provided twice-daily pleasure, and excelled on some longer journeys too. We know it’s not perfect, but it’s universally liked in the CAR office. Now, however, it’s time for the GTI to meet folk from outside the inner circle of the CAR team.

They are Lawrence Cheung, hot hatch owner and Japanese car fan; youthful classic-car enthusiast Aaron McKay; and walking VW Group encyclopaedia, dealer and modifier Andrew Chapple, the Volkswizard himself. Three interested parties with three differing outlooks.

Meet the people

Lawrence Cheung, the hot hatch aficionado

Lawrence Cheung

As the keeper of two heroic hot hatches (a current Ford Fiesta ST and Honda Civic Type R EP3), Lawrence sets the bar very high. Does the Up even register on his radar?

Aaron McKay, the classicist

Aaron McKay

A self-described ‘old car guy’ despite his youth, Aaron owns a Mk1 Ford Focus. Can spot a phoney at 1000 paces. Will the Up pass muster?

Andrew Chapple, the VW disciple

Andrew Chapple

Andrew Chapple, of VW sales-specialist Volkswizard, knows his hot VWs inside out and owns an Up GTI – but, intriguingly, is selling his. What gives?

Our people meet the Up GTI

The powertrain immediately finds favour. McKay says that the 999cc turbocharged triple sounds quite exotic. ‘I like how it’s not just exhaust noise – there’s a bit of turbo whoosh and a bit of valvegear action. It makes you want to change gear more, just to play with the notes. With a snappy gearchange, you change for the sake of it, dancing on the pedals even though you’re just driving between 20 and 40mph.’

There’s general agreement that the Up is pretty well proportioned: a wheel in each corner, boxy but not too tall. And it has the right sporty details. ‘This is definitely the best colour for it,’ says Cheung. ‘Plus, I’d never seen one in three-door form until now. It looks so much better than the five-door silver one I tried once – that rear window line makes a big difference.’ They’re all pleasantly surprised that there’s something resembling room in the back: better than the Up’s ancestor, the Lupo, Cheung observes.

But the cabin could be better, even within the restrictions imposed by its size. McKay can’t abide the fat plastic dash cover: ‘That panel on the dashboard is probably the worst bit about the interior. It’s the opposite of what I like about the door panels, where VW quite rightly decided that not everything needed covering with trim.’ And the instruments make curious use of space, with a ludicrously large fuel gauge that could easily be cut in half to make way for a coolant gauge that would tick a retro hot-hatch box.

Andrew Chapple interior

My main negative about the Up GTI has always been its fidgety ride. ‘It just never feels tied down’, says Chapple. ‘It wasn’t quite as sharp as I thought it would be with a footprint this small,’ says Cheung. But McKay sees an upside: ‘The Up is like a beginner’s GTI, and the lack of composure could be a good thing if it’s your first performance car. The traction control might interfere, sure, but you can feel like you’ve got some drama to enjoy.’

From his experience as an Up GTI owner, what would Chapple change? ‘My advice would be to change the tyres straight away. VW’s eco tyres were a big mistake, but with WLTP emissions regulations coming in this was the first car that was tested. The engineers may have said “nein” but the bosses had no choice but to say “ja’’. You can get a great compound from Pirelli, but most tyre makers have a better one – just avoid Goodyear.’

That’s exactly what’s sitting on the standard 17-inch ‘Oswald’ wheels of our car. Those wheels are a key feature of the package that turns an Up into an Up GTI, along with sports springs, bigger front brakes with red calipers, heated seats and black exterior detailing. Our car has  £1175 of extras, including the combination of black roof and Tornado Red paint, the City Emergency Braking pack, automatic lights and wipers, Beats audio and the Cruise and Park pack.

Why is Chapple in the process of selling his? It’s not because he hasn’t enjoyed owning it since May 2018. ‘I’m moving house,’ he explains, ‘so I’m going to be doing a lot more miles. It would basically kill the value if I stuck a load of miles on it.’

VW Up GTI front cornering

So there are more negatives and more room for improvement than I’d figured out for myself. But our trio all really like the Up GTI and can’t suggest any showroom-fresh alternatives that provide similar performance and fun for the money. 

‘For less than £15k I don’t think there’s anything new that comes anywhere close, let alone better,’ says McKay. ‘That’s midrange Nissan Micra money. It’s a very impressive package for how much it is.’

Chapple adds: ‘Of course, you have to accept a degree of compromise. But a Lupo GTI today would be about £20,000. That gave you wide arches and aluminium panels but, as a driver’s car, it wasn’t very good.’

What about hot-hatch diehard Cheung? ‘As a new car, it’s great for the price and far more interesting than the Polo GTI. The biggest problem I would face is that I’d look at a secondhand Fiesta ST for that money.’

By Jake Groves

Logbook: VW Up GTI 3dr

Price £14,055
As tested £15,230
Engine 999cc 12v turbo 3-cyl, 113bhp @ 5000rpm, 148lb ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 8.8sec 0-62mph, 122mph, 129g/km CO2 
Miles this month 907
Total 3283
Our mpg 45.8
Official mpg 58.9  
Energy cost 13.2p per mile


Month 2 living with a VW Up GTI: a little adventure

The Up went on a little competitive getaway with our Suzuki Swift Sport deep within Thetford Forest to see which is the more fun car. You can check out that full report here.

By Jake Groves

Logbook: VW Up GTI 3dr

Price £14,055
As tested £15,230
Engine 999cc 12v turbo 3-cyl, 113bhp @ 5000rpm, 148lb ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 8.8sec 0-62mph, 122mph, 129g/km CO2 
Miles this month 1535
Total 2376
Our mpg 55.2
Official mpg 58.9  
Fuel this month £109.80  
Extra costs None


Month 1 living with a Volkswagen Up GTI: hello!

Up GTI hello

I’ve been looking forward to getting into this – can you tell? That big grin on my face should be enough of a giveaway. As our long-term Nissan Leaf leaves my care and enters the dapper embrace of Ben Whitworth, I’m buzzing at the prospect of six months with the VW Up GTI. I drove it on the press launch last winter and have been figuring out ways to get one into my life ever since.

The stars aligned and here we are with an Up GTI, built exactly to my specification. I rarely use the back seats of any car, so going for the three-door was a given. An all-black look was considered, so the red detailing would stand out, but I’d be hated from here to Hanoi by our photographers, because black rarely works well on the printed page, and in any case the Tornado Red with black roof combo (£125) looks equally tasty. The City Emergency Braking pack (£380) comes with automatic lights and wipers, and I ticked the Cruise and Park pack (£300) box mainly for the cruise control – useful for my regular trips to Tyneside – rather than the parking sensors, which really aren’t necessary on a car this small and with such good visibility. I couldn’t resist the excellent Beats audio system (£370), which is a nice fit for my habit of blasting bassy house at deafening levels almost all the time when driving.

VW Up GTI interior

Those extras are on top of a very well sorted basic package. The Up GTI comes with a series of improvements over any other Up: sports springs, bigger front brakes with red calipers, tasty 17-inch alloy wheels and heated seats. At the front, the grille looks meaner. At the side, the rear windows are tinted. At the back, there’s a black diffuser and chromed tailpipe. Oh, and there’s that peach of an engine: 999cc, three cylinders, one turbocharger, 113bhp and an excellent power-to-weight ratio.

How is the day-to-day reality matching up to those sky-high expectations? Put it this way: I regularly take the Up home instead of far more powerful/expensive/luxurious metal that’s available in the office car park. On the few occasions when I’ve been separated from it, I find I really miss the GTI. When I’m in the office I keep coming up with all sorts of flimsy excuses for taking it out at lunchtime. Whatever the journey, every slip road and every roundabout becomes an opportunity to squeeze the most out of a sweet fruit. So yeah, it’s going well.

VW Up GTI badge

Not everything is rosy. The lack of steering wheel reach adjustment is irksome. The seats are crying out for thicker bolsters. And on some roads the ride feels too firm. And you can’t turn off the traction control. Still, I’ve got a plan for the next few months: keep a tight grip of the GTI steering wheel, revel in the gargly triple’s mid-range pull, and don’t come back until the brakes smell. 

Logbook: VW Up GTI 3dr

Price £14,055
As tested £15,230
Engine 999cc 12v turbo 3-cyl, 113bhp @ 5000rpm, 148lb ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 8.8sec 0-62mph, 122mph, 129g/km CO2 
Miles this month 741
Total 841
Our mpg 41.7  
Official mpg 58.9  
Fuel this month £109.80  
Extra costs None

Check out more of our long-term test reports

By Jake Groves

CAR's staff writer, office Geordie, gamer, lover of hot hatches

Comments