• Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Image Credit: Volkswagen
  • Engine
    0.9L Turbocharged I3
  • Power
    114 HP / 148 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    6-Speed Manual
  • Drivetrain
    FWD
  • Engine Placement
    Front
  • Curb Weight
    2,359 LBS
  • Seating
    2+3
What have we learned in the four decades that the Golf GTI has been on sale? First seen in 1975, sold in the U.S. as the Rabbit GTI from 1983 and now in its seventh generation, it's arguably still the definitive performance hatch. Despite its European ancestry it's been a consistent hit in America, too, outselling the R four to one and the most popular model in the Stateside Golf lineup this side of the sensible-shoes Sportwagon.

Motor racing legend Hans-Joachim Stuck was an early adopter and remains an advocate. A paid one, admittedly. But sincere, since he joked to us that he's had four wives but kept his Mk1 GTI. And ready to share anecdotes about racing his from F1 paddock to nightclub back in the day. The idea of a 6' 4" Stuck folded into a little Volkswagen and beating a Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 driving James Hunt to the bar sticks with you.

The original Golf GTI's sharp style, feisty performance and planted handling are still impressive, thanks mainly to the fact that the Euro-spec '76 original weighed just 1,785 lbs. That's at least 1,200 lbs less than the Golf GTI you can buy now, so the fact it has just half the MY18 car's 220 hp is no issue at all.

2019 Volkswagen Up! GTI

By the time the Rabbit GTI arrived, the original 1.6-liter fuel-injected motor had grown to a 1.8 liter, the spirit surviving despite the extra pounds and lost horses federalization required. Like many 40-somethings, the modern GTI has piled on some weight and, for modern drivers, the lack of metal around you in a '70s Euro hatch will come as a shock. But it still has substance, and the characteristic plaid seats, "spittoon" three-spoke wheel and golf ball-topped shifter show the sense of fun in the small team that somehow got their out-of-hours project into production. Refined enough on a cruise, it really comes alive on twisty roads where the gutsy power delivery, instant throttle response and lack of inertia all come good.

Swapping to the latest GTI, it's amazing to see how much has changed and, at the same time, how much has stayed the same. The latest GTI has a turbocharged direct-injection engine, torque-distributing locking "differential" (standard on SE and Autobahn trim) and the option of a six-speed dual-clutch auto. Where the original's dash has little more than a speedo and a tach, a 2018 GTI features smoothly integrated touch-screen infotainment and an array of safety aids and sensors.

2019 Volkswagen Up! GTI2019 Volkswagen Up! GTI2019 Volkswagen Up! GTI

The spirit remains true though. Like the original, the modern GTI is a car as happy on the daily commute as it is a track day. It has the same torquey power delivery, the same user-friendliness and the same transparent on-limit handling. And it's much, much faster. But the extra weight, complexity and technology blur the driver's connection to the car. Forty years is a long time in automotive development, and you'd expect as much. But what if VW went back to the original blueprint and built a car of equivalent size, weight and performance to the '70s GTI but equipped with the safety features and conveniences that 21st-century drivers demand?

It has. That car is called the Up! GTI, and it has a 1.0-liter, 113-hp, three-cylinder turbocharged engine, a comparable on-road footprint and weighs just 2,359 lbs at the curb. In Europe it costs about half as much as a Golf GTI and has inspired a similar buzz to the original, demand already far outstripping supply.

And it's a revelation to drive, as laps around southern Spain's Ascari Race Resort for a GTI Performance Days event prove. Following a Golf R-shod instructor in the 242 hp, European-spec GTI Performance is a blast, the R's power and traction advantage offset by its 212-lb weight penalty. The GTI is easy to drive fast and safe at the limit, deploying that clever front axle to claw back ground on the all-wheel-drive R but also ready to play if you brake deep into the corner. Almost too easy.

2019 Volkswagen Up! GTI

Swapping to the Up! is more like a time machine to '70s driving manners wrapped up in modern surroundings. With little more than a third of the R's power, you need to wring its neck, snatching the shifter at the redline, barely brushing the brakes on corner entry to preserve precious momentum and making most of its agility in an attempt to keep pace. This is the cornering on the door handles approach fans of the Rabbit GTI loved, remixed for a new age. With no driver modes, a wheelbase nearly identical to that of the Mk1 and skinny 195-section tires, this is as close as you'll get to driving an original GTI. While still being able to plug your iPhone in and enjoy Apple CarPlay connectivity.

Four decades of GTI expertise lives on in the Golf you can buy now. But for a taste of where it's come from, you need to book a vacation to Europe, find a rental operator with Up! GTIs in its fleet and then choose the tightest, twistiest road you can. We can't guarantee you'll be as big a hit with the ladies as Stuck boasts he was with his. But in all other respects you'll get a glimpse of where the GTI story started.

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