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 clever little citycar. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
Ten Second Review
The Volkswagen up! is the citycar that has lifted the company out of a previously 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. In this revised form, it's also smarter inside and out - and better connected too. 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. That used to be shown when it came to the construction of very small cars. Take the turn-of-the-century Lupo, Volkswagen's first crack at the modern citycar theme and a model that 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, launched in 2006. 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 returned in 2012 for another try with its smart little up! Third time proved a charm and the up! sold prodigiously, before being significantly updated with a round of changes in the Autumn of 2016. 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! had a long gestation, having first appeared as a concept car at the 2007 Frankfurt motor show. Back then, things were a little different, early prototypes featuring a rear mounted engine beneath the rear bench seat. The finished production car we first saw in 2012 proved to be 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 but the 'Take up!' variant we look at here gets it only in base 60PS form. It's an engine that revs cleanly and pulls decently enough. 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 ASG semi-auto '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
Not too much has changed with the looks of this car. There are re-styled bumpers, a sleeker rear diffuser, door mirrors with integrated indicator lights, revised headlights with LED daytime running lights and smarter rear lights. Otherwise, it's as you were, so 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. Take luggage space as an example; 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. The changes made to this revised model inside are even more subtle than those made to the exterior. There's classier background lighting, better trimming and a few slight chanes in the instrument cluster. Otherwise, it's all very recognisable from before, the cool dished three-spoke steering wheel fashioned from light magnesium and framing an instrument cluster of refreshing simplicity. A pity though that it's still 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. 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 ASG gearbox as an urban alternative to the usual 5-speed manual. Prices for this mid-range 'Move up!' model start from around £10,000 and the only engine option is the base 60PS 1.0-litre unit. You can pay just under £200 more to get this unit in more frugal 'BlueMotion Technology' guise, in which form, it comes with a stop/start system. And in terms of equipment? Well, at air conditioned 'Move up!' level, there's less of the penny-pinching meanness found in the cheaper 'Take up!' derivative. So you do get a lid on the glovebox, remote control locking, a rear seat that spilts 60/40, a vanity mirror, a lights-on warning buzzer, 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 air conditioning, plus 15-inch alloy wheels. Perhaps most significantly, 'Take up!' buyers get Volkswagen's desirabe 'Composition Colour' infotainment system, which comes with a 5.0-inch centre-dash touchscreen, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, plus a 6-speaker stereo.
Cost of Ownership
Any cit car stands or falls by its ongoing costs and the Up! looks to have all its bases covered. The 60PS petrol engine's figures are impressive, at 64.2mpg and 101g/km. Those looking for better economy still will be drawn inexorably to the BlueMotion model which averages a fantastic 68.9mpg and emits just 96g/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.
In 'Move up!' form as tested here, Volkswagen's citycar is 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.