Volkswagen GT Up! concept review
Summary: The turbocharged VW GT Up! will next year become a reality: the concept we drive suggests it's one to look forward to, but VW should also call in its hot hatch masters to help polish the handling.
We like: enticing potential, concept car's styling pack, turbo torque, inbuilt quality, staggering fuel economy
We don't like: handling not fully honed, power figure won't grab headlines, potential to be more expensive than you expect
Officially, this new Volkswagen city car hot hatch is a prototype. Unofficially, it's an early preview of the GT Up! arriving towards the end of 2013. With a new turbocharged engine giving it the same power-to-weight ratio as the original Golf GTI, its appeal is clear.
In principal, the Up! GT is a simple stylish extension of the Up! range, with more power and torque from a fruiter turbocharged engine. However, since VW's hot hatch people have famously rediscovered their mojo, the inevitable wish is that it's so much more besides. It is, after all, the spiritual successor to the VW Lupo GTI.
The car we drove was shorn of the sporty bodykit worn by the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show concept. Again, VW has not decided a final look for this, but the show design is so inch-perfect, there's no need to change anything in our eyes. Key to it is the new front bumper housing big trapezoidal air intakes at the front, plus spoiler and diffuser at the rear.
There are also twin exhausts, big 17-inch alloys and suitably lowered suspension. With Golf GTI-style tartan hip-hugging seats and a soft leather version of the trademark flat-bottom Golf GTI steering wheel fitted to all Up!, it possesses the right ingredients. But does it perform like a baby GTI on the road?
The GT Up! concept uses a turbocharged version of the three-cylinder 1.0-litre engine that was designed afresh for the Up! range. Producing 110hp, it's not quite GTI-spec on paper: after all, the old Lupo GTI 1.6-litre boasted 125hp. What's key here is its 129lb ft of torque.
Such hefty pulling power gives the GT Up! a real feeling of muscle, particularly as it's developed from just 1,500rpm and carries on flat to 3,500rpm. This makes it a quick car not in high-rev vim, but in overall response (an effect reinforced by its light 960kg kerbweight).
In the city, the lag-free engine is very effervescent and surges easily for gaps. At higher speeds, it's also eager, such is its muscle. But aurally, it's odd. The basic Up!'s offbeat, Porsche 911-style three-cylinder engine note gains a welcome meaner edge. However, this was masked in the test car by a ridiculous turbo induction rush. It sounded like a loose hose on a vacuum cleaner.
The GT Up! uses a six-speed gearbox from the Polo, fitted to handle the car's substantially greater torque (+84 per cent!) over standard. It's OK but a bit slack, and the ratios should be sportier. Sixth feels like an eco overdrive and, unlike the Lupo GTI, there's not much snappy vibrancy going up through the ratios.
Ride and handling
Volkswagen is assessing several suspension setups. The one we drove is apparently being driven by engineering boss Dr Ulrich Hackenberg (indeed, this is his car). It's a decent start but isn't quite sporty enough. Volkswagen needs to do more for this to be a genuine hot hatch microcar.
Encouragingly, the suspension is slightly stiffer, giving better body control, and it's a very confident car to fling about. Steering is clean, composure is fuss-free and overall confidence levels are high. The short nose gives an impression of mass-free turn in too, and the driver draws lots of satisfaction from the car's lithe front end.
However, body roll needs to be cut, the rear end needs to be stiffer for genuine dart-about agility and the steering needs more firmness. Frankly, the base car is so well sorted, it can handle a more sporting makeover than this. If it looks as sharp as the concept style suggests, this middle-ground setup will be a letdown.
The test car ran on weedy 15-inch wheels: Volkswagen is still working on the technicalities behind fitting 17-inch wheels. It is a tight fit, we were told, but the engineers are hopeful. They are also weighing up whether rear disc brakes are necessary. Currently drum brakes are fitted, which are 'borderline' during hard, high-temperature use.
Tartan hip-hugging bucket seats, black rooflining and lots of high-gloss piano black detailing send all the right hot hatch messages inside. This is an interior straight from the Volkswagen hot hatch guide book, and feels very convincing even in this supposed concept form.
The reality is that it's all but ready for production. The design of the blue-accented tartan is authentic, the soft leather flat-bottom steering wheel is inch-perfect, there are even alloy pedals and a leather gearlever gaiter. It looks very sophisticated and upmarket.
There's no less space in the back despite the extra bolstering of the front seats, but it's not a big factor as it's less likely to carry passengers. This means the fact it's even darker and gloomier than the normal car won't be an issue either: the black rooflining really soaks up the light...
One detail we really love is the layout switcharound for the dials. The rev counter moves to the centre, taking a huge centre stage, with the speedo taking its space to the left. This Porsche 911-like detail is brilliant: VW has yet to decide if it can productionise it, alas.
Economy and safety
How production-ready is the GT Up!? Well, Volkswagen has fuel economy figures for it, showing how advanced the project is. They reveal it returns 62.7mpg, which is staggering when you remember both its performance and the average of its chief Renaultsport Twingo 133 rival: just 42.2mpg.
The GT Up! has all the standard safety features of the regular Up!, a five-star Euro NCAP model. Given its high-end status, it may also get Volkswagen's clever city emergency braking system as standard. This ingenious system, a deserved Euro NCAP innovation award winner, uses lasers to scan the road ahead, even bringing the car to a complete stop at speeds below 30mph.
The MSN Cars verdict
The VW GT Up! is potentially brilliant. The standard car is exceptional and, with a torquey turbocharged engine and bodykit as inch-perfect as the concept car, it could be a much more well-rounded alternative to the raucous Renaultsport Twingo.
Not yet though. Our early prototype drive revealed its clear talents but also showed the bits VW needs to refine in order to reveal its true potential. Here's hoping they are doing so right now: the GT Up! possesses all the trappings of a classic Golf GTI lite.
|Need to know|
|Engines, petrol||1.0-litre three-cylinder TSI turbo|
|Torque, lb ft||129|
|Top speed, mph||121|
|CO2, g/km||100 (est)|
|Scorecard||Out of 5|
|Ride & handling||3|
|MSN Cars verdict||4|
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