The Best Little Car We Can't Have

2012 Volkswagen Up!

Despite the fact that the Smart ForTwo has pretty much been a flop here in the United States (and understandably so), we Americans are slowly but surely warming up to intelligent little city cars. The Fiat 500, which got off to a slow start, is gaining traction; Scion is now pushing its miniscule iQ in all markets, and General Motors has just opened the gates on the Chevrolet Spark. But until widespread success in this segment is firmly on record, it's no secret that automakers are hesitant to bring over their smallest offerings. It's one thing to import hundred-thousand-dollar supercars, but when you're trying to compete with a low-price-point product, additional import costs only hurt the business case.

Elsewhere 'round the globe, Volkswagen is enjoying early success with its Up! minicar, the tiny runabout that was named 2012 World Car of the Year during the New York Auto Show. And since VW brought an Up! to the States in order to proudly take the stage during that Big Apple award ceremony, the automaker sent its worldly winner on a tour-de-America. We grabbed the keys for a few days during its stay in the Motor City.

We could litter this entire review with synonyms of "small" to describe the Up!'s stature, but we'll put it in some better perspective for you – it's nearly identical in size to the Fiat 500. The Up! is ever-so-slightly shorter in overall length, a tiny bit wider and 1.5 inches shorter in height, but rides on a wheelbase that's a full 5.3 inches longer than the Fiat. That added space between the axles not only gives the car the sort of short-overhang dimensions that we love, but aids massively in interior packaging efficiency. Attractive 15-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 185/55-series Continental ContiPremiumContact 2 tires fit snugly at all four corners, as well.

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

The end result is a small car that's as cute as a button with not a single offensive styling element to our eyes. We like the way the grille forms a big grin around the painted front bumper and that same design element is mimicked at the rear. The Up! isn't all bubbly like a Fiat 500, using more squared-off lines and a vertical glass hatch, but this lack of roundness goes the distance once you're inside.

The Up! isn't all bubbly like a Fiat 500, using more squared-off lines and a vertical glass hatch.

That cabin is perhaps one of this runabout's biggest surprises, where Volkswagen decided to employ a straight-to-the-point, clean-and-simple, functional design scheme rather than some of the cutesy designs found on other small cars that just turn out to be complete ergonomic messes. Directly in front of you is a flat-bottomed steering wheel with no redundant audio controls that sits in front of a refreshingly basic instrument cluster. The only stalks and buttons within arm's reach feature minimal amounts of functions. To your right is a small control unit for the climate and audio functions with minimal amounts of buttons and knobs. It's all you need, and it works.

As for niceties, this Up! packs more goodies than you might think just by looking at the interior. The small dash-mounted removable Navigon screen houses a whole host of infotainment features and, as its name suggests, navigation functionality, and those front cloth seats are even heated. They're cushy, too, though we'd eagerly welcome some additional bolstering for our American-sized backs and thighs.

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

For the remainder of the interior, the theme is functionality above all else. There are plenty of storage cubbies to be found in the center stack, doors and even the sills that flank the rear bench. Speaking of which, we had no issues climbing behind the front seats, and because of the high position of the front chairs, there's a good amount of toe room to keep you comfortable if you are forced into the back. We packed four adults into the Up! at one point without a single gripe to be heard. In addition to rear seats that fold flat, there's added storage space under the floor of the cargo area for a total of 33.6 cubic feet of usable space for your goods.

It's certainly not fast, this Up! – hitting 60 mph will take you a full 13 seconds (yes, even a Prius is quicker).

All in, the Up! offers a better-appointed and more spacious interior than what we find in the Fiat 500 or Chevrolet Spark, proving that while we can gripe all we want about the cost-cutting found in the North American-spec Jetta's cabin, Volkswagen does still know how to make a premium small car interior.

The automaker has employed a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine here in the Up!, good for 75 horsepower and 70 pound-feet of torque. Miniscule numbers, no doubt, but it's fine for this 2,072-pound three-door hatchback. It's certainly not fast, this Up! – hitting 60 miles per hour will take you a full 13 seconds (yes, even a Prius is quicker) – but it isn't a total slowpoke, either. Being able to row your own gears with the five-speed manual transmission helps make the most of the limited power, too.

2012 Volkswagen Up! engine

The driving experience was not quite what we expected... in a good way.

That said, the driving experience was not quite what we expected... in a good way. The Up! may use a gasoline-fed inline-three, but it has diesel-like characteristics – everything from the sound it makes to the power delivery. First gear is short and you'll want to shift sooner rather than later, but once you've plunked into second, there's a good deal of low-end grunt to get you going. The same goes for third gear, and the final two cogs are merely there to keep the revs down when you're cruising. The transmission itself is nicely tuned, though like many other Volkswagens, the clutch is a bit vague. The gearbox itself offers solid engagement, and while we can see the argument for wanting shorter throws while shifting, they don't feel unusually or unpleasantly long.

Even after you've counted to 13 and are coasting at 60 mph, the Up! doesn't tremble at the idea of being pushed farther. We had no issues cruising at 80 mph, and while driving through one heck of a rainstorm, the little Up! held its own with confidence and poise on the wide freeways surrounding Detroit. The upright design and low weight does mean there's a tendency to be tossed around by strong crosswinds, and even during pleasant weather, wind noise is no stranger in the spacious cabin.

2012 Volkswagen Up! headlight2012 Volkswagen Up! logo2012 Volkswagen Up! wheel2012 Volkswagen Up! taillight

During our few days of driving, we had no problem coasting just above the 50-mpg mark.

As for fuel economy, the Up! absolutely excels here. Where a Fiat 500 won't even hit 40 miles per gallon with its 1.4-liter MultiAir inline-four, the Up! boasts city/highway numbers of 40 and 59 miles per gallon, respectively – converted from the EU cycle. During our few days of driving, we had no problem coasting just above the 50-mpg mark, making that absolutely best-in-class by a long shot compared to what's available here in the States.

But what really sweetens this deal is just how rewarding the Up! is to drive. The steering is direct and linear, with good on-center feel and plenty of feedback. It's worlds better than what the Fiat offers. You run into a few issues with the short wheelbase when driving over uneven road surfaces – the Up! will bounce around a bit – but it's nothing unexpected for a car this size. Beyond that, the Up! offers a comfortable cruising ride for long drives on the highway. Once you're on twisty roads, don't be alarmed if you experience some body roll and understeer built in to the front-wheel-drive chassis, but again, it's nothing out of the ordinary for small cars. And even so, it's better than the lot of what's offered in this country. In fact, the li'l Up! could even give larger cars like the Honda Fit or Chevrolet Sonic a run for their money in terms of overall driver involvement.

2012 Volkswagen Up! rear 3/4 view

But here's where this delicious piece of bite-size forbidden fruit turns bittersweet. Volkswagen has reiterated over and over again that it will not be selling the Up! in the United States. And if VW thought about taking the plunge on bringing over one of its sub-Golf offerings, more robust models like the Polo would certainly make more sense for our biggie-sized tastes.

And then there's the pricing issue. The bigger-is-better Jetta sedan starts at $16,675, so the Up! would need to come in below $15,000. But in order to do that, Volkswagen would likely need to move production of its minicar to North America – Mexico, probably – in order to keep cost down as much as possible. If the Up! could start under $14,000, that'd be gravy, but that's obviously easier said than done. And adding the necessary enhancements (read: weight) to meet U.S. crash and pedestrian standards would likely affect the car's excellent, flickable dynamics. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Sadly, the Volkswagen Up! might just be the best little car we can't have.