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First Drive: VW Up auto let-down

Only way is Up: VW's brilliant new city car is let down only by an auto that will not please Australian customers.

Sub-Polo VW radiates brilliance – but only as the cheaper and superior manual

12 Mar 2012


VOLKSWAGEN will include a five-door model and an automatic option for its upcoming Up sub-light car when it is launched in Australia in the fourth quarter of this year.

The five-door is expected to cost about $500 more than the three-door – which is tipped to be about $15,000 here – and should account for about half of global volume.

Debuting publically at the Geneva motor show last week after a January preview, the five-door should be the most technologically advanced vehicle in its class offered in Australia.

Features could include the City Emergency Braking system that automatically applies the brakes at speeds up to 30km/h when a pedestrian or object is detected, a fuel-saving idle-stop system and the company’s Personal Infotainment Device that combines telephone/audio streaming, satellite-navigation, downloadable apps access and trip computer functionality within a removable screen.

VW will offer a five-speed ‘automatic’ for an extra $1000 or more as an easier and slightly more economical alternative to the standard five-speed manual.

Unlike some competitors in this end of the market, such as the Suzuki Alto (and soon the Holden Barina Spark) that offers a conventional (albeit four-speed only) torque-converter auto, the Up has an automated sequential manual gearbox like the Fiat 500 and Smart ForTwo.

With the five-door’s overall length being the same as the three-door at 3540mm, the front doors are naturally narrower, while the rear doors lose the distinctive window-line upturn of the three-door model in favour of a more conventional hatchback shape.

Otherwise, the front and rear sheetmetal remains unchanged, as does the 251-litre cargo capacity (rising to 951 litres with the rear backrest folded down), four-seater cabin layout, occupant head and legroom, and 72mm higher ‘theatre-style’ rear seats.

3 center imageLeft: Up 5-dr and 3-dr variants.There are a few factors in favour of the five-door, despite the less-funky profile, the inevitable smaller front door opening and the fact that it is up to 70kg heavier.

Of course, getting into the back seat is immeasurably easier without having to slide behind the front seat, the longer and lower window-line improves visibility and makes the cabin feel slightly airier, and the rear window cracks open from the side like old-fashioned coupes.

In terms of resale value, Aussies prefer their baby runabouts with as many doors as possible, so the extra outlay may be recovered at the other end of the ownership cycle.

The five-door has the same surprising amount of rear-seat space as the three-door, even for six-footers, and a reasonable cargo area.

Last week we drove the Up’s Skoda Citigo cousin in both bodystyle variants and raved about its interior packaging – and the same praise applies here.

We preferred the up-spec VW ‘Move Up’ model’s good-looking (and fabulously thin) three-spoke steering wheel, piano black gloss dash appliqué and perforated seat trim, but missed the Czech car’s handbag/curry hook glovebox latch and rubberised iPod/iPhone holder.

Even more, we missed the Skoda’s five-speed manual since the only Up five-door available to sample on our brief test in Germany was the ‘ASG’ semi-automatic.

Cheaper and lighter than the ‘DSG’ dual-clutch transmission found in most other contemporary VWs because “it won’t fit”, the ASG is based on a compact manual gearbox produced by Skoda.

With a single clutch (but no clutch pedal) and two electric motors to shift gears, it adds less than 30kg, offers ‘Drive’, ‘Reverse’ and ‘Neutral’ as well as sequential shifting, and is fitted with a longer fifth-gear ratio for slightly lower engine revs when cruising.

While that may sound like a recipe for some F1-style paddle-shift fun, the only way you can manually change gears is via the floor lever that we found to be a tad too far away for comfort.

There’s no sugar coating this: the Up automatic – sampled in more powerful 55kW/95Nm 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol guise – is a shadow of the brilliant manual gearbox.

The ASG is less than smooth at take-off unless you are consciously feather-footed with the throttle, up-changes continue to be slow and jerky, and response times when needing to overtake feel terrifyingly tardy.

And the slightly higher top ratio sees the Up plodding along with a less-than-appealing exhaust resonance for company.

At least the many necessary automatic downshifts are accompanied by a blipping throttle.

You can change gears manually, but you might as well save the disappointment and upwards of $1000 and settle for the exceptionally good manual.

No way is this ‘automatic’ going to meet Australian consumers’ expectations for smoothness, performance and response times.

A DSG transmission is apparently in development for the Up and it cannot come quickly enough. Stick with the stick-shift and love the driving experience this fantastic little city car has to offer. Otherwise, the ASG will just suck the fun out of your daily drive.

In every other respect, this Up cements the goodwill created by the Skoda version.

The electric powered steering is light and precise, the ride is composed for a car of such squat proportions and the refinement levels (bucking ASG apart) are a class or two above.

Volkswagen is keeping mum on the model mix, pricing and engine specification, but the overseas ‘Take Up’, ‘Move Up’ and ‘High Up’ model names are under consideration for Australia – as are the flagship ‘Black Up’ and ‘White Up’ special editions.

When it arrives by late November, the minimalist Up should rewrite the sub-$15,000 segment rules in terms of refinement, safety, efficiency, dynamic prowess and desirability.

Never mind the Polo – the Up looks, feels and delivers like a junior Golf. Be it the three-door base version or the loaded five-door hatch, this is a fabulous little runabout. Just make sure it has three pedals.

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