Small cars are big business these days, but will the latest VW hit the spot? Shane O'Donoghue gets a sneak preview.
Road Test: Volkswagen's up! enters small car market
It all came about on an airplane. The thought that Volkswagen needed another new car, smaller than the Polo and to be called the up!, dawned on Volkswagen executives over the Atlantic as they travelled back to Germany from the United States.
Realising that customers in the US were downsizing, Volkswagen's boss, Professor Martin Winterkorn, charged his staff with coming up with a brand new small car. With designer Walter de'Silva on board the same flight, he sketched the outline of what would become the new baby. It is a nice story, even if it might be a little hard to believe.
What is clear is that the world really is beginning to downsize. While here in the Middle East there are no signs of a slowdown in the consumption of petrol, in Europe, alternative methods of propulsion are being seriously explored. The electric car is beginning to appear on European roads and while it might take a while for this new technology to be truly accepted, there is a movement to smaller, cleaner engines. Early Volkswagens were light and had frugal engines so, in a way, a return to this idea isn't ground-breaking, and you can look into Volkswagen's recent past to see cars like the Lupo and Fox. These three-door, small cars failed to capture the imagination and customers in the same way that models like the Beetle, Polo and Golf did and that is probably because they were relatively heavy, slow and lacked any real personality.
But it would appear that Volkswagen has big plans for its newest arrival. At our preview drive of the up!, Prof Winterkorn spoke about "something that will stir things up" and "attack growth markets" and, given the brand's huge success with cars like the Golf, you feel that if Volkswagen properly applied itself to its smallest car then it might enjoy success with that too.
And this time around it looks like it has taken things more seriously. Unlike its predecessor, the up! forgoes cartoon-like looks in favour of something altogether more modern. In an age where the iPad is king, this might just become one with four wheels. The up! has a friendly face with a large VW badge sitting on a "smiling" grille. The lights are designed to make the car look more "intelligent" and the design team has managed just that with this car. Gone are the doe-eyed looks of previous cars. This time around the up! appears to have more purpose.
In this region we are used to large cars, so the up!'s diminutive size would make it stand out. It is 100mm longer than the old Lupo and 13mm longer than the larger Volkswagen Fox, but while those cars felt very small inside, the packaging of the up! is very clever. The design manages to mask what is quite a high roofline and even someone of more than 180cm in height will find getting comfortable up front easy. And perhaps more surprisingly is the fact that the same tall person will actually be able to sit in the rear without too much difficulty. That is not something you could say about most of the up!'s rivals. At the rear is a relatively small (251L) luggage space, with a collapsible floor, which in some markets will be filled with a space-saver spare wheel.
Inside, the dashboard is bright and cheerful, with its colour matching that of the exterior. Being a Volkswagen, the interior plastics are very good, especially in the areas where your hands and eyes spend the most time. The centre console is simple with basic controls, but where the up! does live up to its quirky, modern image is in the additional navigation system that can be fitted to the top of the dashboard. This unit will be called a Portable Infotainment Device (PID), and will not only work as a GPS system, but there will also be a range of downloadable "apps". Unlike many other similar devices, the user simply snaps the PID into place above the centre console. And this system works together with the car much better; navigation, telephone and infotainment can be controlled and viewed via the PID touch-screen. The apps developed for the up! will be available to download.
The predecessors to the up! weren't that good to drive, but this feels much better. The controls are light, though they never feel flimsy, and from the driver's seat the quality gives the sense that you are driving a much larger car. Start the car and there is that unmistakable sound of a three-cylinder engine, which sounds throaty and raucous even if it doesn't really have much in the way of power. At this preview drive, Volkswagen didn't give us much detail on torque or performance figures for the up!, but what we do know is that buyers will have a choice of two 1.0L, three-cylinder petrol engines putting out either 59- or 74hp.
This car is designed primarily to be used around town and at that job it is great. Its small size and good visibility makes it really easy to negotiate in traffic. Stretch the legs of the up! and it is surprisingly good. On the German autobahn we managed to keep the car at 140kph for quite a while with no drama. You would never say that the handling is remarkable, but the car's wheelbase, which has the wheels pushed far out at each corner, does lend itself to decent driving dynamics and, if we believe the rumours, there is set to be a performance GTI version at a later stage.
Aside from that there will definitely be a full electric version of the up! in 2013, although it is unlikely to appear in the Middle East any time soon.
Base price N/A
Engine 1.0L three-cylinder
Gearbox Five-speed manual/six-speed auto FWD
Power 60hp @ 5,500rpm
Torque 95Nm @ 3,000rpm (est)
Fuel economy, combined 4.2L/100km