Named the World Car of the Year a few months back, the Up represents Volkswagen's effort to command the global demand for city cars with some semblance of style. At 11.6 feet, the Up is longer than a Scion iQ but shorter by a few inches than a Fiat 500. VW plans to sell the Up around the world -- but it was designed before $4-a-gallon gas ever became a nightly news story, and VW contends it would cost too much to modify the Up for U.S.-specific crash and emissions rules.
From the outside, the Up follows the trend of putting some style into low-cost vehicles, with a face and square profile that's unique, although bland enough that strangers weren't stopped by the bright-red tester. That square back also contains the Up's space-maximized rear seat and storage area, one that's generous enough to rival the hauling capacity from the next-larger class of subcompact cars.
Speed isn't a virtue, but the Up's handing delivers all of the goodness that a slow car driven quickly can. The body doesn't roll much, the steering has that firm Euro-weighted feel missing in some newer models, and the Up's stumpy wheelbase doesn't punish the driver with a report of every road imperfection.
What the VW Up was meant to do is move cheaply rather than quickly, and at that it excels. The 75-hp three-cylinder engine keeps the Up from being speedy, and rivals what many Americans mow lawns with, but the car's name acts as an all-purpose answer for how its shift suggesstor would like you to operate the five-speed manual gearbox. It's one thing for a supercar to choose fifth gear at 35 mph when there's still 200 hp left to exploit; quite another when a hill or open road has you flooring it with little effect. In Europe, the gas-powered Up can get 62 mpg; my fuel economy was in the high 40-mpg range among the leadfoots inside the D.C. beltway.VW Beetle -- swollen into a near-midsize car, with the list of options running to all modern gadgetry, including USB ports -- to see what buyers demand from what was once the cheapest car on the road. In a country that wants to be entertained and comforted on the road, the Up's too basic a tool -- but given the options, it will make a sensible wagon for many other volk.