The tiny Volkswagen Up will set many benchmarks when it gets here in late 2012, and on the surface none of them seem appealing. It will be the smallest Volkswagen sold here, the least powerful new car on the entire market, and the cheapest car from a German brand.
But, with an expected price below $15,000, it will put the Volkswagen badge within reach of more buyers on a budget. And for Volkswagen, that's what the Up is all about.
Say hello to the little car with big aspirations. The Volkswagen Up is smaller than a Nissan Micra yet more spacious than the bigger Mini Cooper. Its cutesy design and styling will draw attention, but it's the badge that will ultimately seal the deal.
Volkswagen believes the Up will appeal primarily to two core groups; young buyers on a budget, and older buyers keen to downsize. So we can expect a sharp entry price to please the former sub $15,000 and a lengthy list of options to keep the latter in the comfort they desire.
The Up 3-door was launched this month in Europe but Australia must wait until late 2012 for its arrival Downunder. Volkswagen says that's because European demand is high; more likely it's because they're waiting for the 5-door due at the end of 2012 which will appeal more to Australians.
In Europe, the Up starts at E9850 (about $14,000) and comes in three specification levels: Take Up, Move Up and High Up. More cutesy stuff, but it's all about making the Up stand out.
Only the most expensive model, the High Up (E12,450, $18,000), gets electric mirrors, air-conditioning and a radio/CD player. All Australian models surely will have a sound system and air-conditioning standard, otherwise the sub-$15k price on the starter model becomes a bad joke.
And Volkswagen has confirmed that model won't be called the Up start.
Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control and satellite navigation are available on European models, and will probably be cost options in Australia, too.
So the Up is going to struggle for outright value in a market segment dominated by bigger cars like the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Suzuki Swift and Toyota Yaris. Admittedly only that last one matches the Up's sub-$15k proposition in a three-door. Even against Up-sized cars like the Nissan Micra, Suzuki Alto and Holden Barina Spark, the Up struggles to represent good value, given that their ranges all kick off around $12,990.
It all depends on what you're prepared to pay for a Volkswagen badge, and the less-visible inherent value that brings, such as driving pleasure, reliability and resale value. But let's not forget Volkswagen's high servicing costs and the Up's thirst for more expensive premium unleaded. Those last two could be deal-breakers for buyers on a budget.
All Up models are front-wheel drive and come with a 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine which requires premium unleaded to produce a meagre 44kW, or 55kW in high-tune form, mated to a five-speed manual transmission.
An automated version of this transmission will arrive in 2012 which does away with the clutch and the need to change gears, but is unlikely to be as smooth as a true automatic gearbox.
Cheap cars are often light-on for headline technology, and the Up's no different. You won't find radar cruise control or lane-keeping systems here, not in a car starting below $15,000. But the options list will have some smart systems, like the city emergency brake feature which hits the anchors if it senses an imminent frontal impact.
The Up will also get a stop-start system that cuts the engine when the car is not moving.
Volkswagen's designers were keen to ensure the Up did not look cheap despite the cheap price, and they succeeded. The Up's design is characterful and visually appealing, though not as overtly so as the more expensive Mini Cooper and Fiat 500. The Up really turned heads during my familiarisation drive on the streets of Rome, a European city which clearly loves small cars.
The Up's lines are pleasing, its stance is strong and its big grin is infectious. Five colours will be offered, though I particularly like the Up in white with matching white wheel-covers.
The interior continues the clever design theme, using the exterior paint colour to add levity to what could easily have been a Spartan space given the relative dearth of equipment. Gaily-covered seats on the upmarket models also help.
Electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes will be standard on all Aussie Ups. As for airbags, well here's where Volkswagen Australia faces a significant challenge. The Up's three main rivals offer front and side airbags for front seat occupants and curtain airbags for both rows. The Volkswagen Up only has front and front-side airbags, and has not been engineered to take curtain airbags which are proven injury reducers in side impacts.
As for the Up's crash test credentials, one high-placed VW source told CarsGuide the company is not happy with the as-yet unreleased results of the Up's initial testing by EuroNCAP. Word is the Up scored only four stars, the same as its major rivals, but that the standard fitment of a longer bumper (developed for countries outside Europe) would improve pedestrian safety and make the Up a five-star car.
Negotiations were ongoing as we went to press.
This Up ain't no downer. Slide into its classy cabin and it's clear this cheerful cheapie wasn't built down to a price. The interior exudes the same quality feel as other Volkswagen cars, partly because much of the switchgear is shared with Polo and Golf.
The VW Up is just 3.54m long and 1.48m tall, tiny even by tiny-car standards (the Nissan Micra is 5cm taller and 24cm longer, for example), but it's surprisingly roomy inside. Indeed, the interior was a key focus for Volkswagen's development team. It had to be spacious and classy, two characteristics not usually associated with this end of the market.
There's room for adults in the front and back seats, and boot-space is decent. Volkswagen claims 281 litres, which is far beyond the Micra's 221 litres. But that's because the Up carries no spare tyre in Europe, though Volkswagen may choose to offer one locally.
There's nothing wrong with the Up's driving position and all-round vision, and the seat is supportive, though some may lament the lack of in-out adjustability for the steering wheel.
At idle the 55kW engine is barely audible and barely felt, which is unusual for an inherently unstable three-cylinder configuration. It does need a few revs to move off or the clutch's abrupt take-up will cause it to labour. With just 92Nm of torque on offer, the Up's performance is never scintillating. VW claims 0-100km/h in a sloth-like 13.2 seconds but it actually feels quicker than that, and the engine can be pushed without it becoming coarse or noisy.
The front-drive Up has enough punch to handle city traffic and the five-speed manual transmission is willing and smooth, though gearchanges are necessary to cope with hills and to deliver on any urgent requests for acceleration.
The optional five-speed automatic, essentially a robotised version of the manual and not a super-smooth double-clutch DSG as offered on Polo and Golf, was not available to drive at launch.
On the move the Up continues to distance itself from its rivals, most noticeably with its quiet cabin, and soft yet stable ride which is compliant over the bumps and delivers a relatively firm stance through corners.
Light and quick steering makes the Up effortless to park and nimble in traffic.
Dare I say it? The VW Up is an entertaining and engaging little car to drive. It's all very German and very Volkswagen, and that's unique in a sub-$15,000 car.
Is that enough to forgo the equipment its rivals offer at the same price? And to suffer Volkswagen's high servicing costs and the premium unleaded sting in the pocket every time you fill up?
For some it will be. Because, just like the Polo and Golf, the Up may cost more than its rivals, but it also delivers more of the good life.
A Volkswagen badge has never been so affordable.
Price: from $14,990 (ets)
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Resale: 68 per cent (est)
Service interval: 10,000km
Safety: 4 stars
Engine: 1.0-litre, 55kW, 92Nm
Body: 3-door hatch Weight: 929kg
Transmission: 5-sp manual, front-wheel drive
Thirst: 4.3L/100km, 95 RON, CO2 99g/km.