Posted Oct 8th 2012 11:57AM
Despite the bigger car stereotype, North Americans are slowly but surely warming up to intelligent little city cars. What started with miniscule Smart ForTwo as the only car in this micro machine category has grown to include strong rivals like the Fiat 500, Scion iQ and more recently General Motors Chevrolet Spark. But until widespread success in this segment is firmly on record, it's no secret that automakers are hesitant to bring over their smallest offerings. It's one thing to import hundred-thousand-dollar supercars, but when you're trying to compete with a low-price-point product, additional import costs only hurt the business case.
Elsewhere 'round the globe, Volkswagen is enjoying early success with its Up! minicar, the tiny runabout that was named 2012 World Car of the Year during the New York Auto Show. And since Volkswagen brought an Up! to North America in order to proudly take the stage during that Big Apple award ceremony, the automaker sent its worldly winner on a National tour. We grabbed the keys for a few days during the Up!'s stay in the Motor City.
Related Gallery2012 Volkswagen Up!: Review
We could litter this entire review with synonyms of "small" to describe the Up!'s stature, but we'll put it in some better perspective for you – it's nearly identical in size to the Fiat 500. The Up! is ever-so-slightly shorter in overall length, a tiny bit wider and 1.5 inches shorter in height, but rides on a wheelbase that's a full 5.3 inches longer than the Fiat. That added space between the axles not only gives the car the sort of short-overhang dimensions that we love, but aids in interior packaging efficiency. Attractive 15-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 185/55-series Continental ContiPremiumContact 2 tires fit snugly at all four corners, as well.
The end result is a small car that's as cute as a button with not a single offensive styling element to our eyes. We like the way the grille forms a big grin around the painted front bumper and that same design element is mimicked at the rear. The Up! isn't all bubbly like a Fiat 500, using more squared-off lines and a vertical glass hatch, but this lack of roundness goes the distance once you're inside.
That cabin is perhaps one of the Up!'s biggest surprises, where Volkswagen decided to employ a straight-to-the-point, clean-and-simple, functional design scheme rather than some of the cutesy designs found on other small cars that just turn out to be complete ergonomic messes. Directly in front of you is a flat-bottomed steering wheel with no redundant audio controls that sits in front of a refreshingly basic instrument cluster. The only stalks and buttons within arm's reach feature minimal amounts of functions. To your right is a small control unit for the climate and audio functions with minimal amounts of buttons and knobs. It's all you need, and it works.
The Up! isn't all bubbly like a Fiat 500, using more squared-off lines
and a vertical glass hatch.
As for niceties, this Up! packs more goodies than you might think just by looking at the interior. The small dash-mounted Navigon screen houses a whole host of infotainment features and, as its name suggests, navigation functionality, and those front cloth seats are even heated. They're cushy, too, though we'd eagerly welcome some additional bolstering for our North American-sized backs and thighs.
For the remainder of the interior, the theme is functionality above all else. There are plenty of storage cubbies to be found in the center stack, doors and even the sills that flank the rear bench. Speaking of which, we had no issues climbing behind the front seats, and because of the high position of the front chairs, there's a good amount of toe room to keep you comfortable if you are forced into the back. We packed four adults into the Up! at one point without a single gripe to be heard. In addition to rear seats that fold flat, there's added storage space under the floor of the cargo area for a total of 33.6 cubic feet of usable space for your goods.
All in, the Up! offers a better-appointed interior than what we find in the Fiat 500 or Chevrolet Spark, proving that while we can gripe all we want about the cost-cutting found in the North American-spec Jetta's cabin, Volkswagen does still know how to make a premium small car interior.
It's certainly not fast, this Up! – hitting 60 mph (96 km/h) will take you
a full 13 seconds (yes, even a Prius is quicker).
The automaker has employed a 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine here in the Up!, good for 75 horsepower and 70 pound-feet of torque. Miniscule numbers, no doubt, but it's fine for this 2,072-pound (940 kg) three-door hatchback. It's certainly not fast, this Up! – hitting 60 miles per hour (96 km/h) will take you a full 13 seconds (yes, even a Prius is quicker) – but it isn't a total slowpoke, either. Being able to row your own gears with the five-speed manual transmission helps make the most of the limited power, too.
That said, the driving experience was not quite what we expected... in a good way. The Up! may use a gasoline-fed inline-three, but it has diesel-like characteristics – everything from the sound it makes to how it's geared. First gear is short and you'll want to shift sooner rather than later, but once you've plunked into second, there's a good deal of low-end grunt to get you going. The same goes for third gear, and the final two cogs are merely there to keep the revs down when you're cruising. The transmission itself is nicely tuned, though like many other Volkswagens, the clutch is a bit vague. The gearbox itself offers solid engagement, and while we can see the argument for wanting shorter throws while shifting, they don't feel unusually or unpleasantly long.
The driving experience was not quite what we expected... in a good way.
Even after you've counted to 13 and are coasting at 60 mph (96 km/h), the Up! doesn't tremble at the idea of being pushed farther. We had no issues cruising at 80 mph (roughly 130 km/h), and while driving through one heck of a rainstorm, the little Up! held its own with confidence and poise on the wide freeways surrounding Detroit. The upright design and low weight does mean there's a tendency to be tossed around by strong crosswinds, and even during pleasant weather, wind noise is no stranger in the spacious cabin.
As for fuel economy, the Up! absolutely excels here. Where a Fiat 500 won't even hit below 5.8L/100km (40 mpg) with its 1.4-litre MultiAir inline-four, the Up! boasts city/highway numbers of 5.8L/100km (40 mpg) and 4L/100km (59 mpg), respectively – converted from the EU cycle. During our few days of driving, we had no problem coasting just above the 4.7L/100km (50 mpg) mark, making that absolutely best-in-class by a long shot compared to what's available here in Canada and the United States.
During our few days of driving, we had no problem
coasting to the 4.7L/100km (50 mpg) mark.
But what really sweetens this deal is just how rewarding the Up! is to drive. The steering is direct and linear, with good on-center feel and plenty of feedback. It's worlds better than what the Fiat offers, anyway. You run into a few issues with the short wheelbase when driving over uneven road surfaces – the Up! will bounce around a bit – but it's nothing unexpected for a car this size. Beyond that, the Up! offers a comfortable cruising ride for long drives on the highway. Once you're on twisty roads, don't be alarmed if you experience some body roll and understeer built in to the front-wheel-drive chassis, but again, it's nothing out of the ordinary for small cars. And even so, it's better than the lot of what's offered in this country. In fact, the li'l Up! could even give larger cars like the Honda Fit or Chevrolet Sonic a run for their money in terms of overall driver involvement.
But here's where this delicious piece of bite-size forbidden fruit turns bittersweet. Volkswagen has reiterated over and over again that it will not be selling the Up! in Canada or the United States. And if VW thought about taking the plunge on bringing over one of its sub-Golf offerings, more robust models like the Polo would certainly make more sense for our biggie-sized tastes.
Good as the Up! may be, Volkswagen would really have to be careful about pricing if it ever did bring its minicar to our shores. If the Germans could match the $14,995 starting price of the Fiat 500, it'd be gravy, but that's easier said than done. After all, the bigger-is-better Jetta sedan starts at $15,875, so having a miniscule model priced so close to the popular compact sedan doesn't make much sense.
The Volkswagen Up! might just be the best little car we can't have.
Image Credit: Copyright 2012 Steven J. Ewing / AOL