Concept to reality: VW up! concept to VW up!

We trace the evolution of the 2007 Volkswagen up! concept through to the 2011 production car

We love concept cars that really push the boundaries of conventional thinking – pure flights of fancy released to grab headlines and little more. Yet over the years, Auto Express has seen dozens of show cars that have morphed into models that have been bought in their thousands. 

In this series, we look at some significant concept cars and chart how they were transformed into production realities. In some cases, the show car was a thinly disguised taster for what lay ahead. In others, the manufacturer had to make significant changes before it had a car ready to sell to the public.

This pick falls into the second of those categories, because while the eventual product retained lots of the concept’s appeal, the fundamentals went through a polar shift in the transfer from motor show stand to dealership.

When it was first released at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show, the Volkswagen up! concept was said to preview the car that the German manufacturer hoped would become the spiritual successor to the Beetle: a real people’s car for the first half of the 21st Century.

And there were some very clever ideas on board – enough, in fact, for the up! to be one of the real showstoppers at that Frankfurt exposition. There was the neat all-glass tailgate, clever interior packaging that could accommodate four adults and, most notably, the car was rear-engined – another sign that the design and engineering teams had the original Beetle in mind. It was certainly a bold step for VW, whose city car offering at the time was the fairly agricultural South American-built Fox.

Few details were issued on the proposed engine range, although it was widely reported at the time that the up! would be offered with a choice of a two-cylinder unit, or the 1.4 TDI three-cylinder diesel from the Polo BlueMotion.

When it came to building the production model, though, VW faced a number of tough decisions on price. At an engineering level, there was a huge swell of support for the rear-engined concept, because the location brought packaging advantages to the cabin while still allowing usable storage in the up!’s nose (it lacked a conventional boot, but there was a load ‘shelf’ above the engine, behind the second row of seats).

In the end, though, the bean-counters won the battle by arguing that the engine required to fit into the available space at the back of the car wouldn’t really have much use beyond the New Small Family (as the production project was called by that point). And that meant the development costs per unit rocketed – on a car that was deliberately meant to be globally affordable, not just in well heeled western Europe.

So four years after the concept’s debut, the production up! made its first public appearance at the same venue, but as a front-engined model with more conventional packaging. That decision allowed the car to tap into the development project of the EA211 engine – a 1.0-litre three-cylinder motor which could be normally aspirated or turbocharged, and has subsequently appeared in the Golf, Polo, T-Roc, Audi A1, SEAT Leon and many others.  

Even with the savings made through using one of the VW Group’s most widely manufactured engines, though, the New Small Family is still considered a break-even project within the corridors of power at VW, rather than a resounding success. It has never been quite cheap enough to be sold in emerging markets such as India and China – and as such the up! has thus fallen short of the huge volume of sales originally envisaged.

It’s still one of our favourite small cars – along with its sister models from SEAT (Mii) and Skoda (Citigo). But the up! we know today is a great example of how the purity of a concept’s vision can be diluted – twisted, even – by the time we all get to buy it.

Are you a fan of the Volkswagen up!'s styling? Let us know in the comments below...

Recommended

Top 10 most reliable small cars to buy
Most reliable small cars to buy 2021
Driver Power

Top 10 most reliable small cars to buy

Looking for a reliable small car? Our 2021 Driver Power survey can help…
15 Sep 2021
Best used small cars 2021
Best used small cars
Best cars & vans

Best used small cars 2021

Our guide to the best used small cars for 2021, covering the top second hand city cars and superminis
18 Aug 2021
Volkswagen up! review
Volkswagen up! - front
Volkswagen up

Volkswagen up! review

The VW up! has been at the top of the city car class for a decade, and it’s still going strong
20 Jul 2021
Best small automatic cars 2021
Best small automatic cars 2021 - header
City cars

Best small automatic cars 2021

You can't beat an auto if you want a relaxed drive. We've picked ten of the best affordable automatics on sale today...
15 Jul 2021

Most Popular

Friends reunited: buying back a Porsche 911
Porsche 911
Porsche 911 Coupe

Friends reunited: buying back a Porsche 911

How perfect timing led a Porsche 911 fanatic to buy back his old car
14 Oct 2021
New Ford Focus unveiled with 2021 facelift and tech updates
Ford Focus ST Line - front
Ford Focus Hatchback

New Ford Focus unveiled with 2021 facelift and tech updates

Ford has given the Focus hatchback a refresh for 2021, with a new design and an improved infotainment suite
14 Oct 2021
New Skoda Kodiaq SportLine 2021 review
Skoda Kodiaq SportLine - front
Skoda Kodiaq SUV

New Skoda Kodiaq SportLine 2021 review

The seven-seat Skoda Kodiaq SUV gets styling tweaks and tech upgrades in facelift
15 Oct 2021