Say ta-ta to taxis with this new entry-level VW, a basic city car with fantastic charm
Upgrade from Public Transport Photo: Press Release

Wordplay is important to automotive marketers selling fun runabouts. This is why Daimler calls its tiny two-seater “smart” (small “s”, please), BMW refers to its British arm as “MINI” (all capital letters, please), Mitsubishi has its “i” on Japan’s minicar segment, and Toyota is being clever with its iQ. 

Volkswagen has now joined the fray with its “up!” – complete with exclamation mark. I hereby exclaim, “Sorry, no can do! I have to turn down VW’s request to spell it that way! It is entirely up to me and this mag, so too bad!”

On a more serious note!...  The Up takes its name from the Lupo (the two letters in the middle – duh), but that round-eyed cutie from 1998-2005 is not the Up’s immediate predecessor. That would be the Fox. In any case, Up sounds a lot better than Lu, Po or Ox.

Christening the newcomer is the easy part. It is much harder making it cheap and good, teeny yet roomy, and both economical and enjoyable to drive. The Up is a modern Volkswagen, so people also expect it to somehow compress the Polo’s practicality and the Golf’s goodness into a smaller package, rather than compromise on those familiar VW virtues.

The Up is indeed petite, but it is big on style. Chief designer Walter de Silva is Italian, so he knows and loves small hatches, and the end result is one of the prettiest city cars this side of a Fiat 500. Summing up the styling, the man said, “It combines the solidity of a Golf with the friendliness of a Beetle; it is an honest car, nothing is decoration.”

The only ornaments are large “VW” emblems and, on the special launch editions, flashes of exterior chrome. There is a lovely choice of 15-inch and 16-inch alloy wheels, some of which have a retro design that contrasts beautifully with the avant-garde tail-lights. Ironically, the Up looks more foxy than the Fox.

The packaging maximises the modest dimensions. The Up is just a bit bigger than the Lupo, but the 10cm longer wheelbase and those shorter overhangs translate into a much roomier vehicle. The boot, for instance, has almost twice the cargo capacity of the Lupo. It is versatile, too, with a two-level floorboard, bag hooks and 60:40 split-fold all available.

Playing a key role in the space-efficient packing of this German “bento box” is the engine compartment, where the radiator actually sits on the left together with the transmission.

Up and running is the brand-new, 1-litre 3-cylinder, coupled with a 5-speed manual gearbox (automated by the time it comes to Singapore). This is a simple drivetrain – no DSG, no turbo, no direct injection and not much juice on tap. You can have either 75bhp or 60bhp, but both power ratings have the same 95Nm of torque. With a kerb weight of between 850kg and 950kg, depending on equipment, the Up provides acceptable performance and incredible economy. It is possible to squeeze 800km from the 35-litre tank if you drive judiciously – with nobody else on board.

Putting four people into the Up does not require them to be Yoda-sized or yoga experts, thanks to an amazing amount of cabin space, especially for the front passenger. Even on the back seat, where city cars tend to feel cramped, the Up throws up ample headroom, adequate legroom and satisfactory shoulder-room for my 1.77m person. There are even side panel recesses to “park” your elbows, plus four cupholders and sizeable front door bins. The generous windows create an airy ambience, but rear occupants have much of their forward view blocked by the integral head restraints of the front seats. Said chairs are comfortable, and they have a semi-bucket shape that looks remotely sporty. Eight choices of Up-holstery are offered, ranging from cattle class cloth to executive class leather – the latter also wrapped around the steering wheel and handbrake lever. There is a choice of six textures for the dash pad, with the coolest being a ceramic-like finish painted to match (or artistically mismatch) the car’s exterior colour. Also noticeable are cost-saving measures that include plain plastics, bare seat belt anchorages, tilt-only steering and cut-price ceiling lining.

In the minimalist variant called Take Up, glossy touches are non-existent, the “glovebox” is merely an open shelf, the windows are manually wound, the key has no remote and there is no tachometer. The next higher spec is Move Up, with added amenities – a rev counter, central locking, powered windows and wing mirrors, a proper glovebox, split-fold for the rear bench, height adjustment for the driver’s seat and a make-up mirror in the sunvisor for the co-driver.

The cheesy nomenclature continues with the highest spec level – High Up. It tops up the Move Up with niceties that include fog lamps, chrome trim, air-con, black leather and a better stereo.

The audio system can be coupled with Maps+More, an innovative infotainment device that attaches to the top of the dashboard. An affordable extra (355 euros in Germany), M+M is a 5-inch touch-screen that serves as a nifty nerve centre for satellite navigation (either in the car and on foot), trip computation, Bluetooth hands-free connectivity and additional media features. It even doubles up as a display for the optional ParkPilot reverse parking aid. A micro-SD memory card slot allows the gadget to be updated regularly with improved firmware and practical apps (paid or free of charge).

Maps+More also offers a ThinkBlue Trainer (TBT). This eco-motoring function monitors the Up’s accelerator, brake pedal and gearbox, and encourages the driver to modify his driving style in order to reduce fuel consumption. Relevant tips and graphics are provided for this purpose. In conjunction with the sat-nav, TBT can also search for the nearest petrol kiosk when the car’s fuel level is running low.

Thinking blue is far less useful than thinking fast when driving in Rome, where most of the local motorists behave like gladiators in a hurry and every other Vespa rider is an aspiring Valentino Rossi. It is no joke being Up against the aggressive road users of the Italian capital.

As long as the tacho needle is swinging above 4000rpm, the 75 ponies of the sub-tonne VW pull well enough to keep Up with traffic, not only in town but also on the autostrada. What the 1-litre lacks in outright energy, it makes up for with enthusiasm, revving happily past the 6250rpm redline to 6750rpm before the gentle rev limiter ends play. Low-effort gearchanges and a light clutch pedal help the driver get Up to speed. Interestingly, the 60bhp model doesn’t feel much slower on busy Roman streets, with its 15bhp deficit obvious only on trunk roads.

The ride quality is impressive, considering the ordinary torsion beam suspension and its limited travel, while cabin insulation from outside noise is not discernibly worse than in a Polo. Most bumps in the tarmac are absorbed without fuss, but going quickly over rougher patches can upset the Up. Even then, its rigid body stays unshaken and the car continues to track straight. 

Curves, corners and suicidal scooters do not turn the Up upside down, either. It steers neatly everytime, everywhere (albeit with no feel in the electrically assisted wheel), and it is easy to position on the go, letting you squeeze the pipsqueak bravely through little traffic gaps and narrow lanes. Its tight turning circle and excellent visibility also play a part in the Up’s urban nimbleness.

Other compact cars might be similarly agile, but the City Emergency Braking option is unique to the Up. This active safety system employs a laser sensor (housed in the base of the rear view mirror) that scans the area 11 metres ahead at speeds of between 5km/h and 30km/h, automatically applying the brakes if it senses an impending collision and the driver doesn’t react in time.

Putting a brake on the Singapore sales potential of the VW Up is the Category A COE, which is likely to remain costly when the vehicle arrives next June. That said, the dealership could sell the Up as a fresher yet cheaper alternative to the Fiat 500 and Mini One – and not just a funky Up-grade from public transport.

SPEED UP

Volkswagen could be working on a successor to the Lupo GTI.

Hot hatch enthusiasts know about the Golf GTI and Polo GTI, but not everyone remembers the Lupo GTI. This loveable 1.6-litre pocket rocket, produced between 1999 and 2005, was touted as the spiritual successor to the original Golf GTI. Its performance elements include a punchy power-to-weight ratio, chunky 15-inch alloy wheels, centrally mounted twin tailpipes and a suitably sportified cockpit. A close-ratio 6-speed manual became standard from the 2001
model year.

Able to accelerate from zero to 100km/h in 8.2 seconds and reach a top speed of 205km/h, the Lupo GTI made the Mark 4 Golf GTI look a little uninspired.

A certain ex-Torque editor asked Singapore’s VW agent at the time, Car & Cars, to bring in a new Lupo GTI for him. He was advised that it would be almost as expensive as a new Golf GTI, which had an on-the-road price of around $155k. So, he bought a RenaultSport Clio 172 instead.

Ten years later today, the reborn Lupo that is the new Up might receive some “gran turismo injection”. Previewed in the form of the GT Up concept, this potential pocket rocket will have at least 100bhp, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you factor in the 900kg body weight. That is a promising 111bhp per tonne.

 

 

This article first appeared in Torque.

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