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June 19, 2012

News & Features

Auto review: VW Up is a small wonder — for rest of world

New York Times News Service

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The VW Up delivers improbable four-passenger space in a car seven inches shorter than a Mini Cooper. (Subaru)

You might assume, on the petite heels of the Mini Cooper, that car companies would be amassing an army of Lilliputian cars to sell here. But consider the Volkswagen Up, AWOL from our shores.

BMW's reborn Mini proved conclusively that Americans would buy a shrunken city car, at least one with distinctive design and respectable performance. The Fiat 500 microcar is dipping its stylish Italian toe in our waters, along with the Scion iQ.

But the utilitarian two-seat Smart, a ward of Mercedes-Benz, was a bomb with buyers. And many automakers remain unconvinced, barring $6-a-gallon gasoline, that Americans will respond to the tiny low-price models that swarm the streets of Berlin, Shanghai and Sao Paulo.

Now add the Up to the bowl of forbidden fruit — including stylish wagons and hot hatchbacks — that international automakers polish and sell everywhere in the world but here.

To see what we're missing, I tested VW's modern-day, green-minded people's car, fresh from having been named the World Car of the Year at the New York auto show. And this cute-as-a-bug VW proceeded to charm me: buzzing through traffic, topping 50 mpg on the highway and delivering improbable four-passenger space in a car seven inches shorter than a Mini.

If Chryslers are Imported from Detroit, as the advertising tagline goes, then this VW is Built in Bratislava. Yet the Slovakian-made Up bears no resemblance to Eastern Bloc junk like the Yugo.

With its four wheels stretched to the corners, the 11-foot-long Up defies its teensy proportions. The back seat is much roomier than the Mini's, and there's roughly 50 percent more hatch space: 9 cubic feet, versus 5.7 in the Mini, or 34 cubic feet with the rear seat folded, compared with the Mini's 24.

Sliding the front seats forward only a few inches, two grown men climbed in back and gave the accommodations a thumbs-up.

The front-drive VW, which in Europe ranges from roughly 10,000 to 13,000 euros ($12,500 to $16,500), is clearly basic transportation. Yet with its appealing pug face and mod blacked-out liftgate, the VW looks better than basic.

The same goes for the cabin: Interior materials are surely inexpensive, but they don't look cheap, from the seat fabrics to body-color metal on the doors and console. A navigation unit pops off the dashboard for portability.

The 1-liter, 3-cylinder engine sounds like something a Yank would use to power a barbecue rotisserie. And with just 75 horsepower, the VW cooks slowly, taking more than 12 seconds to reach 60 mph from a standstill, and topping out at just 99 mph.

Yet while a Toyota Prius would whip the Up in a drag race, the VW is vastly more fun to drive. With plenty of body motions, it certainly doesn't handle like a GTI, but the sprite feels agile and willing, with VW's sweet (if mildly twitchy) steering and rock-solid chassis. In another nod to European tastes, a five-speed manual is the only transmission — another impediment to acceptance by Americans.

Mileage, as you might expect, is amazing: I easily achieved more than 50 mpg on the highway and around 35 in city and suburban driving.

As with other nano-scale cars, the VW's big-city charms include conjuring parking out of nowhere. On my street in New York, finding late-night spots is an urban nightmare. But with the VW, those frustrating crevices between cars —รถ too short for typical compacts — become inviting caverns.

The VW works the same way in urban traffic, at least for drivers with a bit of daring: The VW squirts through the tiniest gaps, motorcycle-style. Even cabbies, trying to occupy three lanes at once as they troll for fares, were powerless to hem in the Up.

America's supersized SUV tastes are often cited as a reason microcars won't work here. But a company spokesman said other issues led VW to nix the Up for America. If the company invested millions to revamp the car to meet federal regulations, and then spent more to import it, the price would rise uncomfortably close to that of larger, better-equipped subcompacts — the Honda Fits, Ford Fiestas and others that cost roughly $18,000. At those prices, VW feels the Up simply couldn't compete or clear a profit.

In fairness, it is hard to imagine many Americans spending Honda Fit money for a car this compact and lightly powered. But that doesn't mean we can't dream of a day when frugal city cars outnumber pointless V-8 pickups on the daily commute.

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