Hot hatches is not something I write often about, quite simply because I’m less passionate about the segment than others such as supercars and intersting oldtimers. I will however be the first to admit that there is something very appealing with the concept of a small car with low weight and lots of driving fun, and I have at least touched on some classic hot hatches in past posts, such as the Peugeot 205 GTI and recently the oh so lovely A112 Abarth.
A problem with the hot hatch segment is however that it’s (also) become expensive: new ones easily cost as much as a mid-sized car, and the classics such as the Golf GTI Mk1, Peugeot 205 GTI, Renault Clio Williams (not to talk about the Turbo 2!) have today gone stratospheric. There are some exceptions though, and in my opinion, none more so than one of the smallest hot hatches on the market. Maybe it’s because of the size, or because it looks sweet rather than dangerous. Whatever the reason, I can’t think of a single car today that offers as much driving pleasure per your unit of money than the forgotten, underrated and undervalued VW Lupo GTI. Doesn’t ring any bells? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one, and that’s why we’ll look closer at it this week!
The reason I came to think of the Lupo is the current search for a car for my son, who (if all goes well) will pass his driving license in ten days. He’s inherited the car sickness gene from me and has therefore been on the lookout for an affordable while still fun car, with four seats, a decent amount of hp but not too many such as not to scare his mother, and at the same time with low consumption and being cheap in insurance. Affordable in this case is around CHF 5-6.000 (about as much in EUR/USD) but given his level of mechanical knowledge is lower than a Lotus Esprit, there’s also a strong wish for the car not to be something Esprit-like but rather quite solid. The task looked difficult for a while with not many more candidates springing to mind than a Mini, which is arguably an excellent choice but also something you see on every corner, which in this case doesn’t count as a positive. But then it struck me – the Lupo GTI actually fits the bill perfectly!
The Lupo (Italian for “wolf”, which is in turn the first half of the name of the town VW comes from, Wolfsburg) came about as a result of “size inflation”. The Golf, traditionally the small car in the VW line-up, was getting bigger and bigger and all of a sudden there was room for a smaller car below it. Launched in 1998 and built until 2005, the Lupo filled that gap, and whilst most of the almost 500.000 Lupos built were quite boring small cars selling rather on fuel economy (the Lupo 3l TDI consumed just that, 3 litres, on 100 km), around 6400 of these were the GTI model. That’s not a big number, and although most of them are still on the road today, it also explains why the supply is thin – there’s currently four for sale in Switzerland, and around 15 in all of Germany.
True to the philosophy shared by the Mini that a car should ideally have a wheel in each corner, the Lupo is a boxy little thing with practically no overhangs, bringing the advantage that you can actually seat four adults on far less than 4 metres (3.52 metres to be exact) and also a bag or two, as long as they’re not too big. The GTI sits 20 mm lower than the regular Lupo and looks the part with 15-inch wheels, xenon lights and some decent skirts and spoilers all around, complemented by the lovely, centrally-mounted dual exhaust pipes! The interior is typical VW, however with the (also typical) VW GTI feel, with nice touches such as sport seats, a leater shifter and chrome rings in the gauge cluster which together bring a bit of exclusivity to the otherwise solid but dull interior. It’s not fun, but it’s solid and quite nice. Most GTIs sold were in silver and black, which are also the colours that fit the car best. Importantly, try to find one from 2002 onwards, as those have a six- rather than five-speed gearbox.
Turning the ignition brings a lovely sound from those double pipes, which accompanies you all the way up to the 7000 rpm limit. That’s good since chances are you’ll spend some time up there, given the 1.7 litre engine needs revs. As long as you do rev it, power is however plentiful as the car weighs in at only 975 kg. The rest of the drive is also pure joy, with the Lupo offering as much gokart feel as you can get in a normal car. The driving experience has been compared to the GTI Mk1 and the 205 GTI which is obviously a huge compliment, but I woudl say the Lupo is actually a more modern drive than both of them, and more precise in most areas. Once again, it’s a great testament to the advantages of the light-weight philosphy!
As noted above there aren’t many Lupos around and many of those that are have also been modified, which doesn’t have to be negative as long as it stays decent and well-done. Lowered suspension combined with bigger wheels is probably the most common modification, and obviously you then need to make sure that the suspension leaves enough room for the wheels and provides at least a minimum of comfort. Engine tuning is less common, but there are a couple of cars in Germany where they’ve managed to squeeze the 300hp+ Audi S3 engine into a Lupo GTI. Having driven the standard car, that sounds like a truly terrifying experience! The high mileage you see on many cars is obviously a testament to the quality and shouldn’t put you off as long as the car’s been serviced regularly. Another testament to the quality is no doubt that of the around 1500 GTI’s sold in Germany, around 2/3 are still on the road 20 years later.
So where did we end up? Well, we managed to find a silver GTI from 2002 with around 160.000 kms on the clock, owned by a VW mechanic, in almost perfect condition. It’s been lowered a further 2 cm from standard with new suspension and combined with the almost new 16-inch wheels looks absolutely terrific. The driving experience is amazing and to my great surprise, the seller was happy to negotiate the CHF 6.300 asking price without me saying anything, as the car has been on sale for a while without success. He was therefore also happy to reserve it for us until my son’s test. If you ask me, the weak demand will soon be a thing of the past, as it’s difficult to imagine a more fun, more solid and more practical car for the city and short trips than the Lupo GTI. As for my son, he is now more motivated than ever to pass that driving test – as if that was ever needed…