We celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Volkswagen Up! and its siblings and wonder if the city car has a future.
The 2011 Volkswagen Up! is Wolfsburg’s third generation city car. Unlike other models in its range, the smallest car received a different name for each iteration. This is explained, at least in part, by an apparent hiatus in product planning along the way, with the second-generation Fox being a stop-gap(1) import from Brazil.
Volkswagen’s first city car was the 1998 Lupo. It was introduced because the company realised that the increasing size and weight of its Polo B-segment supermini left room in its range for a smaller model. The original 1975 Polo, essentially a rebadged Audi 50, was a petite thing, with a wheelbase of 2,335mm (92”), overall length of just 3,510mm (138¼”) and kerb weight of just 685kgs (1,510lbs). By the time that the Lupo was launched, the Polo Mk3 was 72mm (3”) longer in wheelbase, 205mm (8”) longer overall and an extraordinary 236kg (520lbs.) heavier than the Mk1.
Even the scaled-down Lupo, while roughly the same size as the original Polo, was only 31kg (68lbs.) lighter than the Polo Mk3. This is largely explained by increasing crash safety standards that required more robust construction and more safety equipment to be fitted as standard. The Lupo was one of a pair of models, the other being the SEAT Arosa that preceded it by a year. The Lupo and Arosa differed only in their nose treatments, tail-light graphics and minor trim items.
The Lupo/Arosa was a well-regarded car that offered typical Volkswagen Group qualities in a smaller package. Sales started strongly, with 155,530(2) sold in 1999, its first full year on the market, but drifted down thereafter to 39,396 in 2004, its last full year. A total of 649,773 were sold overall. This sales performance should have been enough to justify the development of a successor but that was, apparently, not the case. Perhaps the difficulty of making decent profit margins on small cars was already becoming apparent?
Instead, Volkswagen looked to its Latin American operations for a ready-made replacement and found the 2003 Fox(3) a city car designed by Volkswagen do Brazil. It was launched in Europe in April 2005. The Fox was a competent car, but seemed rather mundane and had an unmistakable whiff of cost-cutting and emerging markets utility about it.
It was offered in three and five-door bodystyles and three engine sizes, but had limited standard equipment and a list of options, in order to keep the entry price down. It was generally regarded as a backward step after the Lupo. The Fox was offered in VW form only; no SEAT or Škoda versions were made available. A total of 304,357 were sold over seven years, considerably underperforming its predecessor.
When it became apparent that the Fox was struggling, Volkswagen decided that it needed to adopt a clean-sheet approach to its next city car design. The company spent some time considering (and talking publicly about) the possibility of using a bespoke rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive architecture. For very small cars, this can be an attractive solution because it frees up the front end to incorporate the required level of crash protection more easily, and allows for a tighter turning circle, something very useful in city driving.
The compromise in luggage space is not of great importance, since city cars are rarely driven with a full complement of both passengers and luggage at the same time. Volkswagen went as far as to show a rear-engined concept at the 2007 Frankfurt and Tokyo motor shows. The concept bore a striking visual resemblance to the production Up! although it was a rather more curvaceous and fuller shape.
After lengthy deliberation, Volkswagen decided in 2008 that the costs of a wholly bespoke architecture could not be justified. Even if the new city car were offered under all three of the group’s mainstream brands, projected sales volumes and, more importantly, unit profitability would generate insufficient return on the required investment.
Instead, the new model would be a wholly conventional transverse-engined front-wheel-drive car. According to a report published in Car Magazine in September 2008, this would save Volkswagen €750 million in research and development, procurement and production costs compared with the rear-engined layout. The downside of the switch to FWD was that it would add a year to the car’s development timetable.
The Volkswagen Up! and its siblings, the SEAT Mii and Škoda Citigo were launched in late 2011, with European sales commencing in early 2012. Collectively they were called the NSF (New Small Family) PQ12 platform cars. They would be manufactured in Slovakia at Volkswagen’s Devinska Nova Ves plant outside Bratislava in three or five-door hatchback versions. The different marques would be differentiated by unique, brand-specific front-end treatments and different tail light graphics.
The Up! would be further distinguished by having an all-black-glass tailgate. The Mii and Citigo instead had the lower part of the tailgate in metal and painted in body colour. The three-door Up! kept the upswept rear side window line of the 2007 concept, but the other two had a straight lower DLO line similar to all five-door models. The latter had pop-out rather than wind-down rear door windows. The exterior design was attributed to Brazilian Marco Pavone, under the supervision of VW design head Klaus Bischoff and group chief designer Walter d’Silva.
The engine was a transversely installed 1.0 litre in-line triple-cylinder unit producing either 60bhp (45kW) or 75bhp (56kW). Transmission was via five or six-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automated manual. Wheelbase and overall length(4) were 2,420mm (95½”) and 3,540mm (139½”) respectively. Kerb weight was 929kg (2,044lbs.).
An electric version of the Up! called the E-Up!(5) was launched in September 2013. This had an 18.7kWh lithium-ion battery and claimed range of 160km (99 miles). This was succeeded in September 2019 by a new version with a larger 32.3kWh battery that improved the range to 260km (161 miles).
An Up! GTI was launched in 2018 with an uprated engine that produced 116bhp (87kW), good for a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 8.8 seconds and a top speed of 119mph (192km/h).
Apart from various tweaks to trim and equipment and a minor facelift, the Up! and its siblings have been in production fundamentally unchanged for almost a decade. Total European sales for the Up! and its siblings since launch until the end of 2019 were 1,305,434. The Up! was the most popular, taking 65% of sales, followed by the Citigo at 23% and the Mii at 12%. It seems that most buyers are happy to pay the £500 (EUR600) premium typically charged for the VW badge.
That it is still popular and selling well is a tribute to the essential ‘rightness’ of the original design, but it also indicates a problem: the economics of designing and manufacturing city cars are becoming increasingly problematic because of ever-increasing safety standards and customers’ expectations regarding standard equipment. In simple terms, it is extraordinarily difficult to offer a city car with a price differential to a larger and more practical supermini sufficient to make it sell, and still generate an acceptable margin, when both models are equally well equipped. The relative failure of the Fox(6) would indicate that there is little appetite for a decontented basic city car, at least not from the Volkswagen stable.
Perhaps the economics of EV production might help make the city car more viable again? Volkswagen has said that the Up! replacement will be an EV only. Time will tell whether a new generation of EV city cars will prove viable. If not, it will be a great loss from a consumption of resources and environmental perspective.
(1) It would turn out to be quite a long gap: the Fox remained on sale in Europe for six years until it was replaced by the Up! This was caused by the latter’s prolonged development process, as described above.
(2) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(3) Confusingly, the 2003 Fox was sold in Mexico as the Lupo, allegedly so as not to risk causing offence to the then Mexican President, Vincente Fox.
(4) Figure for the Up! The Mii and Citigo were slightly longer because of their different front-end treatments.
(5) This model name caused much amusement in England as it sounds identical to the colloquial greeting of ‘ay up’ used in the East Midlands.
(6) Volkswagen also investigated the idea of building an ‘emerging markets’ car, to be sold under a new brand name, but could not make an economic case for it, so abandoned the idea.