Volkswagen Up: first drive
TG mag’s Ollie Marriage reports back on VW’s new city car
So, the VW Up. It's amazing really that it's taken VW so long to have a proper stab at the city car market. OK, so it had the Lupo a decade or so back, but the Fox that replaced it was very much an afterthought. The Up isn't. This is VW, a serious car company, getting mighty serious about small cars. The Up, it believes, will be its biggest selling car across the globe when it goes on sale in December.
And not just as a three door with a three-cylinder 1.0-litre engine. News scoop, folks: a five door version will be unveiled at the Frankfurt Show in ten days time, and further down the line there'll be other engines. Accord to Ulrich Hackenburg, VW's vastly important R&D boss, "there will be an engine with more than three cylinders, and maybe one with less, too". There will also be other bodystyles on this new platform as well. Yep, VW is going to be pushing the Up hard, which means trouble for the likes of the Fiat Panda, Hyundai i10 and Toyota Aygo.
Chiefly because this is a very convincing car. Let's start with size. The Up is smaller than a Panda, but has a bigger (250-litre) boot and better rear space. In fact the packaging is brilliant. There's a feeling of space throughout the cabin - not just leg and headroom, but things like elbow space and the fact that driver and passenger aren't cheek-by-jowl.
VW isn't famed for its packaging, but by pushing the wheels right out to the corners and maximising the wheelbase, it's achieved impressive things. Then there's the quality. There are some brittle plastics around, but the bits you touch and feel have been lovingly crafted. Of course VW has only been able to do this by cutting corners in other areas. There's no one-touch for the electric windows, nor reach adjustment for the steering, for instance. But what matters is this is a VW where it counts - comfort, seating, ergonomics, design, layout, texture, atmosphere, practicality and all the rest. Much effort has been expended in this car's creation.
Take the engine - it's an all-new, all-alloy three cylinder which should be prone to vibration, especially as it doesn't have balancer shafts. VW has worked hard - and successfully - to eradicate as much harshness as possible without losing the nice thrum that three cylinders are famed for. Of course it's not especially powerful, but then it doesn't need to be because that's not what a city car is about. The same engine delivers either 59bhp or 74bhp and the more potent of the two that we drove pops along with reasonable verve. It doesn't like high revs, tending to tie itself in knots as the 6000rpm redline hoves into view, but between 2,000 and 5,000rpm it hauls along quite merrily. The five speed manual's nice, too.
Shame about the dull throttle response and soft steering feedback, but maybe VW is right and some measure of handling sharpness should be sacrificed in favour of a smooth ride. Job done in that case, because the Up behaves better than any other car that I can think of in this class. Motorways hold no fears, it's easily quiet enough and all rather polished and fuss-free.
But is it fun to drive? Now there's a question. There's certainly pleasure to be had from the Up, but it doesn't have the Panda's eagerness nor the Aygo's nimbleness. Despite its size, it feels more mature than that, more serious.
There's that word again. But what you actually take away from the Up isn't a feeling that it's all rather grown-up, but that this is a clean, fresh design, a new take on the city car that's typically VW, and has been honed and perfected over a long period of time. It'll be a steal if VW can keep the price at around the £8500 mark, and the options are tempting too - a nifty sat nav system called Maps+More for under £400, and a radar brake system to prevent low speed shunts for under £200.
It's good, the Up. Good enough that the facelifted Panda will have to have raised it's game several notches to match it, good enough to give the entire city car class a real shake up. You didn't expect any less, did you?