VW’S ever-sen­si­ble su­per­mini gets even more grown-up as it hits its fifth decade

Autocar - - ROAD TEST -

Since the 1976 orig­i­nal Volk­swa­gen Polo reached th­ese shores as a re­badged Audi 50, VW has con­ferred more than 1.4 mil­lion ex­am­ples of the car to us Brits. For con­text, that’s some way short of the 4.5m or so Ford Fi­es­tas sold since that model was in­tro­duced in the very same year, but it’s a fan­tas­ti­cally large fig­ure nonethe­less. And with it comes to the pres­sure to err on the side of con­ser­vatism.

So here’s the sixth-gen­er­a­tion Polo al­though, at a glance, you may have mis­taken it for the fifth-gen­er­a­tion Polo, in­tro­duced in 2009. That mo­men­tary con­fu­sion is one of the hall­marks of an ex­traor­di­nar­ily suc­cess­ful model, be­cause the man­u­fac­tur­ers of such ve­hi­cles know that they al­ter a suc­cess­ful recipe at their ex­treme peril. The new car thus springs few ini­tial sur­prises. Its pro­por­tions are in­stantly recog­nis­able and so, too, are its fa­cial fea­tures. How­ever, it is in fact some­thing of a quiet revo­lu­tion.

That revo­lu­tion comes in the form of a re­designed in­te­rior. Thanks to the car’s new chas­sis, the cabin is more spa­cious and, as the van­guard of the Polo’s charge into the ‘dig­i­tal era’, it’s also more tech­no­log­i­cally able than any­thing yet seen in a su­per­mini. There’s also the trickle down of safety sys­tems from larger mod­els such as the Golf. It’s why you can now have an op­tional ac­tive in­stru­ment bin­na­cle that feels as though it should still be the pre­serve of Audi’s more lux­u­ri­ous mod­els. It’s also why the Polo has a big­ger boot than some hatch­back ri­vals in the class above (and, as you’ll dis­cover, such cars should now be con­sid­ered fair game for the Polo). Fi­nally, it’s why those who do choose to buy this car will nav­i­gate our in­creas­ingly con­gested road net­work with such sys­tems as emer­gency brak­ing, pedes­trian mon­i­tor­ing blindspot de­tec­tion, adap­tive cruise con­trol and rear traf­fic alert, which can de­tect ap­proach­ing ob­jects up to 40m away and help to pre­vent a col­li­sion while the car is re­vers­ing.

It seems that the Polo is be­com­ing the Golf, then, and the Golf is be­com­ing… well, that’s an­other story. Right now, it’s time to see whether this is the su­per­mini you should test drive be­fore any other, and con­se­quently whether con­ve­nience is a sub­sti­tute for fun.


When is a su­per­mini not a su­per­mini? When it’s near enough the size of a Mk5 Golf, per­haps. With the help of its new, mod­u­lar MQB-A0 plat­form, Volk­swa­gen has stretched the sixth-gen­er­a­tion Polo by 81mm, widened it by 63mm and low­ered it just a touch. The re­sult is a car with a greater visual pres­ence than its pre­de­ces­sor, and a few aes­thetic licks have been ef­fected to fur­ther toughen up the Polo.

Most con­spic­u­ous are poker-faced LED head­lights – re­plac­ing the xenons of the old model – that merge into a clean-cut ra­di­a­tor grille made shal­low by a strip of body-coloured plas­tic. There’s also a dou­ble swage line that halves the car, top to

bot­tom. Such things are adventurous for VW al­though still not enough to give the car the kind of per­son­al­ity that em­anates from, say, a Peu­geot 208. That said, the French car, and many other ri­vals be­side, can only dream of pos­sess­ing shut lines as slen­der as those found be­tween the Ger­man car’s crisp body pan­els.

Us­ing the MQB plat­form brings ben­e­fits other than the abil­ity to eas­ily build a big­ger car. The new Polo is now more rigid (18,000Nm per de­gree ver­sus 14,000Nm), which the­o­ret­i­cally al­lows for greater body con­trol at the same time as yield­ing a more sup­ple ride. To this end, on higher-spec Po­los VW has in­tro­duced Sport Se­lect run­ning gear, which com­prises adap­tive dampers com­plete with aux­il­iary springs and 15mm drop in ride height. Our test car didn’t have this set-up.

Mean­while the en­gine line-up is broad, rang­ing from a nat­u­rally as­pi­rated 1.0-litre MPI petrol with 64bhp to the 197bhp 2.0-litre TSI petrol in the flag­ship GTI. There are diesel op­tions, too, al­though you’ll be lim­ited to an Scr-equipped (se­lec­tive cat­alytic re­duc­tion) 1.6-litre TDI and none tops 100bhp. Is it sur­pris­ing that VW ex­pects just one in ev­ery 20 buy­ers to opt for diesel? We’d say not, and not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause of the com­pany’s re­cent mis­de­meanours.

The stan­dard trans­mis­sions are five-speed or six-speed man­u­als, and there’s the op­tion of a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch au­to­matic. Our test car had a five-speed man­ual gear­box at­tached to what VW ex­pects to be the Polo’s most pop­u­lar en­gine (1.0 TSI 95) and trim (SE).


The styling of the Polo’s cabin is suf­fi­ciently re­served to rob it of much in the way of wow fac­tor, but it is un­ques­tion­ably a very solidly built, well-equipped and pleas­ant small car in which to spend time. As you’d ex­pect from a VW Group prod­uct, ev­ery­thing feels solidly in­te­grated, as­sid­u­ously fin­ished and fit­ted, and thor­oughly well screwed to­gether. Ab­so­lutely noth­ing wob­bles, creaks or flexes when you touch it. That Ger­manic sense of qual­ity is more clearly present than in any other car in the class, save per­haps one or two with a proper pre­mium badge.

In typical su­per­mini fashion, VW uses hard plas­tics on the door cards and in the lower reaches of the cabin but they’re grained ones and cer­tainly don’t do the in­te­rior’s qual­ity aura any harm, while soft­touch plas­tics on the top of the dash­board im­prove tac­tile qual­ity some­what. The dec­o­ra­tive pan­els

on the main fas­cia can be fin­ished in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent colours thanks to a range of op­tional colour packs, al­though a re­served Lime­stone Grey fea­tured in our test car. Opt for a more vi­brant shade, such as the En­er­getic Or­ange dash-pad pack, and you’ll give the cabin a con­sid­er­able visual lift. Con­tin­u­ing the trend of in­te­rior per­son­al­i­sa­tion is a se­lec­tion of up­hol­stery pat­terns, which vary from trim level to trim level.

On spa­cious­ness, the Polo is very im­pres­sive by su­per­mini stan­dards. There’s plenty of head room in the front, and al­though loftier pas­sen­gers may find rear head and knee room too tight to be truly com­fort­able, any­one around the six­foot mark will find they fit in the back with lit­tle com­plaint. If you’ve three kids to cart about, the Polo will be more than up to the task – pro­vided they’re in booster seats. There are Isofix child seat an­chor­ages for the outer rear seats only.

Boot space is 355 litres with the back seats in place and the ad­justable floor in its low­est po­si­tion, mean­ing that the Polo is iden­ti­cal to the class-lead­ing Seat Ibiza and 62 litres more com­modi­ous than the Fi­esta. Fold the seats down and this will free up a to­tal of 1125 litres. In short, al­though the Polo isn’t quite out on its own on prac­ti­cal­ity, you won’t find a more ac­com­mo­dat­ing su­per­mini.


De­spite be­ing tested in slip­pery con­di­tions and on mod­estly sized 15in wheels and 185-sec­tion tyres, the Polo hit an ob­jec­tively com­pet­i­tive stan­dard when com­pared with its ri­vals and sub­jec­tively felt de­cently strong and flex­i­ble on the road.

That it ac­cel­er­ated slightly slower against the clock than the iden­ti­cally en­gined Ibiza we tested last year was partly to do with our test con­di­tions but may also have been at­trib­ut­able to a set of gear ra­tios for the VW’S five-speed man­ual gear­box that seemed long for such a small car – even though the en­gine’s healthy pro­vi­sion of tur­bocharged torque sel­dom made it strug­gle to ac­cel­er­ate in the higher ra­tios. It takes a steep in­cline to force you to come down to third gear out of town, and on the mo­tor­way, the Polo will pick up speed from 60mph at an ac­cept­able rate even if you leave it in top gear. So it seems a pif­fling com­plaint to make, but the Polo gives you the oc­ca­sional im­pres­sion that you’re driv­ing a car geared for meat-and-pota­toes econ­omy, rather than one with the zest and en­thu­si­asm of a spir­ited, fun, small hatch­back. For a re­cently qual­i­fied driver in his teenage years, this would al­ways feel like his par­ents’ car; rarely the one he’d have picked him­self.

So much, of course, we’ve been used to from the nor­mal Polo over the years – and it’s fair to say the new one con­forms to the same char­ac­ter type. This is a very rounded, grownup, re­fined, small car with many dy­namic qual­i­ties you don’t rou­tinely find in the su­per­mini class. It has in­tu­itive, solid-feel­ing con­trols that are well matched for weight and nicely iso­lated from vi­bra­tion and chang­ing load, with the only ex­cep­tion be­ing a gear­box that be­gins to feel notchy through the gate when you hurry it.

The three-cylin­der en­gine sounds a lit­tle rorty under load but set­tles to a muted, smooth, back­ground level at a cruise. The Polo’s cabin is bet­ter iso­lated from both wind and road noise than the av­er­age small car’s is. And pulling less than 3000rpm even at a fast mo­tor­way clip, the en­gine is an easy one from which to pro­duce bet­ter than 55mpg, as ev­i­denced by our 57.1mpg tour­ing test re­sult.


The Polo is sup­ple, calm, quiet and rub­ber-footed in its ride, and com­fort­able in a way that small cars of­ten aren’t. At high speeds, it keeps its cabin set­tled but is still de­cently con­trolled over larger, longer-wave bumps. At town speeds, it’s nicely for­giv­ing and ab­sorp­tive over sleep­ing po­lice­men and soothes away all but the short­est, sharpest edges, which can some­times be felt but sel­dom thump or crash. This is the kind of small, af­ford­able car, in other words, to ef­fec­tively ease you through the ur­ban rush hour with the min­i­mum of stress and strain, and

to re­as­sure you on mo­tor­way trips that it can mix it with big­ger cars, at higher speeds, with­out feel­ing at all out of its depth.

With medium-light, medium-fast steer­ing, the Polo is ag­ile enough at town speeds, with a grip level and re­spon­sive­ness more than ca­pa­ble of mak­ing a dy­namic virtue of its compact size. Thanks to VW’S pref­er­ence for ever-lin­ear, pre­dictable han­dling, it’s also very easy to drive. The car isn’t among the most grippy or com­pelling prospects in the class, but it has bet­ter body con­trol than some and a very con­sis­tent bal­ance of grip that re­sists un­der­steer well ini­tially and al­lows it to build only grad­u­ally as the car cor­ners, and only in a pro­por­tion great enough to add a blan­ket of sta­bil­ity to ev­ery­thing the car does.

There’s lit­tle joy about the Polo’s han­dling, true, but it’s a car tuned to fil­ter out many of the in­flu­ences that might oth­er­wise en­rich a su­per­mini’s driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for a keener driver. So al­though weight builds use­fully into the steer­ing as the car cor­ners and rolls and you ask more of its front tyres, there’s lit­tle contact-patch feel to tell you how much grip is left. And al­though the chas­sis al­ways keeps the car feel­ing sta­ble and as­sured, even at high speeds, it’s also closed to any at­tempt to en­gage the rear axle in the cor­ner­ing con­ver­sa­tion by de­lib­er­ately un­load­ing it on a trail­ing throt­tle.

The Polo ef­fec­tively does what Po­los have been in­tended to do for gen­er­a­tions – soothes, re­as­sures, iso­lates, obliges and pro­tects – and does it bet­ter than any pre­de­ces­sor, or any other small car in the class.


The Polo has al­ways been more ex­pen­sive than its many ri­vals and it’s no dif­fer­ent this time. The dif­fer­ence is small, though – of­ten only three fig­ures, rather than four, com­pared with the com­men­su­rate Fi­esta and Ibiza, its chief ri­vals. The Polo al­most al­ways hold its value bet­ter than those cars, which is some­thing to con­sider when it comes to that ini­tial out­lay.

The en­try-level S trim can be had with only the anaemic, nat­u­rally as­pi­rated 1.0-litre en­gine – it pan­ders to those who seek the low­est pos­si­ble in­sur­ance pre­mium – but, if pos­si­ble, you should aim for one of the tur­bocharged TSI op­tions. That means you’ll be look­ing at SE trim, which is the sec­ond branch up the equip­ment tree and fea­tures 15in wheels, plenty of body-coloured trim and smart­phone mir­ror­ing (see ‘Mul­ti­me­dia sys­tem’, p36). If you can bear the go-faster body stripe, Beats trim lends the Polo a more ag­gres­sive per­sona, raises the wheel size to 16in and in­cludes a 300W sound sys­tem. The ben­e­fits of go­ing for SEL, the next level up, chiefly con­cern the in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem, but by then, the Polo is an ex­pen­sive su­per­mini: £18,180 with the six-speed man­ual.

As for fuel econ­omy, all petrolengined Po­los apart from the GTI model achieve around 60mpg com­bined and man­age to keep CO2 emis­sions at or be­low 110g/km.

The chas­sis al­ways keeps the car feel­ing sta­ble and as­sured

Mk1 Polo was first sold in the UK in 1976

An ad­justable boot floor makes load­ing heav­ier items a touch less awk­ward and a 355-litre ca­pac­ity means the Polo bet­ters the Ford Fi­esta for out­right space.

Both the driver’s and pas­sen­ger’s seat can be ad­justed for height, mak­ing it easy to get com­fort­able. There’s no short­age of head room up front, ei­ther.

Taller adult pas­sen­gers may find rear head room a bit tight, but by the stan­dards of the su­per­mini class, the Polo’s back seats are very roomy.

Polo dis­penses pre­dictable han­dling with lin­ear re­sponses in an as­sured and skil­fully honed way. It’s easy to drive but not the most re­ward­ing for en­thu­si­asts.

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