Volkswagen’s New Little Car


2012 Volkswagen up!

If you look back at the 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit alongside the compact cars of today, you’d find that it was pretty small by comparison. The category of compact cars has turned out larger and larger models over the years, to the point that today’s Golf (the descendant of the original Rabbit) isn’t all that small, really.

With looming fuel economy mandates for the coming years, car companies are looking at ways to get their averages up. Electric vehicles and hybrids will help, but due to their relatively high cost, those are only a small part of the overall picture. What will help in much bigger numbers are smaller engines for all cars, and smaller cars too.

I recently got to spend a few days in a 2012 Volkswagen called the “up!” (VW uses the cutesy lower-case-plus-exclamation-point for the logo and official name). It’s much smaller than the current Golf/GTI, but definitely has the look of modern Volkswagens.

Its relative smallness is everywhere, as the exterior dimensions closely mimic those of the Fiat 500. The Up is not as cute as the Fiat, but isn’t ungainly and its dimensions don’t seem forced into the shape.

The smallness continues under the hood, where a 1-liter three cylinder engine resides. It only makes 75 horsepower, but then again the Up only weighs a bit over 2000 pounds. The test car also had a 5-speed manual transmission to make full use of the limited power.

But the smallness of the car disappears somewhat as you open the door and climb inside. It’s very, very roomy, even for my tall frame. Plenty of legroom, plenty of headroom, and the back seat (for two people) is even more spacious than you might imagine. Those split rear seats can be folded down, and even when upright there’s a relatively roomy luggage space accessed through the rear hatch.

The ride is also surprisingly good, much better than the Fiat 500. Oh, and mileage is rated at 40 mpg in city driving and 50 on the highway. You’ve likely been reading this waiting for a “catch,” I know. Okay, here it is. Those gas mileage figures are for the official European test cycle, not the one we know from the EPA.

Yep, the jig is up. The Up isn’t available to the North American market. The car I got to test was a European model, complete with cool wide-angle exterior mirrors and a speedometer measured in kilometers per hour. Volkswagen brought a few Ups over here to have journalists expose them to American consumers, in order to gauge interest in possibly bringing the car here.

They’d have to do a few upgrades to the car (or perhaps “downgrades” – theU.S.government doesn’t think clumsy Americans can properly judge distance with those aforementioned mirrors, for example). And of course some added weight and automatic transmissions would take their toll on the mileage figures. But VW wants to see if they could make a business case for the Up when it gets a redesign in a couple of years.

European-sourced small cars are a mixed bag here. Obviously the Mini Cooper has been a success, with a cool factor that belies its size and price. And the little Fiat is picking up traction as more dealers open and more people give it a try.

But the ultra-tiny Smart has languished in sales after an initial burst when it first came around.Toyota’s Scion division has also launched a Smart-esque car called the iQ, though with low sales expectations initially and even lower actual sales numbers.

Yet the industry has to find ways to up that fuel mileage by offering affordable, efficient cars. Chevrolet is even debuting a tiny car called the Spark, which is even smaller than the Sonic, no huge car itself.

The Up sells for between (the equivalent of) $12,000 and $17,000, depending on trim level. For Volkswagen to successfully offer it here, they’d have to bring it in at that price point, likely by assembling it at one of their factories inMexico.

So what do you say, is the Up appealing to you? If so, let the folks at Volkswagen know.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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