2014 VW up review
Tony Bosworth’s 2014 VW up review with pricing, specs, ride and handling, safety, verdict and rating.
I’m a fan of three-cylinder motors. Back nearly two decades ago I bought a Daihatsu Sirion and ran it for 15 years. It was Australia’s least expensive car at the time ($12,000 in 1998, for the record), had a five-speed gearbox, five doors, electric windows all round and a fuel-sipping petrol 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine producing 40kW of power.
I mention this because in some ways it was back to the future this week as I climbed aboard another three-cylinder motor, Volkswagen’s up! (yes, that’s the way the Germans like it to be written), strangely enough powered by a similar fuel sipping petrol 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine but producing 55kW of power and feeding to the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox.Incidentally, VW believes the up!’s sub-light category (more or less a category of one in Australia but big in Europe) is set for massive growth, so there’s a lot riding on this car made at Volkswagen’s plant in Slovakia.
The up! really does have a wheel at each corner. This simple but effective design goes a long way to explain why there is so much useable room inside the car as the wheels and their suspension components are largely pushed right out to the edges. This configuration also gives the up! a decent ride and pinpoint handling, but more about that later.
Often the trouble with small cars is that they don’t look very good because compromises have to be made, and extracting the most room from such a small space – the up! is a mere 3540mm long – leaves little room for a pleasing exterior style. The up! is not a perfect looker – gaze at it from the side and while the front looks smooth and stubby and purposeful (VW say they believe they have succeeded in making the up! smile…), towards the rear it appears to have been suddenly chopped off. But beauty is always in the eye of the beholder and it’s not as if the up! is ugly, far from it, but it does stand out and that can be both good and bad from an aesthetic point of view.
My feeling is the look is likely to polarise buyers.The body metal is thick and certainly doesn’t feel cheap, and the doors close with a solid thunk. The rear light clusters, in particular, look neat and the hatchback unlatches with the merest pressure on the button revealing 251 litres of space with the rear seats in place and 951 with the seats folded out of the way. If you’re like me that means not very much at all – but yes, importantly, it will swallow at least two big suitcases. So, it is roomy.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
Inside, the up! is Tardis-like. It’s incredibly roomy with width, legroom and headroom all far better than you might reasonably expect from such compact dimensions. You can see where some of this space comes from; the scalloped rear of both front seats allows for decent rear legroom and while I only had the two nippers on board most of the time, there’s definitely plenty of room for two adults on what is a typically hard Germanic bench, which is nonetheless comfy enough once you get used to itThe front seats have headrests built into them and initially the driver’s seat feels fairly flat and unsupportive. There’s not a lot of side support, but then this isn’t a racing car, and while the seat initially feels like it lacks sufficient lumbar support, it’s comfortable enough on both short and long runs.
The driving position is aided by a seat height adjustment lever and adjustable up and down steering, though there’s no steering in-and-out adjustment. The steering wheel – in its standard plastic form – is a neat and easily grasped size but I found its front edge – the wheel is not totally tubular in shape – rather uncomfortable especially on a long run. It’s a minor quibble but I found it irritating and I’m not sure what VW’s reasoning here is, I’m assuming they think it offers better grip. The more expensive Passat Alltrack has a similar design, but in leather it’s more comfortable.
The biggest issue for me – and indeed for anyone shortish at around 1.55-metres or so – is that the best seating-steering position means the top of the wheel blocks your view of the speedo between the vitally important 60 and 140km/h zone. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a car where this is a problem. For taller drivers though it is not an issue.
While there is a bin-like space in the centre of the console base which also has a cup holder, and there’s a cavernous glovebox, there’s no storage space on top of the dashboard for items you just want to grab. This is strange considering there’s 50cm, or 1.5 feet, of flat dash space between the instrument binnacle and windscreen, which is used for, well, nothing obvious.
Going back to the three-cylinder Daihatsu Sirion for a moment – back in 1998 it had electric windows all round but importantly all four master switches sat on the driver’s door armrest – not bad for Australia’s then cheapest car. Fast-forward 15 years and the up! on the other hand only has a single switch on its driver’s armrest. If you have no passenger and want to ask directions of a pedestrian – or just to have a chat with a mate – you need to lean across and activate the passenger’s electric window switch, which (and ironically this is a credit to the spaceiness) is a stretch. Or if your passenger gets out and part leaves the window open, you’ll be cursing as you strain to reach the passenger’s window button.
Keeping costs down is one thing but I just can’t imagine having two switches on the driver’s side really would have made all that much price difference.
ROOM & PRACTICALITY
During our test we fitted – easily – a booster seat and a standard child seat, so no problems there, but I’d advise against the three-door if you are regularly carrying passengers. Not because it’s hard for them to get in and out, it’s not – the doors are large and the front seats tip and glide forwards smoothly and easily enough. No, the problem is getting the front seat back in the original position. Basically you have to readjust the seat-back every time because it doesn’t go back to where it was. This is incredibly annoying even if you only have to do it twice a day; by the end of the week I was trying to think of ways to get the kids in without moving one or other seat, but of course you can’t. If this is you, then definitely look at the five-door version.
The front passenger seat also has to be carefully placed. Because it’s a one-piece seat and headrest, it is big. At junctions – especially those at any angle – it can easily block your left view, ditto when overtaking and you want to get back into the left lane. You look, and there’s the seat. It’s not an insurmountable problem by any means, but you need to be aware of it.Boot space is very impressive overall and there’s a neat arrangement which sees a small amount of space available – enough for four or so shopping bags – when you open the boot but which can be vastly increased by lifting this initial floor to let you access the boot proper. My only criticism here is there’s a drop down into the boot so if you’re trying to get heavy objects back out it’s a mild back strainer and you can’t easily slide objects in.
Under the bonnet there’s a 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine making 55kW at 6200rpm and 95Nm at 3000rpm. It’s mated to a five-speed manual gearbox – there’s no auto option – and consumes an official 4.9L/100km, and in our week of testing we got very close to that with an average of 5.2L/100km (and we were nearly always travelling three-up). It’s just a shame that the up! requires premium unleaded.
I do love this engine. Push it hard in each gear and it’s undeniably a three-cylinder, you can hear the gruffness, but it pulls like a train (on level roads). Its small capacity and limited output do come back to bite it when climbing hills, though. Indeed, my daily commute ends up in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and if I neglected a gear change, well, I’d soon find the up! struggling and I’d have to snatch down another gear. It’s at times like this you realize there’s a three under the bonnet – it’s very gruff.
RIDE & HANDLING
Around town the up! is just excellent and let’s face it, this is where it should and probably will mostly live. Its compact dimensions suit city streets where it can thread through traffic and be easily parked. The excellent electro-mechanical power steering adjusts assistance to speed, and the crisp short-throw gearchange is quick and precise.
The ride is generally very good with a suppleness that also manages to be quite taut. The only times I found it caught out was on poorly maintained country roads – and let’s face it there are plenty of those – where the suspension can crash over the worst bits of tarmac. On the real plus side, this car handles superbly, with quick turn-in, not too much body roll and amazing grip, all the more so when you consider the standard-fit skinny tyresOn the motorway the up! pulls strongly, keeps up with the pack and even has some power in reserve to allow you to overtake without fear. I travelled Sydney’s motorway routes extensively with four on board and loved the way the up! cruised quietly.
What is undeniably impressive is the exterior quality and attention to detail. The door handles have a good solid feel that buyers of much more expensive cars will be familiar with. Dials and switches are all excellent, look to be good quality, and everything is easy to find and read.However, on bright sunny days – and we have a few of those – the vents on top of the dash reflect quite badly onto the windscreen and prove distracting.Reflections are also an issue from the glossy black facia; every tree, passing vehicle, pylon, you name it, is reflected back and unfurls almost psychedelically, and it’s very disconcerting. All credit to VW for thinking differently with this gloss dash, but to be honest I’d rather see a normal matt facia.
EQUIPMENT & PRICING
At $13,990 (+ORC) for the three-door and $1k more for the five-door, the up! is champagne quality at a beer price.You can order this compact VW in two forms – a three and five-door. And there are also two main extra equipment options, Comfort Style and Comfort Drive. The former includes cruise control and a multi-function display revealing outside temperature, trip time and length, average speed and fuel consumption, current fuel consumption, speed warning, rear parking sensors, and distance to empty.
Comfort Style gives you bigger 15-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights, leather trimmed steering wheel, handbrake lever and gearshift knob, leather-look seat upholstery (called leatherette…) with white stitching, heated front seats, floor mats front and rear, plus carpet trim options.
While there has clearly been an accountant with a very sharp pencil casting their eye over the up!, they haven’t had everything their own way. Sure, the rear windows can’t be opened, but the up! comes standard with air conditioning.Our test car was fitted with what VW calls Maps + More which is a $500 option but well worth having. It features a five-inch touch screen colour display that sits on top of the dash just like a standard navigation system. But this device combines navigation, media (media player and picture viewer via micro SD card slot), telephone (Bluetooth phone connectivity with phonebook display, text to speech and audio streaming) and vehicle information including multi-function trip computer and vehicle status displays. It’s an impressive and easily useable piece of kit.
The Volkswagen up! gets the usual complement of safety systems, including ABS brakes, power steering, electric front windows and door mirrors and City Emergency Braking which comes into action if the car doesn’t think you’re applying enough brake pressure (unique in this class of car) and five-star Australian ANCAP and European ENCAP safety ratings.