A weekend with the VW Polo TSI
The Polo has lived in its big brothers shadow for 40 years. Can this latest model steal some of the limelight?
There are many great mysteries in the world of motoring. How does Bugatti boss Stephan Winkelmann manage to be so consistently suave? Is the Nissan Juke the result of a bet to design the worlds most awful-looking car that simply got out of hand? These are things that we may never be able to answer.
For me though, one of the biggest car-related mysteries there is has to be this: Why in the world would anybody choose to buy a Volkswagen Polo?
The Polo has been around for very nearly as long as its big brother, the eponymous Golf, but unlike the larger model, which has pretty much gone on to become the definitive 'car', the Polo has rather lived in the shadow of the Golf. If the Golf is the rock star of the VW family, then the Polo is the little brother who works in a bank. He does alright for himself but secretly, he wishes he could stab his over-achieving sibling in the eye with a letter-opener. I should make it plain at this point that what you have just read was an elaborate metaphor. I don't want to stab anyone. Perhaps because I'm the eldest sibling.
Anyway, the Polo never quite managed to garner quite the same image as the Golf, but it stoically carried on being quietly competent, reliable, and worthy. VW have made a couple of attempts to spice it up over the years with various sporty versions, but they never really quite worked somehow.
Then, as if things weren't bad enough for the poor Polo, VW went and added a new baby to the family. The up! was cool, and likeable, and different. It did things its own way, rather than trying to act like a two-thirds scale version of the Golf. I had kind of assumed, that with the up! on the scene, the Polo would eventually wither away. I was wrong though, VW have had a re-think about what they want their difficult middle child to be, and a few months ago this new Polo appeared.
I don't want to sound like one of those old people who thinks that everything was much better in the past, because I don't. But I always thought that the Polo was meant to be a small car, and this new one sort of isn't. I guess that the up! has allowed for the Polo to gain a little bit of girth, but this new car is 211 mm wider than a Mk4 Golf. The wheelbase is longer too.
The new Polo has grown in size, but clever exterior design makes it seem smaller than it is.
That being said, the larger footprint hasn't translated to a weight gain, the new car weighs broadly the same as the old Polo. It also means that VW have been able to enlarge the glasshouse, which along with the longer wheelbase makes the new Polo a very nice car to drive around town. Bigger windows mean great visibility, and the axles being mounted further from your spine means that on the standard 15 inch alloys the ride is excellent on crappy urban British roads.
Even in its GTI versions, the Polo has never been renowned for being the most dynamic supermini to drive. Safe, and secure? Absolutely, but it never possessed the fun-factor of a Ford Fiesta or Suzuki Swift. So what about this new one?
Well, it's still no sports car, but then it clearly isn't trying to be. The car I drove was fitted with a 1.0 litre three-cylinder turbo engine, and the optional seven-speed DSG gearbox. Usually, I'd recommend a manual in a car this size, but the DSG seems to suit this Polo. With 95 horsepower on tap, acceleration is steady rather than staggering. You do need to boot the long-travel throttle pedal to make a quick exit from a junction or roundabout though, otherwise it dithers around too much.
Once you've wound the little engine it's quick enough though. You can clip along at motorway speeds amazed at how well-insulated and quiet the cabin is. There's even a bit of go in reserve should you need to make the odd overtake. If you do, the tiny triple motor even sounds pretty game. There's a quiet but distinct warble and if you listen hard a definite turbo whoosh when you clog it. I liked this little engine.
People have criticised the Polo in the past for lacking much in the way of verve when it comes to handling. This new model though goes some way to redress that. It flows much more nicely through a set of bends than the old car ever did, the electric steering has little feel, as usual, but it's precise and well-weighted. If you want to drive like a helmsman then the Fiesta still has the edge, but if you want that, then you probably don't want a Polo anyway.
On damp greasy roads, the Polo never feels any less than 100% on your side. It manages to make the job of making swift progress seem easy, something that a lot of small cars find difficult. It feels stout and sure-footed, it gives you the impression of being in a much bigger car without any of the physical drawbacks.
It might be a cliche when it comes to German cars, but the cabin does add to the insulated, big-car impression you get when you drive the new Polo. Volkswagen must have been listening to Golf owners like me, because they've moved the central infotainment screen to a higher position on the dashboard so you don't have to take your eyes off the road so much.
The mid-range SE-spec car I drove came with pretty much everything you could realistically want. Air con, automatic headlamps, CarPlay, they're all standard. You can add the flashy digital instrument cluster from the Golf and Arteon if you want, but the standard dials are so lovely and clear that I'd spend the money on VW's brilliant optional built-in sat nav system instead.
In a bid to make things more 'fun' you can also swap the silver-painted trim panels on the dashboard for great big slabs of orange or blue. This however, feels a bit like when they put rainbow stripes on the seats of the Golf GTI. You can just tell they didn't want to do it somehow.
Other problems? Well, the side mounted collision sensors in my car were more overly sensitive than the millennials who'll doubtless get Polo's as birthday presents. Gearshift paddles are relegated to the options list too, they'd be good to play tunes on the willing little engine.
Overall though, this new Polo is the best one yet. With this model, VW have managed to take a weakness, that it felt too Golf-lite, and turn it into a strength. In the past if someone like me, in their 20's with no kids, asked me to recommend a car, I'd go for the Golf without a second thought, in fact, I did.
With the new Polo though, if you don't need the space then the smaller car is now a viable option. It has all the qualities we like about larger VW's, and then it plays its trump card; a well-specced Golf will set you back over £25,000. The Polo, as tested, weighs in at £18,760.
That represents a saving of nearly £6,500. Is the Golf a good car? Yes, it's great. Is it 6,500 times better than the Polo? Not really. Not anymore.
THE TECHNICAL BIT - 2018 VW POLO 1.0 TSI SE
Engine: 999cc Petrol, 3 cylinders, Turbocharged. Transmission: 7-Speed Double Clutch. Power: 95 BHP. Torque: 129 lbs/ft. Driven wheels: Four Wheel Drive. 0-62 MPH: 10.8 secs. Top Speed: 116 MPH Economy: 61.4 MPG Combined. Price: £18,760 as tested.