Volkswagen's Tiniest Car Is All You Need To Terrify Yourself On The Nürburgring
Always meet your heroes if you can, especially if that hero is a supercar-humbling Volkswagen Up!
One of the best things about the Nürburgring is that it's just a small town in rural Germany. The same handful of regulars you spend hours watching hoon the 'Ring on YouTube are not that hard to see in person—like real people who exist in real life—if you decide to go. Their showstealing cars are sometimes there, too. You can even rent some of them. That's how I got to drive the true pride of Nürburg this summer: Misha Charoudin's souped-up Volkswagen Up!
If Misha sounds familiar, it's because you've probably killed some time to his 'Ring-centric YouTube channels. His hilarious Boosted Boris YouTube channel led to a job offer at 'Ring rental/taxi shop Apex Nürburg, and he's been living by the Nürburgring since 2015.
This year, Misha broke the news that Porsche was preparing and able to break the all-time Nürburgring record in his typical way: by listening in to marshal chatter, measuring it out, and vlogging it. As for how he got tipped off that Porsche was out preparing their 919 Evo for a record run, he mentioned that Nürburg's a small town like any other, with only around 160 year-round residents.
"People talk," Charoudin said.
I, a deeply mediocre track driver who'd only driven one lap of the Nürburgring ever, was not there to steal Porsche's fresh new record. I was there to merely experience and enjoy the track, and not end up on a crash compilation video. So, I did the cautious thing and signed up for a rental with an instructor—and luckily, I ended up with Misha himself sitting in the right seat of his internet-famous Sub7Up!
Sure, the car's "Sub7Up!" moniker pokes fun at the fact that only the fastest cars on the Nürburgring have been able to lap its infamous 12.9-mile Nordschleife course in under 7 minutes. However, this modified Up!—which is the smallest car Volkswagen currently sells—is one of the lowest-powered 'Ring rentals you can get. Its times are more in the sub-nine-minute range.
That doesn't mean it isn't fun, though. The Sub7Up! is a turbocharged Up! TSI that has been tastefully modified for 'Ring duty, with the addition of a full roll cage, custom JRZ RS Pro suspension, Recaro racing seats, harnesses and a Guerilla Exhaust system. Power went from the original 90 horses it was rated for up to 126 hp at the wheels thanks to a mild tune. It all rides on Nankang AR-1 semi-slick tires mounted on shiny chrome green 15-inch Cosmis S1 wheels. The Apex team even passed on replacing it with a Volkswagen Up! GTI because they felt their Sub7Up! creation was more fun.
Before Misha and I went out in the Sub7Up!, the Nürburgring reminded me why I was a little nervous about driving it again with a closure. Someone out there done screw'd up, pausing the tourist drive session for a brief cleanup. After a quick tour of the Apex barn and some ogling of fast Porsches that showed up in the driveway, we were off.
The beauty of the Sub7Up! is that it isn't too harsh or twitchy like some track-prepped cars. It still feels like a normal subcompact car. After all, the suspension was set up for one of the most notoriously bumpy tracks on earth, so of course it's a bit compliant.
The car's 2,048-pound weight meant that its five-speed manual transmission was easy to get going, even on a hill. The one-liter, three-cylinder engine put out just enough power in the stripped-down Up! to be fun. It even still had enough of the dashboard inside to have a convenient bin for my Nürburgring entrance card to fit, albeit wedged underneath one of the Puffalumps I often take as passengers on track laps so it wouldn't fly out mid-turn.
In a way, I felt right at home in this little car. I'm used to flogging around a pretty normal front-wheel-drive car—a 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS—on tracks at home. The Up! was lighter and easier to chuck into corners with glee than my Lancer, though. You still had some understeer as you'd expect in a front-wheel-drive car, but not too much to enjoy yourself.
My worries about crashing someone else's Up! because it was an unfamiliar car soon melted away. It's delightfully simple to drive, so much so that I could take my mind off of the car and focus on not eating a wall—and maybe even enjoying myself—on the 'Ring.
Misha's instruction style for my couple laps was not unlike the narrated lap of the Nordschleife he did for Shmee150's channel: a smooth, calm voice running a mile a minute, but letting you know what was Up! (ha) ahead. He was heavy on the details as to where to shift, turn in and brake, and I was grateful for that on a track I'd only been on a handful of times.
It was this calm voice of reason running next to me that was pushing me to keep my foot in it on a track I didn't know, though. This is the part that really broke my brain in perhaps a way it needed to be broken.
Most of the tracks I've driven at home don't have a ton of truly high-speed corners. The Nürburgring does, though—many of which were both unfamiliar and blind. There's a long uphill section in particular where I kept wanting to brake out of habit, but it wasn't time yet. Gravity does more than enough braking for you on that steep section in a small, low-powered car. It's extremely unnerving to hold your foot on the throttle for so long, but by lap two, I was starting to get used to it.
I hadn't been to any instructed track days in over a year, so this drive also served to knock a lot of cobwebs off—especially whatever cobweb kept yo-yoing my foot to the brake pedal when it shouldn't be.
The Sub7Up! was so much fun out there that I came in giggling after my first lap. "I actually got to pass people!" I said when Misha asked how I liked the Sub7Up! It's been a long time since I've gotten to say that.
There's simply nothing more rewarding than getting a slower car to pass faster cars on the same race track. That's all you, man. Not the car. You. I mean, why else do you think I hoon my Lancer all the time when I'm at home?
I noticed that I was starting to make more mistakes on the second lap, which makes sense when you remember that one lap of the 12.9-mile Nordschleife is about the length of four laps at Circuit of the Americas, or six or more laps of most of the other tracks near me. Trying to figure out a track that has anywhere between 73 and 170 curves depending on who you ask can be sensory overload. That's another unexpected thing you need to watch out for at the 'Ring: brain fade. If you feel like you're starting to make dumb little mistakes, it's probably time for a break.
I left Apex immensely jealous that we don't get the Volkswagen Up! This car was Misha's daily driver before it was a 'Ring rental, after all, as it's all you really need from a basic runabout in a tiny package, with a manual transmission so you won't get bored. This particular Up! was extremely fun to drive with a relatively short list of well-chosen mods. Why can't we have nice things, America?
The funniest part is, I had one of Volkswagen's biggest vehicles for the weekend: an Amarok pickup. Driving the friendly little Up! with an instructor was a good way to prepare myself for the slow, careful mayhem of taking a truck for a lap of the 'Ring—which I had to do, duh. While there's a certain charm to towering over everyone's souped-up 'Ring-tools, the Amarok was far more nose-heavy in the turns. I can now say for certain that the Up! is better suited for track use.
So, if you're going to the Nürburgring, it's definitely worth meeting a few of your internet heroes. The locals are nice, and the cars are as good as they are on video. Rent something easy to drive your first few times there so you can concentrate on learning the track, though, as simply remembering what turns are next is a skull-full of information to deal with on its own. You'll find new and fascinating ways to scare yourself in a regular hatchback if you have a good instructor pushing you not to be such a wuss in the right seat, anyway.
And trust me: 126 hp is more than enough to terrify yourself on one of the world's most intimidating race tracks.
[Disclosure: Apex comped everything but fuel for the laps when I mentioned that I was a journalist who was probably going to write about spending a weekend at the Nürburgring. Turns out, they were right! Additionally, the Amarok was a press loaner from Volkswagen, dropped off with a full tank of diesel to use for the week.]