Spent the weekend driving the new Volkswagen Up around Rome (carefully avoiding burning police vans and roving platoons of anti-globalisation demonstrators) and learnt a lot about this compelling baby car design.
My mission was to drive two versions — a basic 59bhp edition and a well-equipped 74bhp Up White model — in relatively dense and press-on outer Roman traffic, on roads that ranged (on a UK scale) between reasonable and lamentable.
Discovered pretty quickly that the Up isn’t a city car at all, but a comfortable and quiet machine that just happens to be 18 inches shorter than a Polo. You can cheerfully tackle cross-continental travel in it, assisted by steering, ride and packaging standards well ahead of those set either by the three-year old Fiat 500 Lounge diesel I have at home, or by the Mini Cooper SD I drove for 400 miles to get to the airport. The only point of mild annoyance is a lack of torque on long gradients, but this is hardly surprising in a 1.0-litre normally aspirated petrol car, despite its low kerb weight. The VW Group’s high-powered technical chief, Ulrich Hackenberg, was in Rome while I was there and keen to talk. Well known as the father of Audi’s TT and R8 models, Hackenberg insisted that bringing the Up to life is a superior achievement to either of these ground-breaking sports cars, “because we started with a clean sheet of paper, which is always difficult, and because achieving the hard compromises between low cost and high standards you need in a very small car is just about the toughest job going.” It’s hard to believe Volkswagen Group is on course this year to sell around eight million cars without having had a proper contender in the Up’s A segment, which will account for 1.4 million sales across Europe. Next year, it’ll be different. VW is understandably cautious about making Up sales claims, given the economic climate and the strength of the opposition, but it must surely be expecting 250,000 sales from its Bratislava-built baby by the time things get going.
Best of all, as group marketing chief Luca de Meo was keen to point out, the Up looks like being “a tremendous conquest tool”. Two-thirds of its owners are likely to be new to the VW brand. I’m often suspicious of advertising slogans, because it strikes me that the West Enders regularly fail to understand what really makes car buyers tick. But this time I quite agree with the key message I understand will come at us from more than 200 TV stations: “More car would be a waste; less would be a shame”.