Volkswagen Up: The Coolest High-MPG Small Car We Can't Have

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The Volkswagen Up is a small, simple, very modern hatchback minicar that's fun to drive, keeps up with U.S. traffic, and returns 40 to 60 miles per gallon.

But you won't be able to buy one in North America. And that's a shame.

We drive a lot of cars here, most of them perfectly competent subcompact or compact sedans that return 30 mpg or better.

They're rarely all that memorable, but the VW Up has stuck with us after an all-too-short three days.

In part, that's because it reminds us of our much-loved Volkswagen Rabbit (first-generation Golf), which we last drove in the guise of the South African VW CitiGolf.

The Up is 6 inches shorter than the first Golf (in European trim). It weighs about the same, and has roughly the same power--but adds modern safety, refinement, and features to the old Rabbit's go-cart handling, cheerful performance, and unabashed simplicity.

Two sizes smaller than Golf

2012 Volkswagen Up minicar (German model)

2012 Volkswagen Up minicar (German model)

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Volkswagen of America brought the Up three-door hatchback over from Europe, where it was introduced last year, to give U.S. journalists a chance to see what else the company offers globally.

Compared to the current VW Jetta compact sedan, the VW Up is tiny, at only 139 inches long. That's 8 inches shorter than a Mini Cooper, though more than 2 feet longer than a Smart ForTwo.

It's two car sizes below the compact Golf hatchback, with the subcompact Polo in between. (That's another car we won't get in the States, at least until it's redesigned in a few years.)

Electric windows = high-end model

The model we drove was the top-end "High Up," with handsome 15-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, power windows, locks, and mirrors, heated front seats, and a leather-trimmed steering wheel.

The base model of the Up, which sells for less than 10,000, or about $12,750, has no power windows, locks, or mirrors, no air-conditioning, and no seat-height adjustment, among other base-level features.

2012 Volkswagen Up minicar (German model), road test, Catskill Mountains, NY, May 2012

2012 Volkswagen Up minicar (German model), road test, Catskill Mountains, NY, May 2012

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Painted metal

Those items added just enough luxe to take our Up model out of grim econobox territory, while the painted metal on the doors harkened right back to that first Golf. (Unlike the body-color plastic dash trim on the new VW Beetle, it's the actual metal door panel.)

The VW Up also included a neat little optional "Maps + More" removable display providing navigation, hands-free telephony, a digital media connection, and vehicle operating information.

The model we drove starts at 13,050, or about $16,700, in European markets.

Volkswagen also sells a variation of the Up as the Škoda CitiGo, Škoda being the Czech brand it bought into the VW Group in 2000 that serves as its value offering. We've driven the CitiGo too.

75 hp: enough for light car

The front seats are basic but comfortable, though to fit a pair of adults in the rear, the front occupants will have to move their seats a foot or so forward.

2012 Volkswagen Up minicar (German model), road test, Catskill Mountains, NY, May 2012

2012 Volkswagen Up minicar (German model), road test, Catskill Mountains, NY, May 2012

Enlarge Photo

The load bay is surprisingly capacious, accommodating an entire shopping cart full of groceries in a deep and wide space that looks short but holds a remarkable amount.

More importantly, the VW Up is light, with a curb weight of just 2,050 pounds.

It meets all current and anticipated European safety standards, but not the more stringent U.S. standards--one reason it won't be sold here.

The light weight and minimal design is how it achieves its fuel efficiency, with power being provided by a 75-horsepower, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission.

While the engine's limited 70 lb-ft of torque makes the Up a little slow off the line, it revs happily up to a 6,250-rpm redline and delivers more than adequate power once underway.

And the Up is fun to fling around in traffic, while staying surprisingly quiet inside at freeway speeds.

From 43 to 65 mpg

So what about the gas mileage?

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Comments (9)
  1. That is a great review with some impressive MPG. Seems like a great vehicle for getting around the narrow streets of Boston where high speed crashes are impossible.

  2. So what MPG does your old beetle get?

  3. @John: Actually it's not my Beetle, and I forgot to ask the owners. Most likely ~ 30 or 35 mpg ... not to mention deathly slow, terrifying light-front-end handling, and no emissions controls of any substance!

  4. Sure but it makes that great Beetle sound. I miss that.

  5. What a fascinating read. I had no idea American airbags were larger to accommodate people not wearing seat belts. But why in God's name would anyone not wear a seat belt? It's like visiting Bangkok without, uh, protection. Pure lunacy.
    As for the Up!'s economy, certainly a small diesel would solve the problem until the EV model arrives. Though I'm still disappointing that VW killed the Lupo and replaced it with the Fox - something with worse economy. Fuel must be getting cheaper in VW Land.

  6. @Gavin: Actually, a VW exec I chatted with says the smallest diesels are likely to go by the board. The cost of the emissions aftertreatment gear (even without urea injection) to meet upcoming Euro 6 emissions limits just makes them too costly. Diesels may not go below 1.5 liters or so in the future, as anything smaller than that will be petrol--cheaper to build, easier to control emissions.

  7. Hi, I have a VW Jetta Wagen and it has a mileage accumulator on it. The average is 38.8 MPG for the first 10,000 miles, and the mix is roughly equal to the EPA mix. The air conditioning was probably on 50-60% of the time. It is rated 33 MPG.

  8. Tiny engine + tiny car = high MPG's! What a concept! During 12 days of travel through Italy, I saw very few American-sized cars and only 2-3 SUV's. The Smart car was hugely popular in cities, but all manufacturers had tiny car offerings. Even the Porsche 911's looked big. Many taxis were Priuses and V's and Mazda 5's. Instead of pickups people drove tini hatchbacks and mini-mini vans. VW Golfs and Polos were numerous. Fiat 500's were also popular.

    Keep UP! the good reporting, John.

  9. Thanks John, it's a beautiful little car. I remember the painted metal doors from years past.

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