Volkswagen’s new city car needs to be nothing short of brilliant if it’s to beat Fiat’s cute 500, the cheap-to-run Kia Picanto and well thought-out Toyota Aygo
The Buzz surrounding Volkswagen’s sexy new Up is bordering on hysteria. Its killer looks, high-quality interior and the cachet of that VW badge all but guarantee its appeal to socially conscious city-slickers.
Here we’re testing it against the Fiat 500; it’s an easy-to-drive package with sophisticated styling. I Also offering maximum style for minimal outlay is the Kia Picanto. It’s available for a ridiculously low price and has tiny running costs.
Finally, there’s the Toyota Aygo. It might be getting on a bit, but it still looks fresh. It also promises minuscule running costs and jam-busting manoeuvrability.
These days, even the smallest supermini needs to be capablc of more than a quick dash to the shops, so a lively and flexible engine is crucial.
The Picanto, Aygo and Up all use three-cylinder l.o-litre units, while the 500 has a four-cylinder 1.2.
The Up packs the most power, so it builds speed slightly faster than its rivals when you accelerate through the gears; useful when you’re joining a busy motorway or looking to overtake on an A-road.
The Up also responds pretty eagerly when you leave its gearbox alone and just rely on the engine’s muscle. However, the 500 is the star performer in situations like this because it has a little more low-down torque.
In slow-moving city traffic, the 500 will happily trundle along in third gear, with enough in reserve should you suddenly ask it to nip into a gap. What’s more, it climbs steep hills with vigour and rarely needs a downchange to maintain momentum on the motorway.
The Picanto is nowhere near as impressive. It generally needs at least one downchange, and more often two, when it comes to any sort of incline. You also have to thrash it whenever you want to pick up speed, and it’s impossible to accelerate smoothly because there are several flatspots.
There’s almost nothing between the power and torque figures for the Picanto and Aygo. Fortunately, the engine in the much-lighter Aygo builds revs far more progressively. As a result, it performs more like the Up, and actually responds a little better than its much newer rival at very low revs (the low weight helps).
If you need to scrub off speed in a hurry, it’s the Up that pulls up in the shortest distance and the Picanto the longest; the Kia needs almost 7m farther to stop.
Ride and handling
This is an area where small cars tend to struggle, but the Up proves that they can offer a mature driving experience and still be fun when it matters.
The VW’s supple suspension is brilliant at soaking up speed bumps and urban potholes. What’s more, the car feels totally settled when you’re cruising on the motorway, and is equally unfazed by twisty country roads. There’s a fair amount of body roll, but the Up never lurches about in an uncontrolled way, and its steering is light and precise.
The 500 also copes pretty well outside the city limits, because it feels secure on the motorway and grippy in bends. It’s just a pity the steering is remote and overly light. Parking is a doddle, but the ride is bouncy below about 50mph, and bigger bumps thump through the cabin whatever your speed.
The Picanto is another car that makes a meal of imperfections in the road surface, and while it doesn’t wobble about when confronted with a corner, its front tyres run out of grip very early, even when the road is dry. To make matters worse, the steering is not only vague, but reluctant to self-centre, so you have to quickly wind off lock after making a turn.
This isn’t an issue in the Aygo. However, its steering is heavy enough to make town driving hard work, and it inspires little confidence on faster roads, where you feel like you’re turning the wheel through treacle. The Aygo’s ride is more settled than the Picanto’s or 500′s, but it’s still crashy compared with the Up’s.
Quality and reliability
These cars are cheap to buy, and as you might expect, none stretches to providing the swanky soft-touch cabin plastics you get in bigger cars However, that’s not to dismiss them as unappealing.
The best on that score is the Volkswagen. The dashboard plastics are hard but nicely textured, and the glossy black inserts add some extra style. Even the cheaper, rougher plastic on the door pulls has a pleasant, rubberised finish.Throw in the slick, precise action of the controls, and you have a small car that looks and feels very grown-up.
The same is true of the Kia. The plastics on top of the dash are just as smart as the VW’s. and the silver trim on the centre console and steering wheel adds a dash of colour. Most impressively, though. The materials are of a uniformly high standard throughout.
The 500 looks impressive at first glance, too, with an attractive body-coloured dash panel and an appealing Bakelite-effect finish on the centre console. Unfortunately, these cool retro touches are let down by cheap plastics elsewhere.
The Toyota definitely feels like the poor relation. Wherever you look, you see evidence of cost-cutting: hard, unappealing surfaces, flimsy plastics and poorly damped switchgear.
Not that owners seem to mind. In the latest ID Power Customer Satisfaction Survey, the Aygo came top of the City Car class. The 500 came second and the previous Picanto came third, but these two cars scored only three stars for mechanical reliability, while the Aygo scored the full five. The Up’s forerunner, the Volkswagen Fox, also achieved the maximum score for reliability, but poor showings elsewhere meant it finished ninth of the 10 city cars studied.
The Up’s infotainment system is the most feature-packed we’ve seen on a city car. The majority of functions are controlled via a removable five-inch touch-screen on top of the dashboard, which has Bluetooth for handsfree calls and to stream music. It also doubles as a sat-nav. The menu system is intuitive, but there aren’t any controls on the steering wheel, so you have to reach over and press the screen.
The Aygo’s Connect Multimedia system Is essentially a TomTom sat-nav that clips into a flap on the dashboard; you can also use it to make Bluetooth handsfree calls. The system has a USB socket and a proper iPod/iPhone dock; plug in your MP3 player and you can use the TomTom to control the device. Again, though, we’d prefer controls on the steering wheel.
More expensive Picantos have Bluetooth and a USB socket, but the version we’re testing here has only a radio and a CD player, and you can’t upgrade it; the stereo looks smart and is simple to operate, but sound quality is poor.
Like the Kia, the 500 we’re testing makes do with just a radio and a CD player. However, for an extra L370 you can Blue&Me. which gives you Bluetooth, USB and steering wheel controls.
Behind the wheel
A comfortable driving position is essential in any car even one that’ll spend most of its life doing only short journeys. It’s good news, then, that all our cars provide you with a steering wheel that adjusts for height. None adjusts for reach, though.
The driver’s seats in the Kia and VW might irritate you, too. Both have headrests that are angled forward to give you better protection from whiplash in a rear-end shunt. However, it also means that you sit with your neck at a slightly awkward angle. Still, at least setting the position of your seat is easy in both cars; you crank it up and down with a ratchet lever, and set the angle of your backrest by releasing a catch and shifting your weight against it.
This process is even easier and more accurate in the Fiat, because you turn a wheel on the backrest until it sits at just the right angle. However, the 500′s seat-height adjuster isn’t so good, because cranking the lever alters the angle of your seat base more than it does the height. Still, at least it’s better than the Aygo’s seat, which has no height adjustment.
The Toyota’s sliding ventilation controls don’t do it any favours, either, because the markings aren’t clear enough. Our other cars, meanwhile, have rotary dials controllers that are well labelled.
Over-the-shoulder visibility is another thing that counts against the Toyota; the pillars are thick and the rear side windows are small, which hampers your view of the rear corners of the car. The other three cars all have an impressively large glass area, so you get a clear view all round.
Every car here has electric front windows and remote central locking, while all but the Fiat have split-folding rear seats.
The Up is the priciest car here, so it’s a good thing it’s the most lavishly equipped. It trumps the others with standard goodies such as heated front seats and door mirrors, front foglights and a height-adjustable boot floor. It’s also one of only two cars – along with the Picanto -that comes with air-conditioning as standard.
The Up scores again by coming with a leather-trimmed steering wheel and alloy wheels (like the Aygo), while Fiat charges extra for both of these luxuries. Neither is even an option on the Picanto; in fact Kia doesn’t offer any extras apart from metallic paint, so if you want a better-equipped Picanto you need the next model up (the 1.25 Halo), at a staggering L11,695.
None of these cars is tricky to park, but nonetheless you can add rear parking sensors to every car except the Picanto.
If you want an automatic gearbox, only Fiat and Toyota offer one as optional extras. Both are semi-automatic ‘boxes, but they’re jerky and slow to change gear, so unless you really need an auto, we’d stick with the manual gearboxes and save the cash.
Safety and security
These cars might be among the cheapest on the market, but that’s no excuse for poor safety provisions. It’s disappointing, then, that only the Kia and VW have stability control fitted as standard. This important piece of safety kit is available as an option on the other two cars, but costs more than L300.
All four cars have front and side airbags for the driver and passenger. The Kia and Fiat add curtain airbags, and the 500 adds one more to protect the driver’s knees. Worryingly, though, the Fiat is the only car here that doesn’t come with rear head restraints as standard; they cost an extra L70.
So far only the Kia and VW has been put through the latest Euro NCAP crash-testing procedure, and both scored well. The Up is the better of the two for protecting adults sitting in the front, while the Picanto was the safer for kids in child seats and for pedestrians.
All four cars have engine immobilisers to stop thieves driving away in them, and the Kia also has an alarm to help ward off unwanted visitors before they yet inside. The Up and Aygo get deadlocks, too.
If you think all small cars are boomboxcs, the Up will force you to reconsider. There’s very little road or suspension noise, no matter what the surface, a rid only some wind noise around the base of its windscreen at motorway speeds.
Then there’s the engine. While most three-cylinder units are pretty unrefined, the Up’s is smooth and quiet, aside from a slight vibration at idle and a rasp when you rev it beyond 4000rpm.
The Picanto could hardly be more different. Its engine rocks the car from side to side when it’s idling in traffic and becomes raucous under even gentle acceleration What’s more, the Kia generates a lot of road noise at all speeds and its suspension tends to clunk noisily over bumps.
This isn’t a problem in the Aygo, so it’s generally quieter in town. There’s plenty of wind noise once you’re beyond about 5omph, though, and the Aygo’s engine sounds every bit as coarse as the Picanto’s when revved.
The 500 treads the middle ground. It isn’t as relaxing as the Up at a steady cruise because it lets In more wind and road noise. However, it’s still quieter than the Picanto and Aygo, and has the smoothest engine here.
Each car has a five-speed manual gearbox, but only the Up’s and 500′s make changing gear a pleasure. The Aygo’s shift is notchy and its clutch heavy, while the Picanto’s clutch has a dead zone at the top of its travel, so you have to concentrate to maintain a smooth driving style.
Space and practicality
You wouldn’t expect small cars like these to be the last word in practicality, but the good news is that all four are capable of carrying four adults.
All have decent space in the front, but some provide more comfortable accommodation than others. In the Volkswagen and Kia you’re also treated to surprisingly generous rear space; the Picanto is particularly generous for legroom.
Our other two cars feel a bit more cramped. The Aygo has the least headroom of the bunch, I and six-foot adults will find that their hair brushes the ceiling. The 500 feels a little tight on that score, too, and it also has the – tightest kneeroom here; you’ll find your knees pressing against the seat in front, but the upright seating position and generous foot space mean you still sit reasonably comfortably.
Technically, the Kia has an advantage over the rest, providing three rear seats instead of just two. However, S it’s not worth trying to squeeze in a third person-the cabin is too narrow.
If you need a city car with a decent boot, the Volkswagen is your best bet. It has a deep, square-sided load area that holds 251 litres of cargo. There’s a huge lip that you’ll need to haul heavy items over, as there is in all of the cars here, but the adjustable boot floor means you can flatten it out while still storing small items underneath.
The Kia’s boot is next biggest, with the Fiat just behind. The Aygo has the smallest boot by some margin-the 138-litre space can cope with a few small shopping bags, but not much more; you certainly wouldn’t want to take it away for a week’s holiday.
All four cars have rear seats I that fold to maximise cargo space. Each one leaves you with a stepped load area, and in all but the Kia the backrests also lie at an angle. The Fiat has a further disadvantage because the rear seat backrest is one solid piece. The others all have a two-piece backrest, so you can use half (or more) of your rear space for luggage while still carrying one rear passenger.
Buying and owning
The VW is the most expensive car to buy here, and you won’t get a discount on it yet. The Up’s desirability will work in its favour when you come to sell, though, because it’s predicted to depreciate more slowly than the other three. A L299. three-year, fixed-price servicing deal will also save you some money.
Strong demand works in the Fiat’s favour, too. Granted, it means dealers aren’t keen to discount, but the flipside is solid resale values. The 500 drinks marginally more petrol than the other three, but road tax isonly L30-a-year and it has the lowest rate of company car tax. However, it’s still the most expensive car here to run over three years.
The Aygo was one of the cheapest city cars when it was launched in 2005. However, prices have risen steadily in recent years and it no longer looks such good value. Big discounts go some way towards redeeming it, but those savings are wiped out by the Toyota’s weak resale values.
By far the cheapest ownership proposition is the Picanto. It’s the cheapest to buy, and it’s also the only car here that’s exempt from road tax and the London Congestion Charge. It’s the most fuel-efficient, too, and won’t shed its value too rapidly, either.
The UP not only wins this test, but it leaves its rivals feeling utterly outdated by comparison.
It rides and handles with the sophistication of a car from the class above, whether you’re tackling winding roads and motorways, or just pottering around town. What’s more, the cabin is classy and spacious, and refinement is superb.
True, the Up is the priciest car here, but it comes generously equipped and is expected to hold its value well, so we reckon it’s worth every penny.
Second spot goes to the Picanto. It’s nowhere near as desirable or good to drive as the Up. However, you get a lot of car for your money. The Picanto undercuts each of its rivals by more than L1000, plus it’s easiest on fuel, and is a genuine four-seater with a smart, user-friendly interior.
The 500 is back in third. It has the most flexible engine of the four, and the cute, retro styling will be enough to make many people overlook its flaws. Unfortunately, these include poor practicality, a stingy equipment list and a ride that’s both bouncy and jarring.
That leaves the Aygo. On the upside, you get a lively engine and lots of toys, and it should prove very reliable. However, its tiny boot, inflexible driving position and heavy steering all count against it. The Aygo also has the worst resale values of the four and is missing important safety kit, so it can only finish fourth.