Why an Up!? Well, a house purchase and renovation necessitated a cheap commuter. I was initially intent on a 500 or Panda with the emotive Twinair engine, but I couldn’t go past the Up! at the prices they were being offered. And yes, I will use the exclamation mark if I want to, if only to make our Pro_cee'd GT feel better about its automotive punctuation. (Maybe it's something to do with Slovakian-produced cars?)
My particular Up! was produced in September 2012, and complianced in Australia shortly thereafter. It then seems to have sat like poison at a VW dealer in a regional town for about nine months. Completely standard save for metallic paint and the 'Maps & More' unit that added GPS, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming and some trip computer functions.
Outside, the Up! looks pretty smart in black, although it does hide some of the nicer design touches like the smiley grille and the black glass tailgate that stand out on brighter colours. Unfortunately, VW Australia specced all Australian Up!s with the black dashboard, which means the body-colour door caps in any other colour don’t match. My OCD would struggle with that. Ultimately, the Up! strikes a nice balance between typical German straitjacket restraint and the flair and ‘fun’ this segment usually expects.
Inside, the Up! is pretty basic – no soft-touch plastics here – but ultimately very functional. Clear instruments, big buttons and switches and well-chosen materials. The ‘tombstone-style' seats with integrated headrests are thin but surprisingly comfortable, and the tall body and large range of adjustment means even Scott Collie could get comfortable. More hard-wearing seats in the back with two ISOFIX anchors (yep, I used them!) and the famous pop-out windows.
A lot of criticism was directed at the lack of face-level vents in the middle of the dash of the Up!, but to be fair, the vents are big and the car is small. The HVAC works better than in the equivalent Fiat anyway. The boot is small, but with its clever removable false floor can be made quite deep to store bigger objects, or create a level floor with the folded rear seats.
The Maps & More unit is not much more than adequate, with low resolution, occasional crashes, and a very optimistic GPS that throws out some weird routes. Also, with newer phones it would happily call out, but incoming calls would not always play through the car. Disappointingly, support for M&M has now ceased as Navigon went bust, so the maps are stuck in 2012 and updates (Up!dates?) to support newer phones will not be forthcoming.
Alright, let’s drive. The naturally aspirated triple dominates the driving experience. At a bee’s appendage under 1.0-litre in capacity, it’s a bit short on torque (95Nm from 3000rpm) and needs revs on board to do its best work. No direct injection, turbocharging or DSG here – and all the better for it. With revs come noise, but what a charming noise it is, described by some as recalling the sound of an old 911.
At 880kg, it would be unfair to say it feels underpowered, but you get well acquainted with the easy clutch and five-speed gearbox in order to maintain progress. With a wheel at each corner and the low weight, the Up! can be great fun to pedal – to a point.
The steering is pretty light and doesn’t provide a heap of feedback, and the default setting of the chassis is push-understeer, but the basics are sound and there is an honesty to the way it drives. Even more appreciated is that the damping, 55-section tyres and decent suspension travel work together so that both smaller imperfections and larger bumps are dealt with in a manner you’d expect from cars in the class, if not two classes above. I don’t say that lightly – the Up! really does have an outstanding set-up that belies its low cost.
I love Italian cars, but drive a Panda and an Up! back to back and the difference is stark. The Panda feels bouncy and a little uncouth, while the Up! feels all grown up and quite refined in comparison. In many ways it reminded me of my first car – a ’69 Mini with Hydrolastic suspension that also managed to feel bigger than it was while still being light, fun and frugal.
Alright, let’s tie things Up! with ownership. After 15,000km, I averaged 5.7L/100km with a 70:30 highway-city mix. I probably could have lowered that further, but the nature of that revvy engine begs you to work it hard. The AEB sensor on the windscreen stopped working due to the sealant around the sensor peeling off, but VWA surprisingly replaced the entire windscreen and sealant outside of warranty free of charge.
The car had a new clutch at about 50,000km before I bought it. I wonder if previous owners may have used poor clutch technique to try and overcome the power deficit. The clutch release bearing was a bit noisy for the entirety of my ownership. And that’s it! Without any of the stuff that usually fails on Volkswagens, I have no doubt the 1200 or so Up!s that made it to Australia will be running around for a while to come. I've even seen one with a canoe on the roof!
All good things come to an end. I get bored easily and I also just wanted some more power. But the best part was it sold in three days for the same price I paid 12 months earlier.
Overall, I reckon the Up! is in some ways the best Volkswagen of the last decade – perhaps the best Volkswagen since the Mk5 GTI. A return to its utilitarian roots, combined with modern refinement and a suggestion of character that is missing in most of VW’s line-up otherwise. Just a shame so few found homes in Oz.