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First drive: Volkswagen Up sets new sub-light standard

Up and away: The Volkswagen Up micro-car will start from under $15,000 in Australia when sales commence here late next year.

Cheapest VW hits Europe a year ahead of local sales as German giant launches Up

21 Oct 2011


VOLKSWAGEN has launched its first global micro-car with a starting price of €9850 ($A13,240) in Germany, where first deliveries commence in late December.

While that makes the pint-size three-door hatchback Volkswagen’s first sub-€10,000 model in Europe, the Up will start from under $15,000 in Australia, where sales will begin about a year from now.

Volkswagen said it chose Rome to launch the Up because it is the “city of the small car” and the natural habitat for the Up, which effectively replaces the Lupo and closely related Fox city-cars in Europe.

The Italian capital is also the home of another European three-door micro, Fiat’s born-again 500, with which the Up will compete, along with Opel’s upcoming ‘Junior’ and a host of existing A-segment Euros, including the Ford Ka, Renault Twingo, Peugeot 107, Citroen C1 and Toyota Aygo.

The sub-light segment remains in its infancy in Australia, where five-door city-hatches like Suzuki’s pioneering 1.0-litre Alto (priced from $11,790), Holden’s 1.2-litre Barina Spark (from $12,490) and Nissan’s entry-level Micra ST 1.2 will soon be joined at one end by a host of upcoming Chinese micros and at the other by Kia’s Picanto and a new compact hatch from Ford.

While market leader Toyota and ambitious Korean giant Hyundai sit on the sidelines for now, VW has confirmed the Up will join the upper end of Australia’s smallest vehicle class by the end of 2012, positioned below the Polo, which currently opens at $16,690.

VW says the Up – which is based on an all-new compact vehicle platform that will underpin an entirely new family of models across the VW Group – will be a volume-selling model without cannibalising sales of the Polo.

Although it is difficult to see how it will achieve those two opposing goals, what is clear from our first drive in peak-hour Rome traffic is that Up sets new standards for a car this size.

3 center imageDespite riding on a wheelbase that, at 2420mm, is just 36mm shorter than the Polo’s (2456mm), the Up is a whole 524mm shorter overall at 3540mm long.

However, much shorter front and rear overhangs, clever packaging and a 20mm-higher roofline combine to deliver comparable interior space and a cargo capacity that is just 10 litres short of the Polo’s at 251 litres.

Unlike the Polo, the 1641mm-wide Up is strictly a four-seater, but the 50/50-split folding rear seat liberates a best-in-class 951 litres of total luggage space, enough room to stow items up to two metres long and a fully flat load floor when the split-level boot compartment is at its upper level.

Any reduction in elbow room is compensated for by a liberal amount of headroom both front and rear, while front and rear legroom is generous, there is plenty of door and console storage space, and the large glass area provides good vision in all directions.

The Up’s solid, tactile controls and major switchgear are straight out of the VW textbook, cabin presentation is simple yet functional, and build quality was unquestionable on the cars we drove.

However, the Up interior lacks the soft-touch surfaces of the Polo and there are obvious cost-savings like the lack of telescopic steering wheel adjustment and an automatic function for the power windows.

In fact, VW provided only upper-spec and heavily optioned models for the launch drive – including Up Black and Up White launch-edition models – so we were unable to sample the base model with 14-inch steel wheels and wind-up windows, although all Australian models are likely to come standard with power windows as well as air-conditioning.

Similarly, while all Up models will come standard with ABS brakes, electronic stability control and four airbags (two fronts and twin front-thorax units), none will be available with full-length side curtain airbags that also provide side impact protection for rear passengers.

Curtain airbags are standard in many compact cars – including the Alto, Spark and Micra – but their absence should not stop the Up achieving a maximum five-star Euro NCAP safety rating when it is crash-tested next week.

Indeed, while it doesn’t feel as vault-like as the Polo – with some floorpan flex evident over bigger bumps – the Up feels more rigid than anything in its class. The long and heavyish doors close with a convincing thud, noise suppression is first-rate and there’s an overall solidity that makes the Up feel more like a Polo than any other vehicle this size.

Ride quality on the 16-inch alloy wheels and 185/50 Continental tyres was supple, yet the Up’s well-sorted electric steering and tight chassis made for confidence-inspiring high-speed stability on Italian freeways, while bodyroll remained well in check and road-holding above class average even during hard cornering on wet cobblestoned bends.

Also setting new standards is the Up’s all-new 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine, which is no fireball even in its most powerful 55kW guise – the engine most likely to be offered Down Under – but delivers useable torque from less than 2000rpm, making for adequate standing-start and highway acceleration from 100km/h in fifth/top gear (at about 1850rpm).

Some vibration can be felt through the steering wheel and pedals, but the Up’s characterful three-pot always remains quieter, smoother and more refined than similar engines in both the Alto and Micra.

It also offers a wider spread of power, revving freely to the 6500rpm soft-limiter and, although there is some electronic ‘flywheel’ effect as the engine takes its time to return to idle, it is far less pronounced than in its most direct rivals and actually proved useful in keeping the revs up between the widely spaced gear ratios around town.

The base engine produces 44kW at 5500rpm and 95Nm of torque at 3000-5000rpm to help it reach 100km/h in 14.5 seconds on the way to a 160km/h top speed. The manual returns 4.5L/100km and 105g/km of CO2.

Some models will include fuel-saving measures such as an idle-stop system, battery regeneration and low-resistance tyres as part of the Bluemotion Technologies philosophy, which drops the eco figures to 4.2L/100km and 97g/km.

The 55kW version we drove, which produces the same 95Nm of torque but is quicker (0-100 in 13.2 seconds) and faster (173km/h top speed), returned fuel consumption of less than 6.0L/100km, which is not outstanding but not too far away from the standard version’s 4.7L/100km.

Like the 44kW version and all other VWs (except the Polo GTI, which requires super-premium 98 RON unleaded), the Up runs on more expensive 95 RON petrol, but makes up for that somewhat with a featherweight 929km EU kerb weight that helps return a theoretical 830km-plus driving range.

A 50kW compressed natural gas (CNG) engine in the EcoUp, which goes on sale in Europe next year, is claimed to be the world’s most frugal combustion engine (at 3.2L/100km and 79g/km), but will not be sold in Australia. Nor will a diesel Up be offered in the near-term anywhere.

Sadly, no automatic versions were on hand at the global launch because they will not come on stream in Europe until next year, so we cannot appraise the transmission that will account for the vast majority of sales in Australia.

Unlike the twin-clutch DSG autos seen in other VWs, the five-speed Up auto will be a single-clutch automated manual with manual and automatic modes, so it remains to be seen whether it improves on the lacklustre performance of similar transmissions, or the now-common continuously variable transmissions.

VW is keeping Australian specifications close to its chest for competitive reasons, so it is unclear whether local buyers will have access to the three trim levels available in Europe – Take Up, Move Up and High Up.

While satellite-navigation will be offered in Australia along with a trip computer and Bluetooth connectivity, other European options include heated seats, a flat-bottomed leather-clad steering wheel, a ‘Sport Chassis’ with 15mm-lower ride height, and a first-in-class emergency braking system that uses laser technology to automatically brake the vehicle between five and 30km/h.

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