The Volkswagen up! makes most sense on mid-spec 'Move up!' guise and this variant is likely to be the most popular UK version of the German giant's latest attempt to crack the citycar market. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
Ten Second Review
The Volkswagen up! is a city car that lifts the company out of its run of poor form in this sector. It's almost entirely gimmick-free, features an incredibly economical 1.0-litre engine, is well built, small on the outside and big on the inside. What more could you want? A little personality maybe, but that's a tiny grumble. As to which version prospective customers will end up buying, it's highly likely to be the one on test here, the air conditioned Move up! model.
Even a company as expert in the art of vehicle manufacture as Volkswagen has an Achilles heel. What might well be more surprising is that this weak point comes in the construction of small cars. Volkswagen made its name producing affordable, well-built, inexpensive vehicles but in recent years, its speciality has shifted to larger, more generously padded cars. The Lupo was Volkswagen's first crack at the modern city car theme, but it was too cramped and too expensive to succeed. Determined to learn from this expensive failure, Volkswagen went to the other extreme with the Lupo's successor, the Fox. Bigger than virtually all its rivals, it was also cheap. Too cheap, it seems. It never felt like a Volkswagen product. Many of its rivals struck a far smarter balance between space and comfort. Undeterred, Volkswagen is back for another try with its smart little up! Third time could well prove a charm. For the UK, the range starts with a Spartan 'Take up!' model, but that could prove a little basic for many buyers, people who'll want to find the extra £1,000 for the 'Move up!' variant on test here.
The Up - Volkswagen would prefer we call it the up! but it's high time we put a stop to this sort of thing - has had a long gestation, having first appeared as a concept car at the 2007 Frankfurt motor show. Back then, things were a little different, the Up featuring a rear mounted engine beneath the rear bench seat. The production car is a more conventional thing with a front engine and front wheel drive, but it's not short on clever touches. The tiny three-cylinder engine has a radiator that slots alongside it, making for a very short front end, just like the original. That 1.0-litre powerplant comes in three flavours; entry-level 60bhp, BlueMotion eco 60bhp and a punchier 75bhp version for the range topper. An electric Up joins the range in 2013 with work already underway on a two-cylinder diesel hybrid version. In mid-spec 'Move up!' guise as tested here, you'll be looking at the 60PS variant, an engine that revs cleanly and pulls decently enough, even in 60bhp guise. Obviously it's not quick but it's got enough about it to blend sweetly into city traffic. The standard gearbox is a five-speed manual and it's light and precise with the option of a single-clutch sequential box if clutch pedals bore you. The steering is similarly effort-free but accurate. For city driving the Up is exactly as you'd want. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it's anything but. It's built to a tight remit and it succeeds.
Design and Build
At just 3.54 metres in length, 1.64 metres in width and 1.48 metres in height, the Up is one of the smallest four-seater city cars, measuring a full 11cm shorter than a rival Fiat Panda. Clever packaging means that interior space is maximised. The wheels are teased out to each corner, with the wheelbase of 2.42m being one of the biggest in class, combined with that compact engine and lateral radiator allowing the front bulkhead and crash structures to shift forward too. There's decent room at the back too, with a 251-litre boot being a tad bigger than is typical in this class. Drop the rear seats and this space extends to 951 litres. The interior is colourful, with the option of painted body-coloured panels, evoking the spirit of the original Beetle. The interior design is clean and easy to get to grips with, featuring a compact centre pod for many of the minor controls. There's loads of storage and the cool dished three-spoke steering wheel frames an instrument cluster of refreshing simplicity. Although there's no shortage of hard plastics, 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.
Market and Model
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. And in terms of equipment? Well, if you subscribe to the view that loading up! this little Volkswagen with a lot of extra features will dilute its minimalist charm, you'll be well served by the entry-level 'Take up!' variant, for it really doesn't come with very much at all other than the real basics: you even have to pay extra for a spare wheel. You do though, get an MP3-compatible CD stereo with an AUX-in socket, body-coloured bumpers, daytime running lights and a 12V powerpoint. If that's a bit hair shirt for you, you'll be far better served at air conditioned 'Move up!' level. Here, there's less of the penny-pinching meanness. So you do get a lid on the glovebox, remote control locking, a rear seat that spilts 60/40, a vanity mirror, easy-entry seats that slide for easier rear access and the variable height floor that the boot was designed for. There's body colour for the door mirrors and handles - and you don't have to manually wind up your windows, Seventies style.
Cost of Ownership
Any city car stands or falls by its ongoing costs and the Up looks to have all its bases covered. Opt, as all 'Take up!' buyers will, for the 60bhp engine and the figures are impressive, at 62.7mpg and 105g/km. Those looking for better economy still will be drawn inexorably to the BlueMotion model which averages a fantastic 67.2mpg and emits just 97g/km of carbon dioxide. Residual values look set to be extremely strong, thanks to the Volkswagen badge, the excellent critical reception the car has received and the ultra-low running costs. The only tiny fly in the ointment might be mechanically similar SEAT Mii and Skoda Citigo versions which will be available more cheaply. Volkswagen Group brand managers tend to be confident that a Skoda customer is not a Volkswagen customer. I'm not so sure.
I'll go out on a limb here and say that Volkswagen will break its run of city car duds with the Up. In 'Move up!' form as tested here, it's well-priced, offers plenty of space, a decent enough drive and looks the part. Super-low running costs and a decent breadth of customer choice also score in its favour. It won't have things all its own way in this sector as the competition just gets more intense with each passing year, but it's a very impressive turn. It feels like a properly grown up and rather serious little car. It also feels extremely well-judged. It's clear that money has been spent on the bits that matter. The seats are comfortable, the control weights are just so and the cabin ergonomics just work. Other cars might go a little further in the styling department, but the Up's appeal is that it's not trying to trick you into liking it with gimmickry. You'll respect the way it works. How German. How very Volkswagen.