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Power to the people’s car: Volkswagen Up and Polo GTI


If you worship at the altar of the Volkswagen hot hatch, the Golf GTI is your likely deity. However, in 2018, there are a pair of other paths, too

It’s 1976. Volkswagen launches a car with no precedent. The Golf GTI creates a new sector, the hot hatchback. Credited as partly responsible for the demise of the traditional two-seater sports car in the 1970s, it was immediately a hit, and 42 years later it’s an icon which is still with us.

Polo gTI

Knowing it was onto a good thing, VW let the Golf GTI have things largely all its own way for a whole two decades. Yes, there had been flirtations along the way with the Scirocco GTI and, shockingly, even a Passat GTI concept (both initially with the first-gen GTI’s 110bhp engine). But, in 1998, VW introduced the smallest member of the family yet.

The first Polo GTI was limited to 3,000 units and socked a 120bhp punch to the contemporary – and baggy – new Mk 4 Golf GTI. There had been warmed-over Polos before of course, the 113bhp G40 Coupé being the most notable, but the third-gen model was the first to muscle in with a GTI badge. Sadly, while fun, the junior GTI wasn’t perhaps as focused as it could be, and while it wasn’t difficult to give a hiding to its bigger brother in those wilderness years of the late 1990s, even a modest upgrade to 125bhp in 1999 left critics wanting more.

In 2000, VW delivered a baby GTI in the shape of the Lupo, and, as with the Polo before it – whose engine it used – inevitable comparisons were drawn with the sharp-creased Mk 1 Golf of 24 years before. A weight-saving diet using aluminium body panels and thinner steel and glass allowed the sub-1,000kg Lupo to scamper enthusiastically to 62mph in just under a fun-filled eight seconds, and immediately score approval from even the most hard-nosed non-believer.

Lupo GTi

The lithe Lupo was killed off in 2005 after gaining a six-speed ‘box, but the Polo GTI has seen power grow to 148bhp, 178bhp, and most recently, 189bhp, ruling the roost as the smallest VW GTI. The latest hot Polo has 197bhp, is based on the new sixth-gen car, and debuted last autumn with the first UK deliveries imminent.

GTI red

So far so enticing, but, with prices kicking off at £21,520, it’s pricier than the Mk 4 Golf it left with a bloodied nose back in the 1990s. No need to worry, though, because there’s a new Lupo GTI, except this time it’s called the Up. With a 113bhp package that starts at only £14,055, it also comes with the option of the traditional GTI three doors as opposed to the Polo’s family-friendly five, as well as a boot-full of group test victories and awards behind its dark glass tailgate (which very loosely mimics the Mk 1 Golf GTI’s black rear window mask, don’t you know).

Door number and gong trawl aside, though, which is it to be: Up or Polo GTI? While both of these new small sportsters will largely see service peppily threading through the urban sprawl, and stretching their legs on tree and hedge-lined country twisties, a brief on-track comparison is as good as any place to start. And on the starting line the size difference becomes very apparent: the 1,070kg Up GTI almost dwarfs that legendary 810kg Mk 1 Golf GTI, while the 1,335kg Polo has grown to the size of a Mk 4 Golf. In terms of capturing the original GTI ethos, it’s first blood to the Up.

Outside, too, the Up GTI plays on heritage more than the Polo. While both wear the iconic red grille stripe with a modern twist, the Up has so enthusiastically daubed on the Mk 1’s side stripe war paint, it enforces a double-take. Both feature gloss black spoilers and big wheels (‘Oswald’ 17-inchers on the Up, ‘Parker’ rims on the Polo), but, as with previous iterations, the Polo appears more discreet, almost more apologetic. A-polo-getic even.

But, around the Ascari race circuit near Malaga, the Polo GTI proves that appearances can be deceptive. The vindaloo Polo feels the most engaging it’s ever been, with super-sharp turn in and seemingly never-ending grip. Volkswagen’s ‘XDS’ electronic differential slingshots it out of corners, and its punchy – and pleasantly burbly – turbocharged 2.0-litre engine delivers a sizzling, 320Nm torque-filled pace. The six-speed DSG gearbox is the only potential fly in the ointment, but a manual version is on the way. Volkswagen won’t make the same mistake as it did with the DSG-only 2010-2014 Polo GTI.

The German giant has played the same game again with its smallest GTI, though. But that’s good. The Up may be down on power to the Polo to the tune of 84bhp, but its lighter weight plays dividends. Scooting through Ascari’s 26 corners is childish, giggly fun, even if the hot Up feels slightly less interested in donning its tracksuit and runners than the Polo. In the right hands, though, it tenaciously hunts down apexes and sticks a little too close to our Golf R lead car.

Its turbo-ed sub-1-litre three-pot sounds rorty and raucous which is so manically appealing, and rowing up and down the manual gearbox is as much of a laugh as the now-traditional tartan seats (‘Jacara Red’ on the Up, plain old ‘Jacara’ on the Polo). And who cares that the spicier Up’s 8.8-second 0 to 62mph time is two seconds slower than the Polo’s, when it only costs two thirds as much? You have just as much fun surging along on the 200Nm wave of mid-range torque, which to be fair to its larger sibling, is one of the Polo’s sweet spots, too.

As is its interior. The most high-tech and upmarket Polo cabin yet – and the most colourfully amusing since the ‘6N2’ car of 1999-2001 – its glass infotainment screen and optional digital instruments lift the GTI’s ambience, also helped by its gently driver-angled centre console and dash, and certainly when splashed with a ‘Velvet Red’ insert. The Up shares the Polo’s steering wheel and de rigeur tartan pews, but has its own ‘Red 2D Pixels’ dash finisher.

Which to choose? That depends. The Up GTI has the more crackerjack personality, full of zesty spirit, and while the Polo plays its now-traditional more mature role – but with added driver appeal this time – it’s so close to the modern Golf GTI in all-round ability, the larger car needs to be looking over its LED-lit shoulders. But, thankfully, what both cars do, is manage the same trick as the god-like Golf. They both combine that holy GTI trinity of attainable practicality, performance and panache. Power to the people? You bet.