Volkswagen always gets some things right. Doors close with a thunk, interior materials and their layout are sensible and clear. The front seats are big, sweetly patterned, somewhere nearer flat than hugging, but the ergonomics are the sort of thing you don’t really notice – always a good sign – to the extent that you could comfortably replace your Golf or Passat company car with an Up and drive it without noticing most of the time, except there’s less behind you.
Our first drive, meanwhile, begins on some towny roads on the way out of an airport, during which the ride seems a curious mix of mostly absorbent but with occasional brittleness over sharper bumps: otherwise sensible suspension settings meet low profile tyres, you wonder. Those roads give way to some motorway driving, during which the stability is where it ought to be for a German car, with low wind and road noise levels too.
But it’s beyond those kinds of roads where life gets more interesting, and are where the Up GTI also feels very well suited; although, to be honest, mountain hairpins are great-looking but are rarely particularly exciting to drive. Few cars make them entertaining. A nicely judged brake pedal feel makes corner approach enjoyable in the Up, as does its light but extremely positive gearshift.
The throttle’s high for easy heel-and-toeing, though right-hand-drive cars might have better-spaced pedals. But really hairpins are all about braking, then turning but without challenging the chassis’ limit of lateral grip except at the front, waiting a lot, and then getting into a winding-off of lock versus application of throttle compromise, and visibility is usually terrible too. As a scientific endeavour it’s fine, but it takes a pretty special car to make bends like that exciting, and one usually driven by the other pair of wheels.
It’s in faster corners where chassis get to show what they’re capable of, where you can load them up and where both front and rear wheels come into play and where, when there’s enough lateral grip, the steering takes on some weight and tells you what it’s doing beyond just understeering under power while you try to get the car straight.
The Up GTI is really good on roads like these. The pliancy you feel at lower speeds doesn’t relate to a loss of body control – because there’s only a lightweight body to control, I suppose – while the relatively modest width of the tyres delivers grip to an ‘about right’ level. The performance does too: you can use what performance it has without irritating other people.
The GTI’s steering is accurate, quick and gathers useful weight, so even though it doesn’t bristle with feel, it’s rewarding, while the chassis’ inherent balance is pleasing too. Eventually, you’ll find understeer if the corner’s clear enough and you’ve gone looking for it, but mostly you’ll just have fun, driving up to sensible limits that are a similarly equal level of its and yours and the road’s, at a giggly and entertaining, rather than sweaty-palmed, pace.
The engine and ’box lend itself to this kind of driving too. There’s no dual-clutch option at this price, but you won’t be so busy or surly that you can’t be bothered to shift yourself. There’s a little lag at low revs, despite peak torque arriving at 2000rpm. I don’t doubt that it does arrive then – but down there you need to ask for it a second before it really gives it to you. A sound symposer adds to the three-cylinder’s thrummy soundtrack, which has been made more sporting than I expected, with a bit more rort on the way to the soft rev limiter.