This is the car that was meant to be the true spiritual successor to the original Mini, a car so radical and successful in its layout and design it would change the way small cars were built.
Except it didn’t turn out that way. When the Up! was first shown almost five years ago, it was a clever, cutesy design with an engine under the rear seat driving the rear wheels. It was a packaging miracle, intended for production. Then VW started crunching numbers. It concluded that while this configuration was potentially ideal for a city car, it wouldn’t work for any other environment. And as every new VW platform is expected to stretch into a range of sizes and across a variety of in-house brands, it did not make sound economic sense. The Up! as we knew it was strangled at birth.
Welcome, then, a rather different Up!: a conventional front-engined, front-wheel-drive urban runaround. And were it not so devilishly well executed, I might not have considered it to be worthy of inclusion on these pages.
In the event I drove it 350 miles in six hours, across country, along motorways and into and back out of London – a challenge that would have had any potential rival wilting under the pressure. But despite its 1-litre, turbo-free motor, the Up! excelled itself.
Its packaging may no longer be miraculous, but it’s still in a league of its own relative to its classmates. Its rear seat and boot are perilously close to Polo proportions, a fact of which VW is very aware. Its second unexpected attribute is its mechanical refinement: you might think that persuading such a car to maintain a steady 85mph would be agony on the ears; in fact the engine is so smooth and wind noise so well managed you could be in a Golf. For such a small, light car on a short wheelbase it rides well too.
If it lacks anything, it’s a sense of humour. Viewed objectively, it’s an absurdly better product than a Fiat 500. But while its mechanical sophistication will appeal to one of its target constituencies of senior citizens, the fact that it is visually merely pleasant and has an interior more fluent than far out means the Fiat may continue to charm younger prospects.
It’s a car I liked very much. But knowing what I do, my strongest feelings are not how good it is, but how much better it might have been.
Engine: 1.0 litre, three cylinders
Top Speed: 106mph
Price: £10,390 (High Up!)
Power: 74bhp at 6200rpm
Fuel/co2: 60.1mpg, 108g/km