Volkswagen had added some spice to the city car class with the sporty new Up GTI. The car it has to beat is the Abarth 595
*** Note : £1 = $1.39 (correct at time of post)
Abarth 595 1.4 T-Jet 145
- List price £15,510
- Target Price £15,510
Sharp styling and a potent turbocharged engine make this a desirable little hot hatch.
Volkswagen Up GTI 1.0 TSI 115 3dr
- List price £13,750
- Target Price £13,556
The new, most powerful Up variant allegedly harks back to the original Golf GTI of 1976.
Here’s a controversial statement for you: forget the 1980s and 1990s; the golden age of the hot hatch is right now. If you want a practical family car that’ll have you grinning like you’re trying to swallow a banana sideways, there has never been a better time to buy. Well, almost.
You see, while the Honda Civic Type R, Ford Focus RS and Mercedes-AMG A45 are some of the best hot hatches yet, the smaller, cheaper options are either currently not on sale (think Ford Fiesta ST and Suzuki Swift Sport, although new versions of both are just months away) or a bit underwhelming. Still, one car has continued to offer an affordable pocket rocket experience for the best part of a decade: the Abarth 595.
But this turbocharged terror might not have things its own way for long, because there’s a new challenger from the company that popularised the practical performance car in the first place: Volkswagen. For the first time, there’s a GTIversion of its smallest model, the Up.
Driving – Performance, ride, handling, refinement
Fire up either car and you’re treated to a fruity soundtrack, albeit one that’s enhanced by a speaker in the Up. There’s no trickery in the 595 – just a very vocal pair of tailpipes. We like the thrummy tunes of the Up’s 1.0-litre three-cylinder motor, but it’s the 595’s raspy note that will get your pulse beating faster.
And it’s not like the 595 is all mouth and no trousers, either. Its 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine gives it a 30bhp power advantage over the Up (143bhp to 113bhp), and even in slippery conditions it can scrabble from 0-60mph in a brisk 8.0sec – nearly a second faster than the Up.
The Up’s permanently activated traction control is partly to blame for that. While the 595’s TTC (Torque Transfer Control) button allows just enough wheel-spin for a quick getaway, the Up’s system is far too eager to intervene, making rapid launches frustratingly tricky.
On the road, the difference is much smaller. The Up’s engine pulls harder from low engine speeds and its manual gearbox has six gears to the 595’s five. This means the Up’s gears are stacked closer together, aiding responsiveness. You’ll need to change down more in the 595 to keep up, although this is no hardship because the gear-lever is close to the steering wheel, the shift is pleasingly light and the 595 is still the faster car when you thrash it. The Up’s ’box has an even shorter throw and is more precise, though.
Tykes like these are less about straight-line speed and more about agility and entertainment. Both initially feel nimble and resist leaning over in corners well, despite being relatively tall and narrow.
However, the 595’s steering doesn’t communicate what the front tyres are doing particularly well, and hitting the Sport button just adds a lot of unwelcome weight (as well as sharpening accelerator response). Whichever mode you’re in, you’ll be amazed at how huge the 595’s turning circle is – a trait that quickly annoys in city driving.
The Up has much better-weighted steering, a greater sense of connection to the front tyres and a turning circle that isn’t beaten by the QE2. You can also trust its front end more, because the Up grips at cornering speeds that will have the 595 running wide.
However, neither car has the kind of boisterousness that marks out a great hot hatch. In the best of this breed, you can feel the car moving entertainingly beneath you as you enter and exit corners, but the 595 and Up are restricted by stability control systems that can’t be turned off and stop you venturing close to the limits of grip. That’s great in a sensible family hatchback but not in a car that’s supposed to be fun.
Behind the wheel – Driving position, visibility, build quality
Getting comfortable in either car requires compromise. Neither has reach adjustment for the steering wheel, so you’ll likely find yourself sitting too close or too far from the pedals. And while both driver’s seats are height-adjustable, each could do with going a little lower.
While most people will be able to get reasonably comfortable in the Up, you feel like you’re sitting directly above the pedals in the 595, almost as if you’re driving a pipe organ. When making small accelerator inputs, your ankle aches from the awkward angles you have to contort it to.
The Up also scores higher for visibility. Its windscreen pillars are a little slimmer, while its large rear windows, thin rear pillars and truncated tail make the car easier to reverse – handy if you don’t add rear parking sensors, which are optional on both cars.
Both cars’ interiors are constructed from tough but hard plastics, although there are a few attractive trims to lift things a bit. The Up’s interior is more logically laid out, though, and it feels slightly better built.
As standard, the 595 has a tiddly 5.0in touchscreen infotainment system with 3.5mm and USB inputs, Bluetooth, a DAB radio and support for a variety of apps. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are optional, as is a bigger 7.0in screen with sat-nav. We’d recommend this, because the 5.0in unit is low in resolution and its icons are too small. At least it’s mounted high up, is pretty responsive and has useful shortcut buttons surrounding it.
Volkswagen Up GTI
To get the best out of the Up GTI’s infotainment system, you’ll need an Android or Apple smartphone with Volkswagen’s Maps+More app. This connects to the car via a USB port behind the dash-top phone cradle and provides sat-nav, music and driving data. The app is responsive and easy to use, but the bigger your phone’s screen, the better. The Up GTI also has a screen that controls the DAB radio and other functions, which include Bluetooth.
Space and practicality – Front space, rear space, seating flexibility, boot
There’s virtually nothing to separate our contenders for front space, although the Up is a little wider. Move to the rear and it’s a walkover for the Up. You wouldn’t call it commodious, but there’s more head room and a lot more leg room, and again it’s much wider.
The Up’s front seats don’t return to their original position once they’ve been slid forwards to let rear passengers in, whereas the 595’s do. But then again, you can have the Up with a pair of rear doors for a few hundred pounds more, whereas the 595 is exclusively a three-door model.
As for storage, the Up has more cubbyholes up front and a much bigger boot. Not only can it hold an extra carry-on suitcase, but it also has an adjustable floor that reduces the height of the loading lip by a significant margin.
The 595’s boot isn’t just smaller; it’s also an awkward shape with a huge lip at the entrance and a smaller opening. Both have split-folding rear seats, but folding down the Up’s provides a longer, squarer extended load area.
- Official boot capacity 185-550 litres
- Suitcase capacity 2
The 595’s sloped rear end may give the car a distinctive shape, but it makes for cramped rear quarters. Although we got only two cases in the boot, there was loads of room left for smaller items. Rear seat bench folds 50/50.
Volkswagen Up GTI
- Official boot capacity 251-959 litres
- Suitcase capacity 3
Even in three-door form, the Up GTI is practical for a city car. Head and leg room in the rear are better than in the 595 and the boot is much bigger, thanks to the squarer rear of the Up. A height-adjustable boot floor is standard.
Buying and owning – Costs, equipment, reliability, safety and security
The Up’s brochure price is significantly cheaper than the 595’s. Discounts are harder to come by on the 595, but there are triple-figure savings to be found on the New Car Deals section of whatcar.com. Even so, the Up will still end up costing you more than £1000 less to buy.
On a PCP finance deal, the 595 is a scant £8 cheaper per month on the same terms. That’s mainly down to a hefty deposit contribution from Abarth, although the 595’s relatively slow depreciation also helps.
But the Up is by far the cheaper car to run. Its 1.0-litre engine is more fuel efficient and it costs much less to insure. If you’re a company car driver, the Up’s monthly leasing rates are lower and it’s around £40 a month cheaper on benefit-in-kind tax (for 40% taxpayers).
The Up scores better for safety, too; its five-star Euro NCAP rating thrashes the 595’s three-star performance. The Up is also alone in offering automatic emergency braking, even if it is a £380 option.
The Abarth 595 has been well beaten. It may be quicker than the Up GTI, but it has too many flaws to overlook. We’d forgive its cramped rear and suspect driving position if it handled amazingly, but the faster you go, the less composed it becomes. It’s a shame, because a bit more front-end grip, less intrusive traction control and better steering feel would make a big difference.
The Up GTI’s victory is a convincing one. Its extra practicality, comfier ride and better driving position, while not the most important things for a hot hatch, make it far more pleasant. And it combines them with precise steering and composed handling. Just bear in mind that it’s not as effervescent as you might expect.
1st – Volkswagen Up GTI
- For Better handling; comfier ride; more practical; cheaper to buy privately
- Against Could be more exciting; intrusive traction control; contrived engine noise
Specifications: Volkswagen Up GTI 1.0 TSI 115 3dr
- Engine size 3cyl, 999cc, petrol, turbo
- List price £13,750
- Target Price £13,556
- Power 113bhp @ 5000-5500rpm
- Torque 147lb ft @ 2000-3500rpm
- Gearbox 6-spd manual
- 0-60mph 8.8sec
- Top speed 122mph
- Gov’t fuel economy 58.9mpg
- CO2 emissions 110g/km
2nd – Abarth 595
- For Faster acceleration; more tuneful engine; cheaper monthly PCP payments
- Against Driving position; numb steering; limited front-end grip; cramped rear seats
Specifications: Abarth 595 1.4 T-Jet 145
- Engine 4cyl, 1368cc, petrol, turbo
- List price £15,510
- Target Price £15,510
- Power 143bhp @ 5500rpm
- Torque 152lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Gearbox 5-spd manual
- 0-60mph 8.0sec
- Top speed 130mph
- Gov’t fuel economy 47.1mpg
- CO2 emissions 139g/km