Few cars have been as eagerly anticipated as the VW up!. Ever since it made its debut as a concept at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show, the entry-level model has promised to set new standards for quality and refinement in city cars.
First impressions are certainly positive. Fans of the concept will be pleased to see that the up! has made it to production largely unchanged. It has the same faired-in nose, distinctive rear side windows and upright tail.
Our mid-range High trim car’s visual appeal is further boosted by its standard 14-inch alloys and front foglamps. Yet it’s the interior that really stands out.
As with VW’s larger models, the up!’s cabin is dripping with upmarket appeal. The dashboard is solidly built with high-quality materials, while High spec adds a classy, full-width piano black panel. The chunky, precise switchgear is from the Polo, while the dash instruments are a model of clarity. There’s also a wide range of seat adjustment, and although the wheel only adjusts for height, it’s easy to get comfortable.
There is some evidence of cost-cutting: the steering wheel leather feels a bit cheap and the electric window switches aren’t backlit, but overall, the VW seems like a much more expensive car.
What’s more, despite its compact dimensions, the up! provides a remarkable amount of interior space. Although it’s a strict four-seater, it comes close to matching the Picanto for rear seat room, and it’s bigger inside than the similarly-sized Fiat. Plus, the front seats tilt and slide so you can easily get into the back.
VW’s designers have clearly thought hard about how the car will be used. Deep door bins, a large centre console cubby and a lidded glovebox mean there’s plenty of space for odds and ends. Lift the glass-covered tailgate and you’ll find a healthy 251 litres of carrying capacity. Flexibility is further boosted by a false boot floor and split-fold rear seat.
The newcomer’s big-car feel is also enhanced by the generous amount of standard kit. Choose the High spec and you’ll get air-con, heated seats, Bluetooth connectivity and a trip computer, along with VW’s clever Maps & More sat-nav system.
Mounted on top of the dash, this portable set-up includes a route-finding function, an extra display for the engine revs and water temperature and a Blue Index mode that helps you drive more efficiently.
However, when you’re not trying to maximise your economy, the VW’s 74bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine proves to be an eager performer. At the track, it propelled the car from 0-60mph in 12.9 seconds, which is only sixth tenths slower than the much lighter Aygo.
In the real world, the up! has little trouble keeping up with the flow of traffic in town or on the open road, while excellent mechanical refinement and low noise levels make it a much more relaxing companion than any of its rivals in this test.
This impression is enhanced by the supple ride, which does an excellent job of protecting you from the very worst road surfaces. Once again, the up! feels like a much larger and more expensive car than it really is.
The soft suspension set-up means the car rolls a little through corners, but direct steering, strong grip and good body control add up to neat and tidy handling. It’s not as much fun as the Toyota, but the ESP-equipped up! is agile and inspires real confidence in all conditions and on any kind of road.
As you’d expect, the tiny VW is most at home in town. Thick A-pillars limit visibility coming on to roundabouts, but the handy dimensions and light controls make the car a fine urban runabout. There’s even the £400 option of a Driver Assistance package. At speeds up to 19mph, this applies the brakes if it senses you’re about to drive into the car in front.
On the face of it, the up! sets a new city car standard, with its big-car refinement, grown-up driving dynamics, top-notch quality and clever packaging. Factor in low running costs, plus a desirable badge, and it will be tough to beat.
Chart position: 1WHY: When an automotive giant the size of VW flexes its creative muscles, the results can be amazing. Does the up! fulfil its potential?