Volkswagen's Up! minicar has received complimentary reviews overseas, as well as being named 2012 World Car of the Year. VW doesn't sell the Up! in the United States, but we got the chance to borrow one and live with it for a week on our home turf. Turns out that the Up! resets our expectations for minicars.
We at Consumer Reports haven't been too impressed with the current crop of minicars. The Smart ForTwo has the second lowest score of any vehicle currently in our Ratings. We've just finished testing the Scion iQ and it doesn't score much better. Both make sense as urban cars in Europe, where parking is tight and fuel is extremely expensive. Those conditions don't quite exist here, so it's hard to excuse their horrid ride, slow acceleration, and awkward handling. And given their small size, you'd expect both to return better fuel economy and come at a cheaper price. (While also tiny, the Fiat 500 is a much more substantial and higher-scoring car.)
Surprisingly, the Up! avoids many of the Smart and iQ's sins. Unlike those cars, you actually wouldn't mind going for a long highway drive in an Up! The ride is compliant and free of the choppy hobby-horsing you'd expect from a car with the wheelbase of a dining room table--an impressive feat. However, the soft suspension does rob some handling crispness; this isn't an Up! GTI.
The tiny three-cylinder engine is willing to zing the needle of the plum-sized tachometer quickly to redline. Shifting the five-speed manual also makes the car feel more energetic than the iQ's CVT or the Smart's abhorrent whiplash-inducing automated manual transmission. Revving the engine emits that characteristic odd-number-cylinder growl recognizable by owners of old Volvo 850s and Audis. Driven with gusto, the Up! easily kept up with traffic, yet I achieved a very impressive 51 mpg on my commute. That's about the same as a Toyota Prius C.
Squeezing a token back seat into a Scion iQ might seem like a miracle of packaging. But that tiny shelf with near-zero leg room doesn't compare to the Up! rear seat. The VW actually has room for human legs, although adults still won't be happy there for very long. It is better to sit in the front.
Most minicars force the driver into cramped contortions. But the Up! provides generous driver space, with a proper dead pedal and more foot room than a Buick LaCrosse. You won't mistake the cabin furnishings for any Buick, though. Hard plastics abound, with some splashes of body-colored panels and funky cloth seats. It all escapes looking really cheap.
However, the more you look around, the more you see what is left out. This partly keeps the price down, but also reflects that European-market cars often have less content than their U.S.-market counterparts. For example, there's only one power window button on the driver's door. Presumably you can reach across the narrow cabin and lower the passenger's window. There are no center dashboard vents, making initial cabin cooling a touch slow. (After that, it easily kept up with a 90-degree muggy day, chilling the small cabin.) Door panels are really thin, so they're too narrow to rest your elbow on the window sill.
It doesn't mean the Up! is a stripper. Our car had heated seats and a dashboard screen that looked like an aftermarket navigation system plopped atop the dash. Beyond navigation, it also includes music player control and trip computer functions.
And that brings us to the reason why the Up! probably won't be sold in America. Like the iQ and the Smart, it's hard to imagine a typically equipped Up! selling for much less than $16,000. That's not far off the sticker price on a very basic Jetta, making this a difficult proposition for what would likely be a low-volume seller. Too bad, because it shows how clever VW can be.