Thursday, September 06, 2012

The only way is...

At the dawn of my illustrious career as a "journalist", I went to live in the media capital of South Shropshire - Ludlow.

Today, this quaint, Tudor-timbered market town on the Welsh Marches is famous for having more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than Paris. Then, alas, the culinary choice was considerably thinner. As, indeed, was I.

The options, then, seemed limited to the chippy opposite my digs, a vegetarian cafe, a tourist-baiting tea 'shoppe' and more pubs than you could shake a shepherd's crook at, mostly serving doorstep-sized sausage sandwiches.

For occasional departures into the exotic, there was the Shapla curry house. The Shapla also served as the rallying point for evenings out that would exclusively end in one of two 'nightclubs', the unnervingly sticky-floored Starline and the equally salubrious Cagney's, a pub that may have doubled as a cage fighting venue, minus the cage.

All that aside, Ludlow is a beautiful town, and its annual festival of food - which purposefully celebrates a slower pace of life - owes much to the town's former mayor, the late Graeme Kidd. A lovely fella, Graeme was, at one point, editor of the first magazine I worked for before launching his career in local politics (to which I helped deliver his first batch of council seat campaign leaflets).

Ludlow's olde worlde environs aside, the town hosted many a rite of passage, including my first exposure to superfluous exclamation mark usage. On most days, the splash headline of the local evening paper, the Shropshire Star, would be an exclamatory bellow such as: FIRE ENGINE CALLED OUT!, MAN BARRED FROM PUB - AGAIN! or FARMER: HEFFER WAS LIKE FAMILY! No event was deemed unworthy of the punctuational shriek.

E-mail and social media have made the exclamation mark a social trap door. In its basic form, the phrase "I don't think I will" is merely a statement of declination. Add an exclamation mark and it becomes easily misconstrued as either sarcasm or irritation. Add a smiley emoticon, however, and an afternoon of grovelling e-mail back-and-forth can be avoided. On the other hand, accidentally leave the caps lock on, and then add an exclamation mark, and you will have just dispatched the phrase at the written volume level of one of Adolf Hitler's speeches.

Which in no way leads me to Volkswagen and its new city car, the UP!. Yes, with an exclamation mark. Quite why this baby VW needs such a shouty name is beyond me. VW's other cars don't shout like this (although my Golf does: when sensing the fuel tank is near empty its LED display impertinently screams BITTE! TANKEN!). Sometimes cultural stereotypes just land in your lap.

Anyway, the good people at my holiday car rental company have deemed me appropriate to drive what appears to be the only UP! on Sicily, passing me over for the fleets of Cinquecentos, Pandas, Puntos, C1s, 107s and other hatchbacks and superminis that fly about this island like lane discipline-disregarding insects.

But before we get into anything about how the UP! drives, there is that name. Clearly the product of a marketing department offsite in some German forest, you can hear the conversation which, for comedy purposes only, must be relayed in Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent, even though he is Austrian:

Otto: "So, Werner, what shall we call our new baby city car?". 
Werner: "Well, we've named our cars after insects [Beetle], dull sports [Polo, Golf], winds [Scirocco] and even nomadic Arabian tribes [Tuareg]. We also came up with 'Phaeton', and no one still knows why." 
Otto: "What's left?" 
Werner: "Something aspirational, glamourous?" 
Otto: "Maybe we need a change of direction." 
Werner: "Now we own Porsche, what about just a number?" 
Otto: "No - a change of direction, like 'Up' or 'Down'." 
Werner: "Hmmm…. Up. The Volkswagen Up. Not sure - it's a small car so the name needs to shout." 
Otto: "Add an exclamation mark then." 
Werner: "Eureka!" 
Otto: "No, UP!".
Werner: "Brilliant. Sauna?"
Otto: "Why not?!"

VWs are, by nature, somewhat staid Teutonic chariots. Generally reliable, they are solid cars with unfussy, clean lines, dampened by the slight chip on their shoulder that they're neither a Porsche, Audi or BMW. Their doors really do shut with a satisfying 'clunk', just like they do in the commercial. The UP! is no exception.

But that's not the only satisfying feature about the UP!. Thrown around hairy Sicilian backroads, the on-paper limited, 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine, performs admirably, with a throaty note as you change up through the gears. Like the two VWs I've owned and others I've driven, it sticks solidly to the floor, even when taking death-defying corners on some of this island's more lawless strade stateli, which aren't so much governed by a highway code as rules of engagement.

On motorways - and Sicily only has two - the UP! flies along perfectly (or at least the 74bhp version I have does - can't say the 54bhp would do the same), easily getting north of the 80km/h speed limit laughingly advertised. And with overtaking on dangerous sections of road part of the Italian driving experience, the UP! copes with most slower-moving traffic, even with a seemingly limited number of gee-gees under the bonnet.

As a city car - the UP!'s designated brief - it is a smooth and spacious ride, with uncomplicated dodgem car steering that makes navigating narrow Sicilian streets fun, rather than a blood curdling experience that induces moist secretions from places you'd forgotten you had sweat glands.

It's comfortable, too, with a clever interior design that would easily fit four people and one large suitcase in its 250-litre boot. This is the result of placing the wheels at the most extreme corners of the chassis, and making the engine fit into a compact compartment reminiscent of the original Renault Twingo - my first ever holiday rental and still a much loved little island runabout.

Don't expect much in the equipment department, mind. As, it seems, with all German purchases, you buy a chassis and then the salesman runs through the list of extras - steering wheel, gear lever, doors (the UP! offers a choice of two or four) and so on.

If you're so congenitally lazy that you're now accustomed to one-touch electric windows, then the UP! is not for you. You have to press and hold the button to lower or raise the window. Sorry, that may be a developmental retreat for some.

Equally, if you are driving alone and fancy fresh air from both open windows, the driver has to lean over to the passenger door to press the opposite-side window button. On a Hummer you'd need to be Mr. Tickle to do that, but on the UP! it's relatively effortless.

As a holiday rental, the UP! is brilliant, but I wonder whether the liveability factor will be there after two weeks' use.

It's pleasing to look at, but not to the extent that you attract second looks, with a nice shape, if a variation on the supermini box adopted elsewhere. But then Volkswagen would have had to really let their hair down to come up with something to rival the Fiat Cinquecento.

The Cinq is an outrageously illogical piece of design that just works, ranging from the camp nightmares of some options to the bantamweight machismo of the Abarth versions.

The UP!, on the other hand, will appeal to the somewhat more conservative urbanite, one who appreciates a pleasing shape, comfort and practicality while leaning on the VW reputation for reliability and good residuals. Like all other city cars, it will park with breathless ease and blend in without attracting the attention of hooded types.

The UP! may have a baffling moniker, given what it is competing against, but it is no surprise that Volkswagen's new kind has won a slew of 'Car Of The Year' awards. It really is that good to drive.

Sorry, it really IS that good to drive!

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