What is it?
This is Volkswagen’s Eco Up model, which returns the CO2 performance of an electric vehicle because it is powered by compressed natural gas (CNG).
Rather than being a hasty conversion, which takes up most of the luggage space, when VW engineers were planning the Up’s NSF platform they made sure that twin gas tanks could be fitted in the car without reducing the size of the boot. One of the large, cylindrical tanks is fitted under the boot floor, the other is under the rear seat.
VW has also managed to squeeze a 10-litre petrol tank alongside the gas tanks. Open the Eco Up’s fuel flap and there’s both the gas filler and the conventional fuel filler. The car’s fuel gauge is also dual-function, showing the amount in the petrol tank for a few seconds on start-up, before switching to indicating CNG levels.
All the other changes are out of sight, inside the three-cylinder engine. As well as a set of specific injectors for the CNG and a new engine management system, the compression ratio has been raised from 10.5:1 to 11.5:1, the spark plugs supply a higher ignition voltage and the camshaft profiles and pistons have been modified.
New materials were used for the valves and valve guides, and the variable valve-timing settings are different. The Eco Up can also detect the difference between ‘High’ (98 per cent methane) gas and ‘Low’ (85 per cent methane) gas that is on sale at Germany’s 911 CNG-fuelling stations.
It’s the changes to the catalytic convertor that show the real environmental differences in burning CNG compared to petrol. Burning CNG releases "around 25 per cent less CO2" says VW, as well as "far less" in the way of pollutants including carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, while fine particulates are not emitted at all. All of which means the materials used inside the convertor are different.
Translated from the German showroom prices, the Eco Up costs around £2500 more than the standard petrol car, which is probably understandable considering the extra costs of the super-strong gas tanks and the engineering modifications needed for what will be a relatively low-volume car.
What is it like?
Exactly like the petrol-powered version. Which is to say, highly impressive. It might be a tiny city car, but the Up rides extremely well, feels very solidly built, it’s refined, and notably spacious up-front for the occupants. The whole of the Up cabin is a highly appealing mix of clean, cutting-edge product design and fine quality. The three-cylinder is smooth and quite willing and does not betray the fact that it is fuelled by gas rather than petrol. You can fully understand the muttering from rival manufacturers that the Up could never be profitable such is its static quality, refinement and mechanical sophistication.
Proponents of gas power point out that the official 79g/km rating of the Eco Up compares very well with the CO2 emitted - by extension - by an electric that has been charged from the European mains. And while the pollution locally emitted by a CNG-powered car is obviously higher than that of an EV, it is minimal. It’s worth remembering that most of us burn gas in the enclosed space of a kitchen without ill effects. You might also argue that the Eco Up has less of an overall environmental impact than an EV because it does without batteries that are packed with rare-earth materials.
Should I buy one?
You can’t. And that’s unlikely to change because the UK has virtually no gas re-charging network. VW UK is, though, looking into the possibility of fitting home compressors, so you could recharge your car from the mains gas system.
Germany, by contrast, is well placed with almost 1000 ‘gas’ stations and the country is also seeing the rising use of gas-powered taxis, which are undoubtedly the way forward for practical, low-pollution, inner-city transport. Indeed, gas-powered buses are quite common in Europe and gas-powered taxis the norm in Hong Kong, Tokyo and many other cities across Asia.
Personally, I’ve long been an advocate of gas power. It’s cheap (just £2 per 1000 cubic feet in the US, now shale gas has come on stream), very clean-burning and plentiful. The expert I spoke to thought the world had "over 200 years’ supply".
And here’s a scoop: I’ve heard from a good source that many manufacturers that have created bespoke EV platforms with space for large battery packs are considering building gas-powered models, with the big gas tanks fitted into the spaces vacated by the batteries. The gas revolution could be much close than we think. Let’s hope our legislators are quicker off the mark than usual.
VW Eco Up ‘Take Up’
Price: €12,950/£10,415; 0-62mph: 16.3sec; Top speed: 102mph; Economy: (Gas) 236 miles per 72 litres, (Petrol) 61.8mpg; CO2: 79g/km; Kerb weight: 1031kg; Engine type: three-cylinder petrol, 999cc; Power: 67bhp at 6200rpm; Torque: 66lb ft at 3000rpm; Gearbox: 5-spd manual