First Drive: Volkswagen up!

2012 Volkswagen up!Most of Volkswagen’s new cars in the last few years have been replacing old equivalents or resurrecting past glories. The up! is a completely new car, but since the proper name looks terrible in the middle of a sentence, let’s just call it the Up.

Volkswagen has dabbled in sub-Polo sized cars before, of course. There’s the Fox, and before that the Lupo. But both of those were fairly typical cheap small cars and, well, not very Volkswagen-ish.

Small cars like the Up are harder to get right than big ones, so this is a real test for the manufacturer of ‘people’s cars’. And at first sight your reaction might be different depending on which angle you see it from.

From the front it’s a fabulous looking thing. From the back, the black glass tailgate works well with black or white paint but not so well with colours. If you see it from the side, squint and it’s quite Lupo-esque (you might have to squint harder).

But the city car sector is one that VW has been without a serious contender in for some years. Sales figures across Europe for sub-compact cars like the Fiat 500 and Toyota Aygo are huge, so it’s untapped potential for the Wolfsburg-based brand.

2012 Volkswagen up! (2)The thing that VW is most keen to stress is that this is an all-new car from the ground up, designed for Europe and not built down to a price. Even the two three-cylinder 999cc petrol engines are new. No diesels are planned, because customers in this segment just don’t buy them.

Quality, reliability and understated style are the cornerstones of VW’s definition of VW-ness. It’s difficult to achieve in a 3.5-metre car, but they’ve only gone and done it. Admittedly the reliability will have to stand the test of time, but given how genuinely solid the Up feels all round, it’d be a brave person to bet against it being as reliable as, erm, a Volkswagen.

On the outside the Up is a grower. As my time with it wore on I started to like the look of it more and more. On the inside there are lots of options and the overall feel depends largely on which trim level you choose. Plump for a high-end version, because the lower models’ basic steering wheel and blank ‘buttons’ in the centre console do let the side down.

It’s at the high end that the Up seems best value. It undercuts the Fiat 500, the style king in the sector, and a lot of heads will turn at that. The standard kit complement isn’t the best, but the options list is well-stocked and good value.

There is a lot of potential for personalisation inside and out, from the wheels to the dashboard. There’s even a relatively convincing ‘leather look seats’ option, if you like your vinyl.

2012 Volkswagen up! (3)But the biggest surprise, or perhaps not if you already own a VW, is how large the Up feels inside. There’s genuinely impressive room for four, and the boot, although short in lateral depth, is very deep vertically, with a removable split-level arrangement as standard. Careful stacking will see quite a lot squeeze in there.

The only stumbling block is that new engine. The same basic unit is available in 59bhp and 74bhp outputs, and neither has enough torque to allow easy acceleration to keep up with traffic. They need to be worked quite hard to avoid holding people behind you up, which then ruins its fuel economy. To be fair it’s the same problem that most small petrol-engined cars face.

But that niggle aside, there’s little – nothing, in fact – to criticise about the Up. Aside from the exclamation mark in its name, of course. It feels like a smaller Polo, with sturdy build quality and even a relatively prestige feel in the range-topping high up!, up! black and up! white versions.

It’s all underlined by how quiet it is at speed. City cars just aren’t normally that hushed. Perhaps the smooth Italian tarmac helped, but the refinement was impressive either way.

It’s easy to park, has decent steering and even rides convincingly well over varied surfaces relative to its rivals, so all round it makes for a remarkable little package. It’s not the pokiest and it won’t be as frugal as some, but otherwise the Up is just about as good as city cars get.

Model: Volkswagen up!, £7,995 to £11,180 on the road.
Engine: 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine producing 59bhp or 74bhp.
Transmission: 5-speed manual transmission driving the front wheels.
Performance: Top speed 100 or 107mph, 0-62mph in 13.2 or 14.4 seconds.
Fuel economy: 66 or 67.6mpg.
CO2 rating: 97-108g/km.

Matt Kimberley

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