Batteries included: VW e-Up driven

30 January 2014

Volkswagen e-Up front view

Volkswagen e-Up
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: decent pace, impressive space
Bad: slow-witted satnav, expensive
Price: from £19,250
In 2009, BMW turned its compact Mini hatchback into an electric car, transforming it into a two-seater by commandeering the back half of the car to house a battery the size of the Bismarck.

I’m reminded of that earlier car today as I climb into the electric version of Volkswagen’s Up city car, not because the two cars seem similar but because they are so utterly different. In the VW, there’s absolutely no cabin intrusion whatsoever, the boot is unaltered and even the space to carry a spare wheel remains unexpectedly free of bulky electrical hardware.

The other big difference is that while the Mini E was a hand-built, limited-run prototype, the e-Up is a production vehicle you can order from your local dealer today. It costs from £19,250 (after the £5,000 reduction of the Plug-in Car Grant), which as I’ve discussed previously makes it hard to pigeonhole as a bargain.

Volkswagen e-Up underneath showing battery

However, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt about the quality of VW’s engineering. In packaging terms alone it’s a marvel. Hoist the e-Up into the air and you’ll find the flat-bottomed, air-cooled battery sandwiched unobtrusively under the floor between the car’s axles. Heavy duty hardware like the charger, electric motor, reduction gearbox and differential are all tucked away neatly within the car’s short nose.

As a result there’s a surprising air of normality about the Up EV. Were it not for the missing tailpipe and the tinsel of special LED daylight lamps, you might never spot its special nature from the kerb. And inside, while VW has tried to lift the ambience by adding stitched leather touches and by optioning everything in the modest Up arsenal, there’s no mistaking the interior of what is otherwise the cheapest Volkswagen you can buy. That means solid, well-built fittings made from hard plastics and the unmistakeable air of brutal cost reduction.

Volkswagen e-Up cockpit

Driving sensations are, naturally, entirely different from those of a petrol-powered Up. Acceleration is instant from rest and remains strong at ordinary speeds, and progress feels uncannily linear given the fixed gear ratio.

Refinement is enough to make a dropped pin sound like a spoon clattering onto a tea tray, and you may never need to touch the brakes. Drivers can choose among five different levels of recuperation – otherwise known as regenerative braking – which will slow the car at different rates as your foot lifts off the throttle. Instead of using brakes to turn momentum into wasted heat, the e-Up’s motor is employed to turn a portion of that inertial energy back into electrical charge, helping to make the car go that little bit further between top-ups.

Volkswagen e-Up gear lever

The recuperation levels are chosen using the gear lever. Pull back from D into B for maximum regeneration, when descending steep hills, for example. Or knock the gear lever sideways to scroll from D through D1, D2 and D3. Choosing D2 or above will prove sufficient to light the brake lamps at the back.

Of course you will need to brake by foot pedal from time to time, and the e-Up succeeds in splicing regeneration and mechanical stopping power with no detectable joins. An electro-hydraulic actuator under the bonnet blends the two forces on demand, according to urgency, with impressive fidelity.

The e-Up’s 230kg battery stores 18.7kWh, more than the 17.6kWh of the Smart ForTwo ED, but less than the 20, 22 and 24kWh carried aboard the BMW i3, Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf respectively. Volkswagen helpfully cautions that the Up’s effective range will vary according to the seasons and driving style from 75-103 miles in summer to just 50-75 miles in winter. Batteries simply don’t like the cold but a relatively crude cabin heater is also a key culprit – both Leaf and Zoe employ an efficient heat-pump design to minimise energy drain in frosty weather, whereas the Up has more in common with a hair dryer.

Volkswagen e-Up interior

There are heated seats and demisting elements in the windscreen to reduce the need for cabin warmth. More helpfully, the e-Up shares the useful capability to pre-heat the cabin while still plugged into the mains on a cold morning. Apparently there’s an app for that, to let you schedule the heating remotely or simply wake the e-Up while still huddled snugly under a duvet.

Another way to eke out extra miles is to switch driving modes. A button ahead of the gear lever cycles through Normal, Eco and Eco+ settings. Choosing Eco cuts peak motor power from 60kW (80bhp) to 50kW (67bhp), softens throttle response and reins in the air conditioning. Eco+ slices power down to 40kW (53bhp), further slackens the throttle, switches off the aircon and cuts the maximum speed from 81mph to just 60mph.

Volkswagen e-Up mode button

That last measure might sound potentially hazardous, but fortunately the 60mph limit is negotiable. You’ll simply need to squash the throttle past a noticeable kink in its travel to go faster. But Eco+ makes it easy to stay at or below 60mph for the sake of improved range.

The car’s responses are noticeable blunted in Eco and Eco+, but not annoyingly so. Both would be acceptable everyday modes, easily capable of keeping up with busy urban traffic.

Helpfully, the standard-fit Garmin screen is able to draw the e-Up’s current range onto its map before you embark on a journey that might test the car’s reserves, though the satnav did need to pause and have a deep think for about 10 seconds before displaying the result (the i3’s central screen, by contrast, does a similar job without any obvious delay). As with other EVs, you’ll see a shorter range prediction along the route of faster roads. This is due to the exponential build up of drag as speed increases – draining more energy from the battery to travel the same distance at a higher speed.

Volkswagen e-Up range estimation

Out and about the e-Up feels OK to drive, but sadly no better than that. The flat, 230kg mass of battery at axle height helps to keep the bodywork upright through corners, and weight distribution is presumably less nose-heavy than standard, but the mildly adjusted suspension doesn’t seem happy carrying the extra weight. The steering is also of the light and synthetic variety. All told, the electric Up feels just a little disjointed and vague on a bumpy B-road, which I’d say puts it on a par with the Zoe but a fair way ahead of the clod hopping electric Smart ForTwo. The Leaf, by contrast, has been sorted out since it first bounced onto the scene in 2011 though it’s still no Fred Astaire. The more expensive i3 is the only EV I’ve yet driven with properly happy feet.

Most owners will probably care more about efficiency than effervescence, and they will surely welcome VW’s attempt at a driving tutor. Nissan’s Leaf has its little trees, which grow in response to smooth and effective driving or wither in the face of heavy feet, and now Volkswagen has given us a big blue daisy.

Volkswagen e-Up driving tutor

Call up the Think Blue option on the central touchscreen, and your driving will be scored via the petals of a daisy wheel, each of which corresponds to a minute or so of driving time. Drive sympathetically and you’ll see a bright symmetrical bloom. But hoon like a loon and chunks of petal will turn sickly grey, while the centre of the flower will flash up a symbol telling you what it was you did wrong. Your driving is also given a percentage score.
As these things go this is quite an effective way of providing feedback, though I suspect I’d need to set off from the top of a big hill to ever see 100%.

All things considered, I found the VW e-Up an exceedingly impressive little city car, though it’s hard to feel properly persuaded given the price. Stacked against the electric car competition, it simply feels too far over the odds.

Volkswagen e-Up side view

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