The Volkswagen Up city car isn't revolutionary, it's just quantifiably better than the opposition
What is it?
The smallest and newest VW hatchback going, the long-awaited Up pitches Volkswagen into the city car arena at last, with its minuscule 3540mm of length, its normally aspirated 1.0 litre, three-cylinder, all-alloy, 12-valve, petrol-only engines (diesels will come later) and its projected starting price – when sales start in UK early next year between £8000 and about £12,000.
The car started life as a concept in 2007 with an entirely different mechanical layout, a tiny engine mounted under the rear seat driving the rear wheels, but VW’s technical bosses deemed it too expensive to have a layout so completely different from the rest of its predominantly transverse front-drive cars, and opted for the tried and trusted layout.
There are two engine outputs of the same 1.0 litre petrol triple on offer, a super-frugal stop-start Blue Motion edition with 59bhp delivering 67.1mpg and a 74bhp option delivering 65.5mpg, which we were able to drive. Both versions emit less than 100g/km. There will also soon be a 69bhp model that runs on compressed natural gas (unlikely to be sold in Britain) and VW has already announced a battery-electric version for 2013. There will eventually be diesels, but they don’t have top priority because of their cost and weight. The base petrol version is commendably light at 929kg, ready to go.
What’s it like?
VW won’t thank us for saying this, but Up immediately puts you in mind of the original Renault Twingo – simple, cheeky snub-nosed three-door styling (though a five-door is coming), lots of cabin space for its length and a general aura of rule-breaking space efficiency. This might now be a conventional transverse front-drive model but VW has chased tiny details in packaging the car’s mechanical parts and the result us remarkable interior space, especially in the rear and the boot. The Up is similar in length to a Fiat 500 but far, far roomier. Given its inevitably boxy dimensions, the styling is especially successful, mixing the concept's neat original style with the inevitable VW family look visible in every Polo.
On the road, the Twingo analogy continues. This car’s small size gives it agility, and its steering is notably light and direct, but otherwise it aims mostly for practicality and comfort. The relatively small (14, 15 or optional 16-inch) wheels are easy to package. The ride is firm, but comfortable and the engine is refined and buzz-free.
The 74bhp model isn’t quick, but its decent potential (0-62mph in 13.2 seconds) is easily deployed and in the UK it certainly won’t feel restricted to city driving. Give the car it’s head on an autobahn and you’ll see a three-figure top speed. The five-speed manual gearbox is light and simple to use, the brakes are strong (you can pay just £180 and get an automatic urban braking system that works at speeds below 20mph). Handling is neutral tending to understeer as cornering speed rises, with the low ride rates allowing a bit more body roll than is normal for VWs.
Inside, there’s an appealing, modern brightness about the decor which puts bigger, pricier VWs in the shade. Key feature is a plug-in info pod that not only provides direction finding functions but bonds with your phone and/or music device to group all these capabilities easily together and provide trip information, too.
Should I buy one?
It’s a tough decision, one of the toughest in any class regardless of price. It has powerful, cheeky appeal but to choose the new VW Up you’ve got to look past the Mini, Fiat 500 and a myriad of excellent, slightly bigger, similarly priced superminis like the Fiesta and Polo which, while less exclusive, possibly offer more performance – and car – for your money.
On the other hand, the Up is arguably the most modern baby car going, and one of the most technically interesting. Wisest course might be to avoid any final commitment until we find out exactly how it copes in the UK’s special conditions, in four or five months’ time.