Fox loses the thrill of the chase

Another month, another new Volkswagen. Or so it seems. So far this year we’ve seen the Golf Plus, Passat and, even though it’s hasn’t made it to the UK yet, the replacement for the Bora. Now the Fox, Volkswagen’s Brazilian-built entry-level model, is attempting to make its mark.

Interest in the Fox, which sits on the front-wheel-drive underpinnings and has the same engines as the larger Polo, is running high. Not only because it replaces the popular Lupo – which in GTi form will continue to be sold in the UK – but because it is meant to take Volkswagen back to its roots. Its role is to offer cheap but dependable motoring for the masses. Modern-day Beetle, anyone?

UK prices are yet to be revealed, but Volkswagen says the Fox will be pitched below the outgoing Lupo, with even the 1.4-litre petrol version expected to start below £8000, putting it in direct competition with the excellent Fiat Panda. Although the Fox is built in both three- and five-door guises for the South American market, the UK will only get the three-door version. Don’t hold your breath waiting for one, though. Right-hand-drive sales aren’t envisaged until early 2006.

When it does go on sale there’ll be three engines to choose from: a 54bhp 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol, the 74bhp 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol tested here and a 69bhp 1.4-litre three-cylinder diesel. All come with a comparatively high level of standard equipment, including a five-speed manual gearbox, anti-lock brakes, twin front airbags and three-point seat belts all-round. Electronic stability control will be optional.

On the outside

Initial impressions are mixed. The Fox’s styling doesn’t excite in the way some of its supermini rivals manage. The conservative appearance is old-school Volkswagen, which means it looks rather dull. Despite having none of the upbeat detailing evident on VW’s recent offerings, the Fox looks nicely cohesive and, by supermini standards, build integrity is genuinely impressive.

While it doesn’t look it, the Fox is a considerable 301mm longer than the Lupo at 3828mm. It’s also 21mm wider, 84mm higher and rides on a wheelbase that’s 142mm longer. All of which makes it a good deal roomier than the Lupo.

On the inside

The first thing you notice when you get inside is the elevated seating arrangement. To provide the Fox with the commanding driving environment buyers demand these days, Volkswagen has raised the height of the front seats by 60mm over the Lupo’s, positioning you higher above the road than in many cars from the class above. However, any gains in visibility are spoilt by extra-wide A-pillars, which might help the tiny Volkswagen’s crash impact credentials but also create large blind spots.

Still, it’s easy to find a comfortable driving position. The Polo-sourced steering wheel is adjustable for rake and reach, while the well-shaped driver’s seat offers a good range of longitudinal adjustment and comes with height adjustment as standard. But while class-leading interior quality played a central role in the Lupo’s appeal this isn’t reflected in the Fox, whose dashboard plastics look and feel cheap by comparison. It’s a backward step that clearly smacks of cost-cutting, even if the Fox’s cabin design is pleasingly modern and the trim durable.

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On the upside, there are plenty of useful cubby holes – including four cupholders and well-sized door bins – and buyers will be able to order optional under-seat drawers, as fitted to our test car.

Despite the extra width, this is a strict four-seater. The rear seats are deep and comfortable over short journeys, but with adults up front kneeroom is in short supply.The Fox’s practicality is boosted by a sliding rear-seat mechanism on all models. Set on runners, it allows the seat to be adjusted 150mm fore and aft. Boot capacity doubles that of the Lupo at 260 litres when the seats are pushed all the way forward, extending to 1016 litres with the rear seats folded away.

On the road

Performance is not one of the Fox’s strong points, even with the 1.4-litre petrol engine under the steeply-sloping bonnet. With 74bhp, the two-valve-per-cylinder unit endows the Fox with merely adequate acceleration, and you have to work the engine fairly hard before seeing much action, despite peak power arriving at a low 5000rpm. Even with 91lb ft produced at 2750rpm, you can’t always rely on the torque to pull you out of tricky situations around town.

Volkswagen claims 0-62mph in 13.0sec, while the use of relatively short gearing keeps the top speed down to 104mph. A comparatively hefty kerbweight of 1012kg doesn’t help, as reflected by the Fox’s combined fuel consumption, which is quoted at a slightly disappointing 42mpg.

Those compact dimensions and 11.4m turning circle make the Fox a highly manoeuvrable city car. As a keen driver’s car, though, it fails to encroach upon existing supermini favourites.

It just doesn’t deliver the same verve as, say, the Fiat Panda. But what the Fox does possess is that characteristic VW faithfulness. The handling is highly dependable with good levels of grip but fairly exaggerated body roll. Well-weighted steering allows you to tackle corners with confidence until the onset of moderate understeer.

The ride is excellent thanks to the long-travel suspension. Bumps are soaked up with the composure you’d expect from cars in the class above. Refinement is also impressive. That hefty kerbweight obviously includes a fair amount of sound-deadening material that helps make the Fox one of the better superminis for long motorway journeys.

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Competent rather than characterful, the Fox doesn’t break any new ground. It’s easy to live with but fails to excel in any area except price. By pitching its new entry-level model below the Lupo, Volkswagen has succeeded in bucking the trend that characteristically means each new model creeps further upmarket. On value-for-money terms, the Fox proves a worthy rival to the best superminis. Just don’t expect an invigorating drive.

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