THE VOLKSWAGEN Polo is the Stella Artois of the car world. Reassuringly expensive, it’s everything that Volkswagen does best, but in miniature. Although not quite as miniature as you might think, as the Polo is about the same size as the original Golf.
For years, Volkswagen’s advertising has centred on the fact that the Polo is more affordable than its reputation suggests. But with a poverty-spec 1-litre three-door Polo priced at over £11,000, the not-so-titchy VW isn’t exactly in bargain basement territory.
Things only start to get interesting with Match trim and the 1.2-litre TSI petrol engine, which means forking out over £14,000 for a three-door car – if you want rear doors that’ll be at least another 600 notes please. Buy a range topper and it’s easy to breach £20,000 without options.
So, having established that the Polo isn’t the cheapest car in its segment, should you buy one?
The simple answer is yes, because this is a car that’s got the substance to back up those understated good looks. Refreshed in 2014, the current Polo can trace its roots back to 2009. Heralded as a big improvement over its rather stodgy predecessor, the VW Polo Mk5 burst onto the scene with cutting-edge engines, a much-improved chassis and a cabin built just as well as the Golf’s and Passat’s.
That refresh brought big-car safety tech such as Adaptive Cruise Control, Auto Emergency Braking and Automatic Post-Collision Braking, all as options. Also introduced was Volkswagen’s user-friendly touch-screen multimedia system, the option of LED headlights and a range of new or overhauled engines for better efficiency. With a good set of foundations already in place, the overhauled Polo became more impressive than ever.
The entry-level Polo has a 1-litre engine with 59bhp, also offered in 94bhp turbocharged TSI form. Without the turbo it’s underwhelming, but with it the car comes to life. Even better is the 1.2 TSI, or there’s a 148bhp 1.4 TSI that’s really muscular, frugal and smooth, so it makes light work of any journey.
“You won’t find yourself getting lost on the back seat but the post-2014 Polo is a class act with its grown-up tech, expensive-looking sculpted lines and big-car feel”
The 1.4 TSI also packs Active Cylinder Technology (ACT) which imperceptibly shuts down a couple of cylinders when cruising. As a result you get the best of both worlds; really strong performance with excellent economy when the engine isn’t under load.
While the 1.4 TSI is a great engine, the 89bhp 1.2 TSI is all you need, or if you’re a diesel fan there’s a 1.4 TDI in 75bhp or 89bhp forms. It’s an engine that’s easy to recommend as it’s also torquey and frugal; VW claims it’ll average around 80mpg, but 65-70mpg is more realistic.
Depending on trim level, all TSI engines are offered with VW’s brilliant DSG dual-clutch semi-automatic gearbox; the diesel is manual only. Unlike a conventional auto, the DSG system doesn’t significantly increase CO2 emissions or fuel consumption, while gearchanges are lightning fast. Aside from the cost of this transmission over the manual (you’ll pay well over £1,000 more) there’s no downside, and if you’re often stuck in traffic you’ll soon be glad you paid the premium.
The DSG is impressively slick, although the manual gearbox is enjoyable to use too. It’s on the move that the Polo’s premium status becomes apparent, with a big-car feel that many of its rivals can’t match. Refinement levels are excellent and so too is body control. The steering isn’t the most communicative around and it doesn’t have the agility of a Fiesta, but the Polo’s ride is excellent as it absorbs potholes and bumps, without then wallowing through corners.
That big-car feel continues inside the car, with a dash that looks as though it could have been plucked from a Passat, but with some of the equipment removed.
And this is where you might start to feel short-changed, because VW isn’t over-generous when it comes to speccing the Polo. Our test car (a BlueGT 1.4 TSI) weighed in at £18,735 yet there was no climate control, no automatic lights or wipers and only cloth trim, albeit with leather and Alcantara inserts. Frankly, we expected more.
Practicality is limited too, because while the Polo might be sized similarly to its great uncle the Golf Mk1, you won’t find yourself getting lost on the back seat due to the addition of modern safety equipment and comfort levels. Try to fit four large adults in (never mind five) and expect complaints very quickly from row two – although two adults and a couple of kids will fit in happily enough.
If you’re now put off because it was all going so well and we’ve left the bad news until the end, don’t be too hasty to dismiss the Polo. It’s a class act with its grown-up tech, expensive-looking sculpted lines and big-car feel.
Refined, comfortable and good (if unexciting) to drive you’ve also got your pick of efficient engines. The lack of practicality comes with the territory – superminis are small inside as they’re small on the outside, and the VW isn’t any worse than many of its rivals.
That leaves just the one downside and that’s the cost. Even this isn’t a big deal if alternatives such as the Mini or Audi A1 are also on your shortlist. Admittedly these are more stylish but they offer no extra practicality or value, so if your pockets are deep, you want a posh supermini and you don’t feel the need to be noticed, we can’t think of a better candidate.