By Jonathan Crouch
A proper Volkswagen - just a smaller one. Launched in 2012, the up! enabled the German brand to regain the initiative in the important citycar sector and immediately set a high standard for contenders in this class. Frugal, fun, clever and competitively priced, it's a key used car option for buyers, not only for those shopping in the market's smallest segment but also for people buying a compact car of any kind.
Volkswagen. The very name means 'Peoples Car' - the kind of compact, inexpensive transport pioneered by the Beetle fifty years ago. Something the Wolfsburg maker hadn't had a lot of success in providing before this up! was launched. This model changed all that, a design that democratised sophisticated small car technology in Europe at the same time as offering a new kind of basic transport for the emerging markets of China, India and South America.
In early concept, it was smarter even than the finished product that finally made the showrooms in 2012, the original 2007 prototype being rear-engined just like the early Beetle, as the German designers sought to find more space from an ever-smaller roadway footprint. But such complexity would have made the finished production version as expensive as 'lifestyle' small cars like the MINI or the Audi A1. Which wasn't the point at all. The Wolfsburg brand was determined that the up! would be a car that almost anyone could afford. In any case, it could still be clever even if it was conventionally front-engined. If the engine could be smaller, the wheelbase longer and the overhangs shorter, the development team reckoned that the ambitious cabin space goals set by the rear-driven concept could still be achieved.
To that basic formula was added all manner of innovation. Depending on its purpose and the preference of its buyer, an up! can guide you with Google. It can brake itself to avoid an accident. It can even be an all-electric runabout (the battery-powered e-up! introduced in 2014). It can, in short, be all things to all people. A real Peoples Car. The up! was substantially revised in mid-2016; here, we're focusing on the early 2012-2016 versions.
What You Get
Styling chief Walter de Silva, who first sketched this car on a bit of paper on the flight back from the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, was quick to sum up his objectives with this design: 'the friendliness of a Beetle - the rational perfection of a Golf'. Unmistakably a genuine Volkswagen, the idea within this brief was to create lifestyle on wheels, a smiling look that was simply appealing whose appeal was simple. But forget the aesthetics and the marketing speak: two statistics sum up the real thinking behind this design. 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. Let us give you one example of how that plays out. Let's take luggage space. You don't get quite as much as was offered in this car's predecessor, the Fox, but open the glass tailgate apparently styled to look like a flat-screen TV and as long as you can lump your stuff over the rather high sill, you'll find 251-litres of space - nearly twice what you get in, say, a rival Peugeot 107, a Citroen C1, Toyota Aygo or a MINI.
Push forward the rear bench - only split-folding from mid-spec upwards - and the 951-litre total is 50% more than you'd get in the ordinary boot of a huge Volkswagen Passat Estate. From mid-spec 'Move up!' level onwards, you get a variable level cargo floor. Lower it for taller items: raise it if you want a completely level luggage floor when the seats are folded.
Up front, a cool dished three-spoke steering wheel fashioned from light magnesium frames an instrument cluster of refreshing simplicity. A pity though that it's 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 like its Fox predecessor. It just feels agreeably minimalist. This is certainly a colourful cabin and buyers from new got the option of painted body-coloured panels evoking the spirit of the original Beetle. The car is well screwed together too by the Slovakian factory: when you turn the air vents to one side for example, they locate with a well-rounded 'click'. Only a few little touches - the lack of illumination for the electric window switches for example - remind you of this car's lowly position in the Volkswagen line-up. There's loads of storage too, with bottle holders in each of the two doors, a glovebox holder for pens, a compartment for your sunglasses and three cupholders dotted around the cabin.
Perhaps the cleverest touch is the 'Maps + More' portable infotainment system with a neat 5" colour touchscreen you can carry in your pocket or handbag and then clip just above the centre console. It's a little box of tricks that includes a navigation system, a hands-free telephone unit, a media player and even vehicle information displays. There are four basic menus - 'Vehicle', 'Navigation', 'Media' and 'Telephone'. In 'Vehicle', you've a trip computer, door monitoring, parking assist info and the so-called 'ThinkBlue.Trainer' that can help you drive more eco-consciously. In 'Navigation', which can display in 3D, you can locate everything from local carparks to places of interest. And if you park up and take the screen with you, it can even guide you back to your car if you forget where you've parked it. Then there's 'Media', which can play music from SD cards and MP3 players and display your photos. And 'Telephone' functions with any Bluetooth smartphone, offering voice-activated control. 'Maps & More' can be cleverer still if you download onto it a whole range of apps.
What to Look For
Most up! owners we surveyed were very happy with their cars, but inevitably, there were a few issues. A number of people complained about noisy transmissions. One owner was more specific, citing a transmission / clutch 'snatch' noise on every gear change that for him, ruined an otherwise good driving experience. Another owner complained of a sticking reverse gear; look out for that.
One owner found that water drainage under windscreen when blocked, emptied into the car interior via the heater! Another complained of a leaking windscreen seal, a paint mismatch with the fuel filler cap and rattles from the driver and passenger door lock area. We also came across reports of the rear brakes squealing during braking.
(approx based on a 2013 up! 1.0 60PS) An air filter will be priced in the £8 to £13 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £5 to £10 bracket and a radiator will be around £140. The brake discs we came across sat in the £25 to £45 bracket. Brake pads are in the £12 to £23 bracket for a set but for pricier brands, you could pay in the £35 to £55 bracket. A drive belt will cost you between £5 and £20, depending on brand. Wiper blades cost in the £10 to £30 bracket. A water pump is around £135. Shock absorbers sit in the £50 to £80 bracket.
On the Road
Volkswagen values shrunk into compact form ought to bring a very appealing result. You'd imagine refinement. A comfortable ride. And a solid, well appointed cabin. A combination of virtues never quite delivered by the brand's previous Fox and Lupo citycars - but much in evidence here. Despite, as it happens, the use of an engine hardly suited to Volkswagen virtues. Three cylinder 1.0-litre units like this one are, in our experience, busily revvy at best and downright noisy at worst, as is the case with Ford's EcoBoost unit.
This one though, is the most refined of its kind. Not refined enough, it must be said, to quite let you forget the cylindrical imbalance under the bonnet. But then the characteristic offbeat rasp isn't unpleasant and rather suits this car's rather offbeat charisma. You'll certainly be hearing plenty of it if rapid progress is needed, for without a turbocharger to boost torque, this one needs to be revved quite a bit, peak power not arriving until 6,000rpm, only 600rpm shy of the red line. And if you're wondering quite how much power we're talking about, the answer is not a great deal in the mainstream 1.0-litre variants we're focusing on here, cars offering a choice of either 60 or 75PS outputs, with an identical 95Nm of torque either way.
Most will be content with the base version, capable as it is of 62mph in 14.4s on the way to 99mph, quite enough to keep up with the traffic. We're not sure we'd see the point of finding a lot more money for the 75PS variant, given that the performance gains are relatively slight (0-62mph in 13.2s on the way to 106mph). The other up! derivative is the pricey all-electric e-up! variant. This version uses an 82PS electric motor that works with an 18.7kWh 374-volt lithium-ion battery pack and can offer a claimed driving range of up to 93 miles between charges. You won't get anything like that though, if you exercise all of the claimed performance, a healthy 210Nm torque figure enabling a rest to 62mph figure of 12.4s, with the car able to keep accelerating briskly until its rather modest 80mph maximum speed has been reached.
The UK importers though, are focusing all their efforts on the merits of normally aspirated 1.0-litre petrol power, a unit that as we've already mentioned, is surprisingly refined, something further complemented by impressive ride quality. There seems to be a feeling amongst some auto makers that all really tiny cars need go kart-like standards of ride and handling. Volkswagen doesn't subscribe to it and rightly so, the result being standards of 'big car' damping that really do make you feel like you're riding in something more expensive.
Thankfully though, there's nothing 'big car' about the urban experience served up! here. The electric power steering's light and effort-free in a car as nippy and manoeuvrable as you'd want any city tiddler to be with just under three turns lock-to-lock and a 9.8m turning circle so tight that if you're driving along and spot a space on the opposite side of the road, you're likely to be able to respond taxi-style and turn right into it. If this is your usual environment, you'll probably also want to consider the slightly jerky robotised semi-automatic 5-speeder that constitutes VW's clutch-less gearbox option. Personally, we'd stick with the ordinary 5-speed manual if we possibly could.
In town, the thick A-pillars can limit visibility at junctions and roundabouts but there's the peace of mind of a City Emergency Braking system if the car you choose has been specified with it. This set-up is automatically active at speeds of below 19mph and uses a laser sensor in the upper part of the windscreen to scan the road ahead for potential collision hazards. If one is detected and the driver doesn't react, the brakes are primed. Should the driver then brake, stopping power is maximised. If he or she doesn't - or can't - then the car can automatically brake to a halt by itself. The system can even autonomously apply the brakes if you're about to be rear-ended. Very clever.
As for life beyond the city limits, well there are better drivers' choices in this class, cars that roll less with more feelsome steering. That said, you can still confidently have fun in this one thanks to predictable handling and plenty of grip.
This is the very essence of a small, affordable Volkswagen, a high quality class-less car very much in the mould of the original Beetle. One of the lightest small runabouts you can buy, it still manages to feel solid, a triumph of packaging and design that's streets ahead of any citycar the brand has previously brought us. Highlights include superb space efficiency, a brilliant detachable infotainment system and a city braking function that'll pay for itself in peace of mind. All very clever and in execution, all very German - which might have delivered to the showrooms a very impressive but essentially rather soul-less result. Fortunately, the up! has enough character to make you like it as well as admire it - something crucial in an increasingly fashion-led market segment.
If you like the look and you can afford to go beyond entry-level poverty spec, then there aren't too many downsides here. A few rivals can better the running costs - but not by much. And the SEAT and Skoda versions of this car are a little cheaper - but you'd likely lose what you gained in the probable trade-in value when the time came to sell. Overall then, this is the embodiment of friendly functionality behind a badge you probably thought you couldn't afford. With potential cleverness you almost certainly won't be expecting from something citycar-sized. A thumbs up! then? That's about the size of it.