Saturday, 22 March 2014

VW e-Up!: shockingly good Back in November, we crowned BMW's radical i3 the best electric car in Blighty – or anywhere else in the world, for that matter.

Just a few months later, that title is already under threat and from a surprising new entrant into the EV market. It's the new Volkswagen e-up!

Not surprising in the sense that it exists. We've known the Volkswagen e-up! Was coming for some time. But surprising in the sense that it turns out to be such a compelling proposition.

That's because the e-up! is unashamedly an electric rehash of a conventional combustion car. Much of the BMW i3's appeal is based on its ground-up, clean-sheet, pure-electric engineering.

The i3, then, is the electric car you'd design if free from all combustion-related baggage. The e-up! is inherently more compromised.

At this stage we also need to throw the Renault Zoe into the mix. It falls somewhere in between the i3 and e-up! in terms of the purity of its engineering.

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Renault pitches it as an EV through and through. And it does have unique sheet metal. It isn't just a Renault Clio with a big battery. But it is still derived from Renault's combustion car architecture.

It's also worth noting that the £15,195 Renault is much more of a direct competitor to the £19,250 Volkswagen e-up! in terms of pricing, where the £25,680 BMW i3 operates in a pricier part of the market, especially when you start comparing lease deals.

That the e-up! remains more expensive than the Zoe is partly down to differences in things like battery leasing, but we'll come to that in a moment.

Get underneath the new Volkswagen e-up! and you begin to understand why this is no low-cost lash up. Our test drive started from VW's technical training centre in Milton Keynes.

It's here that VW's main agent technicians learn about the nuances of looking after electric cars. Handily, that means an e-up! or two up on a ramp and a good view of the bottom of the car.

From there you can see how the battery is essentially a thin slice forming the bottom of the chassis. Not a lump chucked in the boot eating up luggage space and knackering the weight distribution, then. Even if you'd engineered the car from the very beginning for electric power, the battery packaging wouldn't be any different.

The e-up!'s belly reveals a flat, fully-integrated lithium pack

Whether you'd put the electric motor and single-speed reduction drive up front or in the rear is an interesting question. BMW went for rear installation and thus rear drive. But there are decent reasons in terms of packaging and driving dynamics (specifically safety) to stick it all up front.

Anyway, the point is that it turns out the Volkswagen e-up! is probably as well engineered for batteries as any other EV. This is no lash up.

Elsewhere, the car comes across as being pretty much identical to any other Volkswagen e-up! It's a slick, pretty well appointed city car with an appealing cabin and more space inside than you'd merit from the teensy exterior.

Oh, and finally, the e-up! is only available in five-door trim.

Let's start with the obvious bit. The Volkswagen e-up! gets a sodding great 230kg lithium battery pack. Actually, it's not that huge by EV standards. Batteries for these cars are big.

So it's an 18.7kWh battery where both the Renault Zoe and BMW i3 sport 22kWh packs. As for the motor, it's an 82hp item, which makes the e-up! the most powerful up! you can buy, albeit the heaviest, too.

Using a standard UK socket, a full charge from empty is nine hours, but VW can provide a fast-charge wall box that reduces that to six hours.

For any EV, the ability to recapture kinetic energy and top up the battery on the move is critical to overall operating range. The only problem is that such regen features can result in a clumsy driving experience. It can feel like you've slammed on the brakes when you lift off of the throttle pedal.

Here, the e-up! is actually more advanced than most EVs. VW has cooked up a five-stage user-selectable system of regen, starting with pure sailing and no regeneration at all through to maximum regen which also includes automatic activation of the brake lights, such is the retardation involved.

Multiple levels of energy regen are user-configurable

As standard, the e-up! gets the Garmin-derived Maps & More infotainment system. It's basically a modified Garmin mini tablet that's fully integrated with the up!'s telematics systems. The difference with the e-up! is the addition of internet connectivity as standard.

That allows for the usual app-enabled remote functionality that's common to a lot of Evs. So, that includes the ability to control and schedule charging remotely, pre-heating the cabin and all that jazz.

The e-up! also has DAB radio as standard.

Crikey, it's quite quick. That's your first thought when spool up the e-up!'s electric motor. Much of that comes down to expectations. When BMW pitches an i3 as maintaining the dynamism of conventional BMWs, you expect it to be fun and nippy.

With the e-up!, you don't know quite know what it's going to be like and so it's a pleasant surprise to find it feels significantly gutsier off the line than a conventional hatchback. Admittedly, the performance tails off a bit as you approach the national speed limit. But around town, this thing really shifts.

So ignore the offical 12.4-second sprint to 62mph. It feels far quicker than that.

Of course, as an EV it does everything with zero drama and very little noise, which only adds to the impression of an effortlessly nippy car.

Again, that impression fades a little at higher speeds as wind and road noise intrude. But that's true of any EV. At motorway speeds, wind and road roar are probably more critical to refinement than engine noise.

The e-up!'s 99-mile max range is comparable to other EVs

Anyway, with the battery pack mounted flat and low in the chassis, the e-up! feels supremely stable, too. OK, it's no sports car. But it doesn't suffer from excessive body movement. Can you hustle it down a b-road? Absolutely, and you'll have plenty of fun to boot.

As for range, well, the old adage of mileage varying applies. In the official NEDC cycle it maxes out at precisely 99 miles. VW is quite open about the fact that this is more of a theoretical maximum than a real-world number.

The VW e-up!: Great on road. In fields? Not so much

Going by our experience of the car, we reckon you'll get at least 50 miles out of it, even driving like a berk. 60 to 80 miles is probably a realistic expectation for most normal drivers.

If that doesn't sound like much, it's worth remembering that a huge number of cars in the UK travel as little as 15 to 20 miles daily. An EV isn't a universal transport solution. But for the millions of small hatchbacks used as local runabouts, the e-up! makes a very plausible alternative.

So what have learned about the Volkswagen e-up!? It's not the quick and dirty lash up you might have guessed, for starters. It's a properly engineered EV.

So, it's much better to drive than you might expect. The range is more than adequate for its remit. And it looks good inside and out. In fact, in many ways, it's one of the best EVs you can buy.

But is it good enough to topple the BMW i3? In simple terms, it's not as accomplished or as innovative as the i3. Yes, the i3 is around £5,000 pricer. But then it's so much more advanced, that price premium actually seems cheap.

What's more, £19,250 for the e-up! is a hell of a lot of money for what in many ways amounts to a basic hatchback. It's only slightly cheaper than VW's entry-level Passat. It also looks expensive compared to the £15,195 Renault wants for a Zoe.

However, few people buy these cars outright and when you add the £70 a month Renault charges for the Zoe's battery to the monthly lease costs, suddenly the e-up! looks competitive on price.

The best vaguely-affordable EV? That'll be the VW e-up!

It's also when you consider lease deals that that i3 suddenly seems much, much more expensive. Really roughly, you're looking at about £200 a month for an e-up! vs more like £350 for an i3. That's a huge step up.

And so the new e-up! can't quite dethrone the i3. The BMW is just a bit too special for that. But VW's unassuming new EV is our pick of the circa-£20,000-and-under electric cars. It's far, far better than you'd think.