2004 Volkswagen Lupo GTI

2004 Volkswagen Lupo GTI

By the turn of the new Millennium, the Golf GTI had bloated into a very different beast indeed. After the Corrado was killed off in 1995, everfaster yet lardier Golfs took its place. Some sported five- or even six-cylinder engines, but their weight, luxury and price left them a far cry from the 840kg 1.6-litre flyweight that dropped jaws back in 1975.

Assorted Polo GTIs had emerged, but critical response was always muted. But in 1998, a new breed of tiny VW provided the firm with an ideal opportunity to revisit the original GTI concept. The Lupo (Latin for ‘Wolf’) city-car weighed just 975kg. And VW had a 125bhp 1.6-litre engine that would fit in it. Parked next to the spiritual forefather Golf MkI, comparisons are striking. The Lupo GTI is shorter – side-on with its flat back it’s reminiscent of the Fiat Seicento of the same era – but it’s no wider than its Seventies predecessor.

Inside, sliding around on smooth leather seats and held in place by very Eighties red seatbelts, it’s a very different environment from the Golf or Corrado. The blunt bonnet is invisible from the driver’s seat, but the sense is one of a surprisingly large space-maximising cube, easy to place on the road and feeling far wider than it actually is. Although the round headlights were a conscious attempt by stylist Josef Kaban to hark back to VW’s aircooled past, the result is actually very reminiscent of the original Issigonis-designed Mini.

The Lupo’s engine may share a displacement with the original Golf GTI, but it’s very much a child of the 2000s, complete with the variable valve timing that became ubiquitous once Honda’s VTEC system had proven itself more tractable and less fractious than turbocharging. Prod the throttle and the exhaust note starts out all undistinguished and buzzy, then suddenly takes on a shriek and bark beyond 2500rpm.

It’s an easy car to get acquainted with, feels instantly familiar if you’ve driven any VW Group product over the past 20 years, and before long I feel able to take what feel like outrageous liberties with its cornering speeds, such is its grip. Sadly there’s a steering numbness not present in the Golf or Corrado, leaving me merely pointing it through corners and marvelling at its speed rather than feeling every surface change beneath its wheels.

There is a curious action to the gear lever though. It’s easy to race up through the six-speeder, stretching the VVT in every gear en route to overdrive, each ratio slotting home cleanly. However, changing down feels like the opposite experience – it’s baulky, notchy and needs a careful, deliberate shift action. The suspension is surprisingly bouncy, feeling initially progressive on turn-in but rebounding unexpectedly sometimes midcorner.

Many owners fit stiffer springs and this is considered to improve the Lupo’s cornering attitude. That said, combined with the hard seats this must result in a harsh ride. The engine is gruff at higher rpm – and yet I feel grateful the Lupo GTI exists at all. Its context is important. It emerged at a time when we were being told by the motoring press and industry itself that the kind of hot hatches we enjoyed in the Eighties couldn’t be made any more. We lamented the loss of the 205GTi with every passing Peugeot. And yet, with the Lupo GTI, VW was proving that such things could still be made. It passed its torch to the Up GTI, which still seems yet to depreciate, such is the market’s desire for that recipe first tentatively rustled up in 1975.

Compared to the Up GTI, the Lupo is still a bargain. Secondhand buyers might baulk at the notion of parting with £5k for a 20-year-old hatchback, but considering its GTI genes, it’s comparable to a Golf MkII. There are rust issues though – corrosion between the unique-to-GTI, £150-apiece aluminium front wings and their steel mountings can get expensive to rectify, and rust spreads into the front bulkhead if unchecked. Tailgates are aluminium too, and tricky to repair or replace if pranged. The engines are tough, but the five-speed gearboxes on the 2000-model GTIs are a weak point because they weren’t designed for a hot hatch. Heavy revisions took place after a year of production and the smart money is on the 2002-5 cars. The best low-milers are edging their way towards £10k already.

Owning a Lupo GTI

‘My first car was a Lupo – not a GTI, so this seemed like a logical step,’ says Graham Russell. ‘I bought one but had to sell it, because I needed a daily driver and that combination of abuse and neglect would’ve made it untenable. They are easy to work on if you know what you’re doing though – I do all my own maintenance. ‘During lockdown, it became an itch I needed to scratch again, even though by then I had a Polo GTI that was technically “better”. I wanted a standard one though – modified examples usually have reliability issues. ‘I got this one cheap because it was a Japanese import, which came over in 2015 and has its service history in an email, but it turned out to be a good car that the owner just needed to sell because he was emigrating. I got lucky though – you won’t find a good one for less than £6k now.’

TECHNICAL DATA 2004 Volkswagen Lupo GTI

  • Engine 1598cc transverse four-cylinder, dohc, Bosch Motronic fuel injection
  • Max Power 123bhp @ 6500rpm
  • Max Torque 112lb ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
  • Steering Power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Suspension Front: independent, MacPherson struts, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent, trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
  • Brakes Discs front and rear, antilock system, servo-assisted
  • Performance Top speed: 127mph
  • Acceleration 0-60mph: 8.2sec
  • Weight 1038kg
  • Fuel consumption 40mpg
  • Cost new £12,995
  • Classic Cars Price Guide £4000-£8000

2004 Volkswagen Lupo GTI

Unassuming, but so was MkI Golf GTI’s engine Black with red pinstriping: very Eighties retro Lupo as capable in bends as Corrado VR6.

‘Before long I’m taking what feel like outrageous liberties with its cornering speeds’
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