Is there a hot hatch that simultaneously combines cuteness and menace quite as well as the Volkswagen Lupo GTI? If there is, we can’t think of it right now.

The brief was simple: take the Lupo, with its puppy dog eyes and cartoonish proportions, and add a tonne of attitude. Volkswagen pulled it off with aplomb, combining big, flared arches with chunky alloy wheels, a jutting front bumper and a cheeky pair of centrally-mounted exhausts.

The result is a hot hatch that manages to be loveable and aggressive at the same time, like a terrier puppy that’s trying to nibble at your ankles. And beneath the surface, the GTI delivers on the promise of those looks.

Its 123bhp, which comes courtesy of a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre 16v four-cylinder engine, might not sound like much, but it punts the GTI to 62mph in 8.2 seconds – more than enough to feel quick in a car this small and light.

But the conversion from mild-mannered city car to pugilistic pocket rocket wasn’t simply a case of shoving a larg(er) engine under the bonnet and having done with it.

The Lupo GTI got its own bespoke suspension setup, with a 20mm-lower ride height and stiffer springs and shock absorbers. The rear brakes were discs as well as the fronts, and it even had aluminium body panels; namely the doors, front wings and bonnet.

The result was a car that felt lithe and agile, with grip in spades. What was more, thanks to the Lupo’s light weight, Volkswagen could get away with a relatively pliant suspension setup – and as a result, compared with modern hot hatches, the GTI feels smoother and easier to get on with over rougher sections of tarmac.

Why you should buy one now

It’d be wrong to call the Lupo GTI a hot hatch bargain – especially with properly good contemporaries like the Saxo VTS and Renault Clio Renaultsport available for less cash, like-for-like. But what you get with the Lupo that you don’t with any of its French contemporaries is solid build quality, of the sort Volkswagen made its own at the time of the Lupo’s conception.

So while you might have to fork out more for a Lupo – don’t expect to find a solid, unmolested example for less than £3,000 – you’ll also end up with something that feels more robust and less flyaway. Not to mention, of course, those timeless looks.

What to look out for

2001-on cars got a six-speed gearbox; these are worth having, if you can find one, as the closer ratios add to the Lupo’s peppy character.

Aluminium body panels are expensive to fix if they’re dented, so pay attention to these – and use a magnet to check they haven’t been swapped out for steel items, a sure sign of a prior front-ender. Check the roof for rust, too.

Check the Xenon headlights work on both dipped and full beams – the internal shutter can fail, which requires costly replacement of the whole headlight unit.

Blue smoke from the exhausts suggests worn piston rings or valve stem seals, especially prevalent on high-mileage cars – of which there are a surprising number. This can be a sign of a car that’s had a hard life, too, as can a gearbox that pops out of gear. Walk away if you see either of these issues.

Find a well-maintained, low-mileage Lupo GTI, though, and it’ll prove to be one of the most exciting and delightful small hot hatches out there. Not to mention one of the cutest.

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