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A forgotten suitcase – in another country entirely – and a flight to catch are two very good reasons to exploit Germany’s unrestricted stretches of autobahn to the maximum, as if an excuse is needed in the first place. And this is how, a few weeks ago, I found myself racing between Stuttgart and Lausanne, and then on to Munich, behind the wheel of Volkswagen’s new Up! city car. Now, you may think a small, three-cylinder, 1,0-litre econo-box and autobahn are things that don’t belong in the same sentence, and so did I, but there I was, throttle pinned to the floor for miles on end, and with 180 km/h-plus indicated on the large speedometer. That’s flying.
So then, right up front I can confirm that there are talents that the Up! has that are not immediately obvious judging by its boxy looks and entry-level price status. Besides the surprising performance from the 55 kW engine (a lower-output 44 kW is also available), the Up! also brings new levels of big-car comfort and quality to this segment. The premium-feel perhaps also stems from the fact that it is produced in VW’s Bratislava factory in Slovakia, the same factory that produces high-quality vehicles such as the Audi Q7, Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg.
Swing open the large doors and you’re greeted by an interior that could shame a few cars one segment up. Typically Volkswagen in execution, there’s a restrained, upmarket style to it all. The seats are superb, with good lateral support and soft padding where necessary. This marque always does good driving positions and the Up! is no different, with plenty of adjustment on offer.
The facia layout – again the work of South Africa’s Oona Scheepers – is slightly more quirky than what you'd usually see in Volkswagen vehicles, being similar in overall look to the recently introduced new Beetle's. There is an oversized speedometer in the binnacle in front of the driver, for example, flanked by quite the cutest and smallest rev counter I’ve ever seen. The steering wheel on my test unit was also a nice-to-grip flat-bottom item with racy black plastic inserts.
The model I drove was the high-spec, so-called “black-up!” edition, which comes with an interior fitted with black plastic inserts and a standard removable Navigon satellite-navigation touchscreen that also integrates handsfree telephone and media player functions. The system is very handy, but I wish the screen was a bit more sensitive, or the virtual buttons a bit bigger.
A full trip computer is also part of the deal, allowing us to monitor the Up!’s remarkable fuel efficiency – a claimed combined cycle figure of 4,2 L/100 km is quite achievable (though obviously not at 180 km/h) and combined with a 35-litre tank, should give a range of over 800 km! The Up! is also the first car in its class to offer an automated emergency brake function which, when activated, slows the vehicle automatically when travelling at low speeds (5 – 30 km/h) in bumper-to-bumper conditions.
Given the tight exterior dimensions and two-doors only body, you may think cabin space is tight. In front, there’s absolutely no problem. The surprise is, however, that I could even do the sit-behind-myself test in relative comfort in the back. That said, it is a strict four-seater. The boot is obviously not huge, but surprisingly deep, and probably bigger than most in this segment. We fitted two average-sized suitcases in there.
On the road, the Up! has a grown-up, bigger-car feel compared with the likes of the Toyota Aygo and Suzuki Alto. Although there’s that characteristic off-beat three-cylinder thrum from the engine, it is smooth and willing to rev all the way to the red line. In fact, in terms of the way it sits on the road, it comes across as every bit as refined and quiet as a Polo. Even the ride feels familiar, which is quite an achievement given the car’s relatively short wheelbase. Of course, the steering is tuned for easy twirling in the city, so there’s little feel. And the comfort-oriented ride means it leans a bit in the corners, but the target market will prefer it the way it is.
I really find this vehicle quite hard to fault. The problem is, however, that this excellence comes at a cost. The Up! is a bit more premium-priced than its main rivals and therefore likely to sell (at entry-level) in the R110 000-R120 000 price bracket in South Africa. This is problematic not only because a small three-door car at that price may be a hard sell, but also because Volkwagen already markets the hugely popular Vivo for similar money. Keep in mind that the Vivo is locally made and therefore hugely important from local business and employment perspectives, and it is completely understandable that Volkswagen SA is taking great care with formulating the Up!’s business plan. Right now introduction of the three-door model looks unlikely in the immediate future, but Volkswagen SA is working on it. More likely for local introduction, possibly, is the new, slightly larger and more practical five-door model.
But I think that may be a mistake. I may be wrong and I don’t have all the facts and figures in front of me, but my common sense tells me that the five-door Up! wouldn’t succeed terribly well… if the Vivo remains on the market in three- and five-door forms, too. And if the five-door Up! is more expensive than the three-door model.
The question then, is how seriously does VWSA really want the Up! in South Africa. Cars of this size are, after all, relatively low volume sellers. If VW does, however, want to bring the Up! to South Africa and not affect Vivo sales too much, I think the three-door model, not the five-door, is the way to go…
As far as I know, the three-door Vivos are not volume sellers, but the five-door models are. Perhaps then, Volkswagen should scrap the cheap three-door Vivo models, and introduce the three-door Up! instead? Surely if you’re going to buy a compact city car, the three-door Up! should be sufficient. And just as surely, if you’re looking for a cheap car with five doors, you’d also want space (Vivo)? The Up!’s South African future will unfold soon enough. Until then, we’re missing out on the best car in its class.
Model: Volkswagen Up 3-dr (55 kW)
Engine: 1,0-litre, three-cylinder, petrol
Power: 55 kW at 6 200 r/min
Torque: 95 N.m at 3 000-4 300 r/min
0-100 km/h: 13,2 sec
Fuel consumption: 4,2 L/100 km
CO2: 98 g/km
Top Speed: 172 km/h
Price: around R120 000
Service or maintenance plan: TBC
Service intervals: TBC