#ThrowbackThursday: Volkswagen Cross Up vs Smart ForFour

07 May 2020 - 19:19
The Volkswagen Up (left) and the Smart ForFour (right) go head-to-head.
The Volkswagen Up (left) and the Smart ForFour (right) go head-to-head.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Join us as we take a gander back at some of our automotive endeavours from days gone by. This week, the time machine takes us back to September 14, 2016, where we arranged a play date between the Volkswagen Up and Smart ForFour.

A certain retailer released a line of miniature household items some months ago. The ensuing frenzy reminded us that mundane objects are endearing and novel when they are shrunken. I also noticed this when I went dress-shopping for a new addition to the family recently. Even the hardest heart cannot help but fawn and coo over tiny sneakers for baby feet.

And the dainty pair posing in front of a graffiti-splashed background this week elicit a similar feeling — though you might retort that for roughly the same price as these boutique hatchbacks, you could hop into a roomier and more substantial B-segment car. True. But variety is the spice of life, right?

Anyway, back to these darling dwarfs. Volkswagen launched the Up (we took a decision to omit the silly exclamation mark in its title) in February last year. There may have been concerns that it was going to supplant the Polo Vivo in success, but that was not the case because the Up caters for a different buyer. Earlier this year a five-door derivative joined the fray, including a model with a quasi-off-road persona, which we have here.

Mercedes-Benz relaunched the Smart brand in SA with new versions of the micro ForTwo and slightly larger ForFour. A jazzy image, lively marketing campaign and keen finance incentives are part of the approach to inveigle hip young upstarts. From a styling point of view, the Smart cuts a more dazzling profile. Especially in this guise, boasting wheels with a spider-web design, black paint and a contrasting red outline. No discredit to the Volkswagen, however: a simple shape and clean lines are the hallmarks of many iconic designs. Perhaps it is no coincidence that some think the Up resembles an iPod on wheels.

Affordable, cheerful cars represent the essence of motoring. The Up and ForFour are antitheses to the heavy, gadget-laden offerings that define the contemporary car scene. Not that we are bemoaning progress or anything. But good to be reacquainted with the idea of less-is-more.

In terms of layout, the Smart is more interesting. This is because the engine is at the back and it is rear-wheel drive — yes, like a Porsche 911! But do not expect to impress passers-by in the parking lot with sideways antics. Power comes from a 999cc unit (52kW and 91Nm) and constant stirring through the five-speed manual gearbox is needed to keep up the pace. Admittedly, thrashing the fizzy three-cylinder mill is fun work.

We ought to remember that the ForFour is a re-skinned Renault Twingo. Not a bad thing, since the French are known for their skill in the art of the city car. And the Smart rather happily sniffs out and bolts into small gaps in traffic. You could say the same of the Volkswagen, though it appears superior in refinement.

The Up seems a touch better insulated from the hubbub of the city and it imparts a solidity that is uncharacteristic of this category. Displacement is the same as the Smart, with 999cc and a trio of cylinders. The marginally greater power output (55kW and 91Nm) is negligible.

Volkswagen claims a consumption figure of 4.7 litres per 100km while the Smart purports 4.2 litres per 100km. And you can rest assured that you could achieve close to these numbers if you let momentum aid your progress, instead of winding up those diminutive motors. There is true satisfaction in watching how far the fuel-gauge needles on these cars go after a mere R50 fill-up.

Both interiors reflect the trendy characters of these vehicles. The Smart is especially noteworthy when it comes to the fun stuff, with a fabric-clad dashboard and an abundance of pod-like shapes. Surprisingly, the Volkswagen has a jovial ambience too, with red upholstery and matching trim inlays — note that the picture featured here is of a lower model grade, for illustration purposes only. Perceived quality is more impressive in the German car, while the Smart seems to echo hints of your local plastic equipment retailer.

The boot in the Smart is expectedly compromised, given that it also houses the engine. Both vehicles eschew traditional opening rear windows in favour of pop-out ones, like an old Volkswagen Beetle.

Now what about pricing and standard fare? The Volkswagen Cross Up five-door goes for R185,500, while the Colour Up five-door (without the rugged cladding) costs R189,900. In any case, these models are equipped with the bare necessities and not much else. You get air-conditioning, front electric windows, a two-speaker audio system, front, side and curtain airbags and electronic stability control.

Goodies like Bluetooth and heated seats are optional. The Smart ForFour may start at R174,900 and have the same basic features as the equivalent Up models mentioned. But it looks properly plain, even featuring 15-inch steel wheels.

Opt for the ForFour Passion at R199,400 and you get more in the way of visual niceties. Next step on the ladder is the Prime at R210,900, but we will cap things at R200,000.

So, which one takes it? The Smart has a trendier demeanour and the prestigious association with Mercedes-Benz. The Volkswagen offers more accomplishment in substance — and for lesser outlay — an obvious, objective victor. A simple conclusion, but let the trendy urban warriors decide for themselves.