Trade-offs. A frustratingly necessary part of everyday life. Whether it relates to the way we spend our time, choose what we eat or decide how we spend our money. We’re continuously, and often subconciously, weighing up the pros and cons of one choice vs. the other.
In the world of cars, nowhere is the concept of trade-offs more evident than in the design, specification and building of a small car. Very few car manufacturers make money on small cars. They are often justified not financially, but as a way of attracting new buyers ‘into the brand’ or as a method of reducing corporate average emissions or fuel consumption figures.
Here’s the conundrum. How do you make a small car that:
• Looks great
• Is good to drive
• Is economical to own and operate
• Meets (costly) environmental and safety regulations in a multitude of regions
…AND (the most difficult part)…. yields a profit for the manufacturer when priced at the lowest end of the automotive price spectrum?
It’s impossible for a small car to be the highest quality, safest, most economical, best specified AND cheapest. So which elements get compromised on? This trade-off is a dilemma for the car maker as much as it is for the car buyer, and it’s amplified in small cars.
Like many people now, I own an SUV. Great for occasional trips, but it’s horrible to drive around the city, parking and manoevering is a pain, and it annoys me that I have to lug around 2,300kgs of metal when I pop down to the corner store for a litre of milk. So, I decided I needed a second car – a city car – to do 90% of my mundane daily commuting. Over time, the lower running costs would – sort of – offset the additional capital outlay.
My process started with a budget. R200k was the maximum, and I was open to new or used cars. The new car market in SA is under pressure at the moment, so I knew that there would be excess supply around with dealers prepared to offer decent discounts. I started with a new car price list in a magazine that shows all the new cars on sale in SA in ascending order. There are only about 80 new car models on sale for less than R200k in SA. That’s out of a total count of about 1,700 new car and bakkie models.
I considered, viewed and drove a group of about 10 small cars from a broad spectrum of manufacturers. In the end, I bought a VW Cross Up. I saw it at the Geneva motor show a few years back and thought the exterior design was brilliant. Now it’s been facelifted, it looks even better. It’s got real attitude, and at under R200k that’s impressive. The combination of the funky 16-inch alloys, roof rails, beefier bumpers and side mouldings give it an attitude and presence that my kids describe a ‘way cool’. And on the interior the quality of fit and finish is a step up from anything priced anywhere near it. Size-wise, while it’s 27cm smaller in length than a the first generation Golf, it has nearly identical width, wheelbase and weight. The split- level boot is surprisingly big – even with the (proper) spare wheel.
Apart from the standard spec, I added all the optional extras available, and still came in under R200k thanks to a decent discount on the car. The options included seat heaters, a sound & multimedia upgrade and rear parking sensors. The standard spec includes aircon, central locking, electric front windows, driver/passenger and side airbags and hill-start assist. It doesn’t come standard with a service plan (which some competitors offer), but I’ll probably buy the 5y/60,000km full maintenance and warranty plan (R9,576). Unlike a lot of budget cars, it’s not easy to spot the cost-cutting in an Up. One obvious place though is that the rear door windows are ‘clip open’, not ‘wind down’. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
I’ve done 4,000 kms in city-only driving and the fuel consumption is averaging 6.2L/100km. That compares to an official (combined cycle) figure of 4.7L. The 35L fuel tank will therefore last at least 500km.
You’d think that a 3cyl, non-turbo 55kW engine would mean that it’s not much fun to drive, but as it weighs only 900-odd kg (vs 1,350kg for a typical Golf-sized hatchback), it’s surprisingly nippy. Except when fully loaded and doing a hill
start. On cornering there is very little body roll, so routes like Rhodes Drive in Cape Town are brilliant to drive.
Surprise and Delight:
It’s not only the high quality of the materials, the solid clunk of the doors or the switchgear that feels like it’s from an Audi. Here are a number of features that don’t appear in the brochure and the salesperson probably doesn’t even know about, but they make me feel like this car is an amazing bargain.
1. Hill start assist. While not new, it’s normally found on more expensive cars. This feature applies the brake automatically when you’re doing a hill start. No need to use the handbrake. It’s simple and brilliant.
2. The Up App: A bespoke app developed for the Up and downloaded to my phone from the App Store for free. Seamless integration into the car’s systems, and includes navigation, audio, car and driving data. It’s better than the multimedia systems on cars costing three times as much.
3. If the windscreen wipers are on, and you come to a standsill in traffic, the wipers will automatically stop until you drive off again. Clever and unexpected.
4. When reversing, if you have the front wipers on, the rear window wiper will automatically operate while you’re in reverse gear to clear the rear screen. The audio system volume will automatically lower so you can hear the (optional) rear parking sensors.
5. Mood lighting: There is a thin strip of lighting that runs across the lower section of the dashboard which illuminates when the headlights are on. At night it gives the cabin a warm, luxurious & classy feel.
I bet these features were added to the car by meticulous engineers without sign- off from the finance guys. Superb.
VW just can’t bring themselves to make a car that feels cheap. Their engineers and marketeers clearly have the upper hand over their bean counters. And as a result, the Up feels like a premium offering in a budget segment. In an average year, Volkswagen globally makes an operating profit margin of roughly 2%. To the eternal frustration of stock market analysts and investors, this is annoying especially when viewed against Toyota’s near-10% margins. But as a customer I love this fact, because the 8% difference feels like it’s invested in the car I just bought.