Being a car guy, my automotive interests are actually mostly focused on two very different ends of the spectrum. I love high-performing, high-horsepower cars. Cars like the Audi R8 and Corvette ZR1 bring a huge, stupid grin to my face. On the other end, however, I’m a student of vehicles that are small on the outside but fairly spacious inside. In other words, I can appreciate a good packaging job more than the next guy. I’ve been following the excruciatingly long gestation period of the Scion iQ for years, and was delighted to have the chance to drive a very different, but almost similar, Volkswagen Up! at a recent media event.
The Up! is Volkswagen’s city car, and it’s not sold in the US. Ah yes, the forbidden fruit of non-US market vehicles rears its head again! Unlike some cars in that category that actually do make it to these shores, don’t hold your breath on ever seeing this car at your local VW dealer in the US. After all, VW doesn’t even offer the B-segment Polo in the US, and that’s a full size class larger than this pip-squeak is. (As an aside, I can’t see any reason other than perhaps a weak dollar or high costs that the Polo is not sold here. Plenty of that car’s direct competitors are doing fine, such as the Fiesta, Sonic, Fit, Yaris, Accent, Rio, Mazda2, and others). At any rate, without the Polo bridging the gap between the Golf and Up!, forget about getting an Up! here.
When the Up! was first shown on the auto-show circuit as a concept, it was rear engine/rear wheel drive. Does that sound like any other Volkswagen model in particular? One that perhaps was designed by Dr. Porsche and sold in fundamentally the same form for several decades? But when the Up! was translated into a production car, it changed to a more conventional front engine/front drive layout.
The particular tester I drove must have been, quite literally, right off the boat from Europe. It still had its Euro-spec Wolfsburg front license plate (but a Michigan plate bolted to the back so it could be driven on US roads), a speedometer that displayed only km/h, and a navigation system that pushed the limits of my high school German studies some two decades ago. One thing that is decidedly non-Continental about the Up! is that its small engine is powered by petrol, not diesel. Right now, European buyers can’t even get a diesel Up!. There might be one in the future, but how about a turbocharged Up! GTI with firmer suspension and plaid seats? Now we’re talking.
I mentioned my fascination with packaging earlier, and just look at this car. Very few front wheel drive cars have their wheels pushed to the corners to the degree that the Up!’s are; the Mini Cooper and Scion iQ come to mind. Compared to, say, a Ford Fiesta, the Up! has almost nothing hanging over its front wheels. (Its wheelbase is 95.3 inches while its length is just 139.4 inches.) This makes the car’s profile look more upscale while maximizing interior and cargo volume – and helps weight distribution and handling. In the driver’s seat, the Up! felt very much like a normally-sized car and not like a cartoonishly-small car like the Smart ForTwo. In fact, even though I’m tall (6’4″), if I’m willing to sacrifice some of my own legroom, I could probably convince someone to sit behind me. Cargo volume with the back seat still a seat (and not folded) is a respectable 9 cubic feet.
The Up! feels solid and well-assembled. Not surprisingly, interior materials are a few grades below those in more-expensive VWs like the Golf, or even the Jetta. Yet the hard plastic parts, though prevalent, aren’t shiny, and everything fit together well. Switchgear was better than that in the $79,000 Cadillac Escalade I spent the past week driving. The upper door panels are body colored (so red in this particular car), and everything was screwed together tightly.
There’s a 5 speed manual gearbox in this particular car, and it’s quite easy to use. The clutch was easy to get used to and requires minimal effort to engage. Though apparently I wasn’t bright enough to find the hood release to snap a photo of the engine bay, I was also completely ignorant to the fact that I was driving a car powered by a three cylinder engine. To be sure, it felt down on power (the Up! is available in the Old World with a 60-horsepower three or a 75-horsepower variant; I’m fairly confident that this one had the more powerful engine), but still moved the Up! well enough. In city environments where maneuverability is at a premium over outright power (and two-lane passing never happens), 75 horsepower is sufficient in this car. Car and Driver estimates the Up!’s curb weight at just 2,150 pounds.
It’s not the most agile car in the world, with a somewhat light steering effort and a bit of body roll. The little engine feels somewhat out of breath from the middle of its power band forward. Yet there’s something charming about driving a Volkswagen that is perhaps more true to its roots than other models that share a name and shape with their iconic air-cooled, rear-engined predecessor. I still don’t think Volkswagen would be bold enough to bring the Up! to North America, and even if it did, I suspect that after the early adopters’ demand is satisfied, it will start piling on dealer lots and slink back to its homeland.
Volkswagen may or may not be bold enough to sell this car in the US, but it was fun to get the opportunity to be perhaps the only person in the US who was driving an Up! at that given moment. The sport-bike rider taking a break from his ride to ask me about the Up! also seemed to find it interesting.
Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance, and a few drops of gas for this review.