With the up!, Volkswagen can offer small car buyers a very competitive proposition indeed. Jonathan Crouch checks it out
A proper Volkswagen - just a smaller one. The up! has enabled the German brand to regain the initiative in the important citycar sector and sets a high standard for contenders in this class. Frugal, fun, clever and competitively priced, it's a key option, not only for those in the market's smallest segment but also for people buying a compact car of any kind.
In concept, Volkswagen's up! was smarter even than the finished product we see here, the original 2007 prototype rear-engined just like the early Beetle as the German designers sought to find more space from an ever-smaller roadway footprint. But such complexity would have made the finished production version as expensive as 'lifestyle' small cars like the MINI or the Audi A1. Which wasn't the point at all. This, the company decided, must be something almost anyone could afford. In any case, it could still be clever even if it was conventional. If the engine could be smaller, the wheelbase longer and the overhangs shorter, the ambitious cabin space goals set by the rear-driven concept could still be achieved. A basic formula to which has been added all manner of innovation. Depending on its purpose and the preference of its buyer, an up! can guide you with Google. It can brake itself to avoid an accident. It can be a hot hatch. Or, at the other extreme, an electric runabout. It can, in short, be all things to all people. A real Peoples Car.
Volkswagen values shrunk into compact form ought to bring a very appealing result. You'd imagine refinement. A comfortable ride. And a solid, well appointed cabin. A combination of virtues never quite delivered by the brand's previous Fox and Lupo citycars - but much in evidence here. Despite, as it happens, the use of an engine hardly suited to Volkswagen virtues. Three cylinder 1.0-litre units like this one are, in my experience, busily revvy at best and downright noisy at worst, as is the case with Fiat's twin cylinder MultiAir unit. This one though, is the most refined of its kind. Not refined enough, it must be said, to quite let you forget the cylindrical imbalance under the bonnet. But then the characteristic offbeat rasp isn't unpleasant and rather suits this car's rather offbeat charisma. You'll certainly be hearing plenty of it if rapid progress is needed, for without a turbocharger to boost torque, this one needs to be revved quite a bit, peak power not arriving until 6,000rpm, only 600rpm shy of the red line. And if you're wondering quite how much power we're talking about, the answer is not a great deal in the mainstream 1.0-litre variants we're focusing on here, cars offering a choice of either 60 or 70PS outputs, with an identical 95Nm of torque either way. Most will be content with the base version, capable as it is of sixty in 14.4s on the way to 99mph, quite enough to keep up with the traffic. I'm not sure I'd see the point of finding a lot more money for the 75PS variant, given that the performance gains are relatively slight (0-60mph in 13.2s on the way to 106mph). The especially frugally-minded will be interested to try the full-elected e-up! version which has a battery powerplant capable of putting out the equivalent of 82PS.
Two statistics sum up the real thinking behind this design. A length of around 3.5-metres yet a wheelbase that takes up nearly 2.5-metres of that. Which is why, though an up! is no longer than a Fiat 500, it offers far more room inside, space in fact for the four fully-sized adults who could never comfortably fit in the apparently space-efficient Italian car. How has this been done? By shortening the front and rear overhangs as much as the designers dared, something only possible at the front by mounting the radiator alongside rather than in front of the very compact engine. The result is a tardis-like interior just as big as that of Volkswagen's far pricier Polo supermini. Let me give you one example of how that plays out. Let's take luggage space. You don't get quite as much as was offered in this car's predecessor, the Fox, but open the glass tailgate apparently styled to look like a flat-screen TV and as long as you can lump your stuff over the rather high sill, you'll find 251-litres of space or 951-litres with the seats folded. Up front, a cool dished three-spoke steering wheel fashioned from light magnesium frames an instrument cluster of refreshing simplicity. A pity though that it's only adjustable for height, not for reach. The interior design with its large speedometer is clean and easy to get to grips with, featuring high gloss back trim and a compact centre pod for many of the minor controls. True, there's no shortage of hard plastics, but this doesn't feel like a car that's been ruthlessly built down to a price like its Fox predecessor. It just feels agreeably minimalist.
If you're wondering about the name.. well yes, so was I. Apparently, it's taken from the middle two letters of 'Lupo', the badge given to Volkswagen's most recent European-built citycar offering. And in terms of the outlay required to make an up! yours? Well, you're probably looking at somewhere between £8,000 and £11,000 for the mainstream normally aspirated 60 and 75PS 1.0-litre petrol models we're looking at here, offered in three main trim levels - 'Take up!', 'Move up!' and High up!'. There's a choice of either three or five-door bodystyles and the option of a semi-automatic robotised clutch-less 5-speed gearbox as an urban alternative to the usual 5-speed manual. Bear in mind that the bottom end of the pricing spectrum gets you a very basic car indeed, so most will want to find an extra £1,000 to get themselves into mid-spec 'Move up!' trim, a level which for an extra £360 or so, also gives you the option of specifying a useful package of 'BlueMotion Technology' fuel-saving tweaks to the 60PS engine. Standard on the top 'High up!' (and optional on the 'Move up!') is this car's cleverest touch - the Maps & More personal infotainment system with its sat nav, music-playing, Bluetooth 'phone and eco-driving functions. On top of that, the only extra feature I'd really want to add would be the accident-saving 'City Emergency Braking' system which will warn you of impending collisions at urban speeds and if necessary, at under 19mph, even brake the car for you. At the top of the range priced at just over £19,000 after subtraction of a government grant is the e-up! full-electric model.
Any citycar stands or falls on its ongoing costs and here, the up! looks to have all its bases covered. Thanks in part to a low kerb weight of well under a tonne, even the 75PS 1.0-litre models will return a combined fuel economy figure of 60.1mpg with emissions pegged at 108g/km. Opt, as most people will, for the 60PS engine and the figures are better again, at 62.8mpg and 105g/km. Those looking for better economy still will be drawn inexorably to the BlueMotion Technology model which features low rolling resistance tyres, a battery regeneration system and a stop start system that cuts the engine when you don't need it in traffic or at the lights. As a result, it can return an impressive 68.9mpg on the combined cycle and emit just 96g/km of carbon dioxide. With a 35-litre fuel tank, this means that this variant has a theoretical driving range of as much as 530 miles. With this kind of showing, it's obvious why diesel versions of this car are going to have limited appeal here. Already, an up! BlueMotion Technology model can easily rival the running cost returns of diesel rivals like the far pricier Ford Ka 1.3 TDCi. If you really want to minise your running costs, then you'll want to look at the e-up! full electric version. A standard full charge will give you 93 miles of range and takes less than nine hours from a standard 230-Volt, 2.3 kW household socket. On top of this, all e-up!s have a DC fast-charging circuit as standard. Using the Combined Charging System (CCS), this enables a flat battery to be charged to 80 per cent in 30 minutes, at levels of up to 40 kW using a DC supply.
This is the very essence of a small, affordable Volkswagen, a high quality class-less car very much in the mould of the original Beetle. One of the lightest small runabouts you can buy, it still manages to feel solid, a triumph of packaging and design that's streets ahead of any citycar the brand has yet brought us. Highlights include superb space efficiency, a brilliant detachable infotainment system and a city braking function that'll pay for itself in peace of mind. All very clever and in execution, all very German - which might have delivered to the showrooms a very impressive but essentially rather soul-less result. Fortunately, the up! has enough character to make you like it as well as admire it - and that'll be crucial in an increasingly fashion-led market segment. If you like the look and you can afford to go beyond entry-level poverty spec, then there aren't too many downsides here. A few rivals can better the running costs - but not by much. And the SEAT and Skoda versions of this car are a little cheaper - but you'd likely lose what you gained in the probable trade-in value when the time came to sell. Overall then, this is the embodiment of friendly functionality behind a badge you probably thought you couldn't afford. With potential cleverness you almost certainly won't be expecting from something citycar-sized. A thumbs up! then? That's about the size of it.