VW Finally Rediscovers Its (Very) Small Car Roots

Big old Volkswagen is back to thinking small, and it's finally doing it right. After two frankly awful attempts at supplying the rest of the world with cheap tin boxes called Fox and Lupo, company bosses have done some soul searching and this is the result: a tiny road warrior that's absolutely worthy of the 6.3-inch wide emblem on its grill.

It might seem like only yesterday, but the Up! was first shown as a concept back in the pre-crisis days of 2007 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Talk about fortuitous timing, because this 2+2 three-door minicar is exactly the sort of car that much of economically stunned Europe is craving nowadays. We all, Euro or Yank, want as much premium feel in our cars as cheaply as possible, and this is exactly why the little Up! is destined to clobber The Continent's vast field of city cars.

We've just spent 12 days in a top-trim Up! White Edition driving around in what certainly will be one of the car's major markets: the piratical, everyone-for-themselves streets of Milan, Italy. With our American brainset, at first we thought, "Yeah, it's really cute and useful, well built and all, but..." That qualifying "but" was just because the Up! is so small in every dimension save front seat room. As we would come to learn over our dozen days, with an all-new 1.0-liter, 74-horsepower three-cylinder and a serviceable five-speed manual, this little bugger can be a little roll-y in tight curves taken with any spirit, but she sure is fun.

2012 Volkswagen Up! side view2012 Volkswagen Up! front view2012 Volkswagen Up! rear view

After a day of using the Up! to drive around the Lombard capitol, however, our concerns all but evaporated. We quickly came to love the way this tiny hatch sliced and diced through Italy's notoriously heinous traffic while rewarding us with truly premium quality steering and over-the-road feel. The cabin was surprisingly purr-quiet and throttling and braking was accomplished with far more aplomb than any of its competitors – including the Fiat 500. The 500 provides an almost spot-on comparison to the Up! in our fancier trim, though the Marchionne special would absolutely suffer a loss when comparing cabins. As for the Smart ForTwo, the Up! destroys it handily, and you can bet that Daimler's suits are extremely concerned. Italian cities are by far the ForTwo's best markets, and it was impossible not to notice how many bystanders ogled our extremely white VW. Every time we stopped, we were bombarded with questions and nothing but positive comments.

Riding atop VW's latest front-engine, front-wheel-drive small car architecture dubbed MQB, VW's stated wet but unloaded weight for our Up! is a scant 2,072 pounds. Before you start with the "death trap" comments, let it be known that this thing just passed the toughest Euro NCAP crash tests with a full five-star rating, so it's one Mighty Mouse. The transversely mounted naturally aspirated triple-cylinder engine is capable of regularly returning 50 miles per gallon without trying too hard, either.

2012 Volkswagen Up! headlight2012 Volkswagen Up! fog light2012 Volkswagen Up! wheel detail2012 Volkswagen Up! taillight

Space up front for two passengers is nothing short of huge, with seats that can slide way back to accommodate the leggiest of basketball stars. Another big plus is the crystal-clear visibility all around through the car's acoustically optimized five-layer glass. Those easy-access doors are a whopping 51.2 inches long and they can open wide to around an 80-degree angle. Some body twisting is necessary in tight parking conditions, but at the curb, it's an easy step up and out as though you're exiting a Rolls-Royce. The rearview mirror – an often underappreciated appendage – is big and rectangular to let the driver see out of the big and rectangular rear glass. How nice.

This is the first application of the three-cylinder member of VW's new EA211 engine clan in any real volume, and it's utterly quiet – even under stiffer throttle. Both two-cylinder and three-cylinder engines tend to have a surprisingly civilized sound to them when done properly, and this all-aluminum unit emits a soothing baritone note while cruising; when you hit the gas, the sound grows like there's a big strong guy curled up under the hood.

2012 Volkswagen Up! interior2012 Volkswagen Up! front seats2012 Volkswagen Up! rear seats2012 Volkswagen Up! rear cargo area

We mentioned a little roll in the hard corners. The suspension here is McPherson struts in front and a solid beam in back. Not particularly sophisticated, but it's well-tuned for this very light car and its intended uses. The dampers are long-travel monotube units that never once bottomed out through all of Milan's daffily imperfect streets. Besides a five-speed manual transmission, a single-clutch automatic is in the works for mid-2012, and there will also be an available sport suspension setup that lowers the whole car by some six-tenths of an inch. We suspect it'll teach cars like the larger Honda Fit Sport a thing or two.

Combining good ride comfort with slinky smooth electromechanical power steering (lock-to-lock in almost 3.0 turns) made driving through the Italian city's many impromptu obstacles almost feel like sport. Besides the high sideview mirrors, the Up! is no wider at any point than your outer door panel, so it's easy to know whether the car will make it through an opening in the traffic mayhem or not. The Up! is also an expert at adapting to the many occasions in Italy where a street that is indicated as two lanes suddenly becomes a three-wide affair.

While all of the VW's dimensions and mechanicals effortlessly showed the world around us how a minicar should be built, our White Edition benefited from top-of-the-line 16-inch alloys and Continental ContiPremiumContact2 treads – 185/50 R16 81T all around. All four contact patches worked overtime to nail every line we chose through busy northern Italy. Of course, if this Up! White Edition does make it to the States, it will probably cost somewhere just north of $13,000. But, as ever, you pay for what you get, right?

Our tester carried the current top power specification available for the three-cylinder, meaning 74 hp at its 6,200-rpm redline and 70 pound-feet of torque from 3,000 rpm. You'll find 60 mph in around 13.0 seconds flat and a 107 mph top speed – typical figures for cars of this ilk. That might seem slow, but as we hinted earlier, once our American smoky burnout-mindset cooled its jets and we drove more like a real Up! owner might, the real glory of the VW became clear. In truth, this is the first actual premium A-segment car that completely convinces us. The Fiat 500 may be cuter, but the material quality choices throughout just can't compare to a similarly priced Up!

2012 Volkswagen Up! engine

The VW's rear seats are nigh on useless but for the wee ones, though there is huge headroom and shoulder room in back – something else that cannot be said of the 500. Baggage space with all seats up is just 8.9 cubic feet, becoming 12.0 or so when removing the rear floor panel and dropping it down. Folding the rear seatbacks is a cinch and they lay flat to help create an eminently usable 33.6 cubic feet.

Of course, the only manner in which Volkswagen – or anyone – can make money on smallies like the Up! is to build them in countries that can produce high volumes with less overhead, and the Up! is indeed built at VW's state-of-the-art facility in Bratislava, Slovakia – the same facility that makes not only the larger Polo, but also the Volkswagen Touareg, Audi Q7 and the Porsche Cayenne trio.

2012 Volkswagen Up! rear 3/4 view

Will the Up! ever get over to the USA and Canada to start a small battle with the ForTwo and 500? We thought about that every day we zipped through the city, and we have to say that it'd be really tough to justify the business case, especially considering how those two vehicles are(n't) selling in the States. Given that VW never even brought the Polo over, why would they leapfrog down a notch and bring over this car? If, however, this were to happen sometime, the powertrain would be probably need to be a turbocharged version of the three-cylinder inspired by the Up! GT concept shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show – hopefully good for more power than the Stateside Fiat 500's 101 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque. Plus, the four-door Up! we saw as the Cross Up! Concept in Frankfurt has already been confirmed, and that model would seemingly help build a U.S. business case a bit.

The Up! starts deliveries in Europe in late February. Two Volkswagen subsidiaries, SEAT in Spain and Škoda in the Czech Republic, will be building sister cars along this identical theme – the Mii and the Citigo, respectively.

If Fiat could afford to put together something more along the lines of the quality substance levels we find in this stylish Up!, maybe more Americans would be buying the Italian mouse that isn't roaring like Turin thought it would. Barring that, we're hoping that VW considers the Up! as an opportunity to rekindle its reputation for (very) small car excellence here in the U.S.