Twist and shout: driving the VW Up GTI on the Amalfi Coast

Twist and shout: driving the VW Up GTI on the Amalfi Coast
Twist and shout: driving the VW Up GTI on the Amalfi Coast

I’d been here before, so I knew it was coming; but boy was it a wake-up call when the reality slapped me in the face. And it happened less than a minute and 200-yards after I left the safe confines of the Volkswagen ‘safety zone’ of the airport car park.

Satnav route loaded into the phone, I headed out to do battle with the seething mass of red-blooded Italian drivers. First challenge? Dealing with the reality that if you want to join the flow of traffic in Italy, any semblance of following established Highway Code procedures are instantly chucked out of the window.

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It’s the survival of the fittest; the most daring; the most adventurous; the most stubborn; the most aggressive and the most laid-back.

‘Give Way’ lines? Forget it. They simply don’t exist. Ok, they exist — because I could see them painted on the road — but they’re totally ignored. No one pays them any attention.

Spot even the merest hint of a gap, and you take it. Bap! Nose in the space. We’re on our way. The traffic flows: stop, creep inches forward; stop, creep inches forward; repeat for 200 yards and 10 minutes to a mini-roundabout, where I need to turn left.

Picture: Martin Meiners

I finally get there, and just smile. Somewhere surrounding the mini-roundabout is a road surface, but you can’t see it. It’s totally covered by cars, nose-to-tail on all sides, each driver inching slowly and noisily under a constant barrage of blaring horns, arms and fingers gesticulating to everyone and no one in particular.

It’s mayhem. It’s brilliant. It’s Naples.

This time I was ready for it, but I remember clearly my first experience of driving a hire car out of Naples Airport. New car; new location; pre-satnav (I know reader, but those days did actually exist), and next-to-no direction signposts. And all the time, Neapolitan drivers blasting their horns and not giving an inch.

It was hell, until I realised there was no point in taking the British “that’s not how you drive, my dear fellow” approach. No; that rule book went out the window very quickly. On the streets of Naples, you fight fire with fire. Do that, and you earn respect. It also, amazingly, makes the driving far more enjoyable.

Thankfully, this time I wasn’t heading into Naples city centre. It was south down the Autostrade before heading over the hills to the stunning panoramic Amalfitano road.

VW Up GTI
Picture: Martin Meiners

Perched precariously over the shimmering Mediterranean, the road — which winds its way through a landscape deemed ‘outstanding’ by UNESCO — is narrow; at times frighteningly so. There’s good reason why it appears on a number of the World’s Most Dangerous Roads lists.

Drivers who don’t give you an inch; a constant stream of demented scooter and moped riders who appear to have something of a death wish; and never-ending tight, narrow, twisty roads.

Just as well then that in the land of the iconic Fiat 500, which was brilliant for coping with the demands of Italian driving, I was behind the wheel of VW’s diminutive, and equalling fun-packed Up GTI.

VW Up GTI
The Up GTI proved perfect for lsicing along the tight and twisting routes on the Amalfi coast. Picture: Martin Meiners

It’s just over 40 years since VW rocked the establishment with the introduction of the original Golf GTI in 1976. Now this sporty version of VW’s smallest car looks eerily reminiscent of the first GTI.

There’s no question the Up GTI looks the part. Resplendent in bright red, there’s also red strips in the bumpers and GTI badges front and rear. Inside, the tartan upholstery is a throwback to the first Golf GTI.

Powered by one of the industry’s current best engines, the three-cylinder 999cc turbocharged unit delivers 113bhp and, mated to its six-speed manual gearbox, will take you from standstill to 62mph in 8.8 seconds. It’ll also carry on to a max of 122mph, return 58.9mpg and emit just 110g/km. And all this, including 17-inch alloys, for £13,750 in three-door form. Another 400 quid gets you the five-door.

VW Up GTI
Picture: Martin Meiners

Most importantly for this drive, it’s a point-and-squirt red dart, meaning that even the slightest hesitation by a local driver allowed me to take advantage and fill the gap. That said, despite the fact it’s titchy — 3600mm long, 1641mm wide and 1478mm high — I still had that strange reaction of holding my breath, pulling my shoulders in, and tucking in my elbows, when each of the what-appeared-to-be-hundreds of tourist coaches came careering round the hairpins on my side of the road.

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I can understand why the cruise liners deposit their photo-hungry passengers at Molo Beverello , south of Naples. The Amalfi Coast is truly breathtaking. No surprise then that the scenery between Positano, Amalfi and Ravello has it’s been used in numerous Holywood films.

The jewel in the crown is, of course Positano, where the colourful gravity-defying buildings cling precariously to the steep slopes at the foot of Sant’Angelo a Tre Pizzi which, at 1443-metres, is the highest mountain on the peninsula.

VW Up GTI
Pretty towns cling to the cliffside all along the Amalfi coast. Picture: Martin Meiners

Let’s be honest; getting a car — even the titchy Up GTI — in and out of Positano, with its nightmarishly clogged-up one-way system, was never going to happen with my tight schedule. So, instead I headed for Praiano, 5km south of Positano, for lunch at Il Pirata. Such is its appeal that US President John F Kennedy dined there.

Next morning, after an all-too-brief stay at Casa Angelina — like so many buildings, again perched precariously to the cliff — the lure of Positano, glistening appealingly across the Gulf of Salerno, was impossible to resist.

As if by magic, 250-odd steps (I know, I counted them) below the hotel on its own jetty, was a powerboat to whizz me over to the Amalfi Coast’s jewel in the crown. Positano is, without question, magical.

VW Up GTI
Picture: Martin Meiners

But honestly, if you ever think of driving in; don’t. It is utterly bonkers. Of course, there are no cars at the foot of the town. The road is about 200ft above the rooftops; and there’s only one way in, and one way out.

Thankfully, the clever people from VW had positioned our chariots in a car park, so all I had to do was climb up through the tourist-packed lanes, jump in the car, and again head into battle with the locals on the way back to the airport.

The Up GTI is a blast. Its pace and nimbleness around the Amalfi roads was a blessing, and those attributes will transfer seamlessly into city centre life across the UK. Believe me, if the Up GTI can deal everything the Neapolitans can throw at it, coping with traffic in Tesco car park will be a dawdle.

VW Up GTI
Picture: Martin Meiners

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