Gavin Green on one very good, and one very bad, new Volkswagen

Published: 03 April 2012

This is the tale of two Volkswagens. One risible. One righteous.

The new VW Up is a brilliant little car. From its tough yet well-textured cabin, to its composed ride quality, to its tuneful three-cylinder engine, to its outstanding space efficiency, this is one of the finest small cars I’ve driven. Unlike the brilliant Audi A2 – the Volkswagen Group’s last good baby car – there is no technical highlight, no individual game-changing technological step forward. Rather, it is the synthesis of qualities that so endears.

Unlike previous baby VWs – the Fox, the Lupo – that were scaled down Golfs with commensurately scaled down appeal and capability, the Up is every bit as desirable as a Golf. It’s certainly got way more appeal than a Polo, which has always been a dull and dour little car.

VW Up – spoilt only by its name

I just wish it didn’t have such a silly name, made worse by the exclamation mark. And by VW’s insistence that ‘up’ should be spelt with a lower case ‘u’. Thus, up! (I shall ignore both ungrammatical diktats, of course.)

And we thought VW had plunged to new naming depths with the Sharan…

Only the new Fiat Panda – less polished in cabin quality yet slightly superior in driving demeanour – is its class equal.

The VW Beetle – nostalgic codswallop

The latest iteration of the Volkswagen Beetle is a noticeable improvement over its pathetic predecessor, the cartoon-character New Beetle that tried to milk all the Herbie Rides Again nostalgic codswallop but made such a terribly poor job of it. No wonder sales were poor in Europe. Its retro contemporaries, the new Mini and the new Fiat 500, were much more convincing efforts at reinventing prized old nameplates. Much better loved, too. They managed to mingle 1950s ‘classic’ design cues with motoring modernity. Rather than merely a pastiche Beetle body on an innocent Golf platform.

You don’t need to know anything about the old 500, or the classic Mini, to yearn for a new Mini or 500. The new ones stand alone as good characterful cars. The proof of this is that the latest Mini’s biggest market is the US – where (apart from a few years in the early days), they never sold the old one. Same in China, where the old Mini was about as visible in ’60s Shanghai as miniskirts and Beatlemania. Yet the Chinese now love the latest Mini.

Better than the last one – but not good enough

The Beetle on the other hand only works for sad old nostalgists. The new one has a slightly more sensible shape – flatter of roof and squatter of stance – but its remaining semi-circular shape (redolent of the old Bug, of course), makes absolutely no sense when you have a Golf-style front engine/front drive layout.

The old Bug’s shape was fine for a rear-engine rear-driver (the 911’s rear end, after all, isn’t so very different).  But it’s stupid for a conventional mechanical layout. It merely means more length and weight. And less rear seat room and boot space.

This is not form following function. It’s foolishness following fashion.

The new New Beetle drives well. That’s not surprising. Underneath it’s a Golf. But in most other ways it’s an engineering and packaging compromise that should be avoided by all forward-thinking people. Just buy a Golf. Or, as four seats apparently seem to be enough, an Up.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience