For Volkswagen's Up! city car, the sky was the limit. David Vivian sees if the top version of the German giant's smallest car, the High Up!, has wings.
Ten Second Review
With a name device cleverly designed to point your buying considerations optimistically northwards (from the entry-level Take Up! via the Move Up! to the range-topping High Up! tested here) and a need to erase previous poor form in the city car sector, the one thing the Volkswagen Up! can't afford to be is average. While it isn't the game-changer hinted at by the rear-engined concept shown at the 2007 Frankfurt Show, it is an object lesson in how to build a perfectly conventional city car. Perfectly.
There's nothing in the least revolutionary or even particularly challenging about the Volkswagen Up! It's no Toyota iQ. Think more along the lines of Kia Picanto with a Wolfsburg address and an obvious desire to shove its cute and capable South Korean rival out of the limelight. There are no gimmicks, no 'next-big-thing' conceits. It's small, beautifully built, well packaged, intelligently appointed, neatly styled and powered by an incredibly economical 1.0-litre engine. Despite resisting trendy cuteness or, indeed, any kind of tacked on personality, it looks to be every inch the success the small but too-expensive Lupo and the much larger but too cheap Fox that preceded it never were. This time, Volkswagen may well have landed one plumb in the heart of the Golidilocks zone. Just right. The Volkswagen Up! is set fair to be the city car that lifts the company out of its run of poor form in this sector and, with an eye to the future, an electric Up! joins the range in 2013 with work already underway on a two-cylinder diesel hybrid version.
The Up! may not be the champion of left field thinking some were expecting, but that isn't to say it's short of smart ideas. Although the engine's in the front and driving the front wheels, it's a tiny three-cylinder unit with the radiator riding side-saddle, making for a very short front end, just like the rear-engined concept. For the High Up! range topper tested here, the 1.0-litre unit develops a punchy 75bhp which makes it notably nippier than the 60bhp entry-level and BlueMotion eco variants with the 0-62mph dash dispatched in 13.2s on the way to a 106mph maximum. A likable 'three-pot thrum' defines the engine note, but it belongs to a refined and free-revving powerplant that's flexible enough to obviate the need for constant cog-swapping, though the standard five-speed 'box has such a light and precise action, you might find yourself changing gear for the fun of it. For those who find changing gear anything but fun, there's the option of a single-clutch sequential auto 'box. The steering is appropriately light and accurate for city driving, but those expecting it to weight up and drip with feel on the open road will be disappointed. The Up! is more than capable on taking on the long haul, but it's optimised for the urban jungle. Nothing unusual there.
Design and Build
BMW may have felt comfortable playing fast and loose with the space efficiency of the MINI's packaging, but Volkswagen knew it could take no such liberties with the Up!. In fact, packing one of the roomiest interiors in the class into one of the most compact exteriors (at just 3.54m long, it's 11cm shorter than a Fiat Panda) is as close as the Up! gets to performing a party trick. With a wheel at each corner and a generous 2.42m wheelbase, the Up! is a proper four-seater with decent space in the rear and the shopping-friendly 251-litre boot is larger than the class norm, too. Fold down the rear seats and this space extends to a genuinely useful 951 litres. If the standard three-door bodystyle doesn't suit your needs, talk to your dealer about the five-door version. So if the Up!'s 'personality' shines through anywhere, it's perhaps apt that it's on the inside. It certainly doesn't have to be grey. With the option of body-keyed painted panels, the interior can be brightened up with fillets of colour but, in any event, it's cleanly designed and easy to get to use, featuring a compact centre pod for many of the minor controls. Simplicity without scrimping on functions is the theme, so there's a pleasing absence of clutter, loads of storage provision, a rather lovely dished, three-spoke steering wheel and a superbly neat and readable instrument cluster. Is the cabin awash with soft-touch plastics? No. But the Up! doesn't feel like a car that's been built down to a price like its Fox predecessor. It's just enough of a cut above.
Market and Model
The Up! range starts at just under £8,000 but you'll need the best part of £10,500 to buy the regular High Up! tested here and over £11,000 for the cosmetically tweaked and larger-wheeled special edition Black and White High Up! models. This pricing aligns closely with that of city car offerings from Kia but is a little above that of Fiat, Ford and Hyundai. Whichever model you choose will come with body-coloured bumpers, daytime running lights, front and side head/thorax airbags, a CD stereo with aux-in and rear ISOFIX points. The High Up! we're looking at here wants for little. As well as ESP stability control, remote central locking, air conditioning, electric front windows, easy-entry seats and a height-adjustable driver's seat, it gets variable-height load floor and 60:40 split/fold rear seats, a Stop/Start system to reduce urban fuel consumption by up to six per cent, battery regeneration and low rolling resistance tyres. Looking after the driver are heated front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, gear lever and handbrake grip, electrically heated and adjustable door mirrors, the 'Maps & More' personal infotainment device and a choice of dashboard colour. The High Up! also gets front fog lights and 15-inch alloy wheels.
Cost of Ownership
It tells you something about the Up!'s fuel-stretching mission when even the 75bhp range-topper tested here will return a combined fuel economy figure of 60.1mpg with emissions pegged at 108g/km. Considering the extra pep the 75bhp engine offers, the 62.7mpg and 105g/km of the 60bhp unit maybe doesn't look quite so special. Then again, the 60 bhp BlueMotion model's 68.9mpg and 96g/km are pretty spectacular and put the Up! in a lower running cost bracket altogether. The VW badge and miserly running costs pretty much rubber stamp very strong residual values, though it will be interesting to see if the mechanically similar but cheaper SEAT Mii and Skoda Citigo versions dilute this over time.
The Up! is surely the car that gets it right for Volkswagen in the baby car sector. If there's one city scoot that truly ticks all the boxes - with the deliberate exception of a cutesy personality - this is the one. Core VW values, honey-I-shrunk-the-Golf design, fine use of space, excellent build and finish, great economy, an engaging drive and ultra-low running costs make it a convincing proposition. It may not be a game changer, but for the time being it's the game's best player. And in range-topping High Up! guise, it feels every bit the most grown-up and serious little car in a premium-obsessed marketplace - a strategy that obviously makes a lot of sense. If any car can make the disappointing Fox fade permanently from the memory, this one can. It's a small car worthy of the VW badge.