"Do you earn too much to afford one?" It's the question that headlined one of the classic late 1960's Volkwagen Beetle ads, laying out the inexpensive car as lifestyle choice, and the Beetle as unfit for people "who are afraid nobody will know they have any money, if it doesn't show in their car." Four decades on, I spent a few days in the true spiritual successor to the VW Beetle of the '60s, a car so inexpensive VW can't even afford to sell it in the United States. Here's why the penny-powered ways of the Volkswagen Up just weren't made for these times.
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.
The up! provides a study in spartan accommodations, and a view into what German engineers consider essential for driving in the 21st century. Every surface at hand is some kind of hard plastic, with a strip of body-colored metal on the doors exposed like the beams in a downtown loft. It has a rear backup radar system, but no vanity mirrors. The total number of cupholders is one, half as many as that ultimate driver's car, the Porsche 911. VW integrated a stalk-mounted navigation and trip computer into the dashboard, but had no budget to let the driver control the passenger's power window or even provide an armrest. And who needs a USB port if the stereo has a simple auxiliary plug-in, Mr. Moneybags?
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.
In Europe, the Up starts around $13,000, a couple of thousand dollars less than what the Scion iQ and Fiat 500 fetch for base prices in the United States. There are few new models in the United States that even start below $14,000 today, and before blaming auto industry greed I note that the most popular trim of the Fiat 500 isn't the stripper model, but the Gucci edition, which stickers well above $20,000. Look no further than the modern-day 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.