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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Polo - range

Our Opinion

We like
Turbo engines, efficiency, quality, workmanship, comfort, refinement, practicality, steering, handling, ride, performance, class-leading DSG gearbox availability across the range, safety, solidity
Room for improvement
Too-samey styling, 1.2TSI’s premium unleaded requirement, Trendline 1.4’s lacklustre performance, high prices of desirable top-end versions

7 May 2010

VOLKSWAGEN’S diminutive Polo has always played second fiddle to its more glamourous Golf big brother, like an automotive Dannii Minogue or the younger Baldwin brothers whose names we’ve forgotten.

Yet more than 11 million have been sold since 1975 – with 18,000 in Australia from 1996 – so the Ford Fiesta competitor is a cornerstone of VW’s global fortunes.

Now there’s Polo number five, in all-new three-door and five-door hatchback shapes, promising levels of safety, comfort, features, security and refinement hitherto unseen in the light-car segment.

Pah! We hear that old chestnut every single time VW makes a generational change to its B-segment baby, and though such claims have come to pass occasionally, the hole in the Polo’s case has always been a hefty premium that puts the genial little German into direct pricing conflict with quality European, Japanese and – lately – Korean small cars from the class above.

Basically, the VW badge tax that has worked brilliantly for the Golf over the last two decades in Australia hasn’t cut the mustard nearly as neatly with the Polo.

But what’s this? The new one is $300 cheaper than the old stager in base three-door Trendline guise, yet comes complete with the previously optional VW safety suite including ESC stability control for a five-star Euro NCAP crash-test rating, as well as semi-auto air-con, keyless entry, power windows, anti-whiplash front headrests, tilt/length-adjustable steering column and a full-sized spare wheel.

Size that up against an equivalently specified Fiesta – the light-car class leader in our books (in manual form anyway) – and suddenly the VW begins to look like, shock horror, great value for money.

But before your world tilts on its axis, there are a number of caveats needing to be considered here, so we’ll shorthand the situation for you: Forget about the entry-level model.

Since the five-door Polo (the Comfortline in new VW-speak) doesn’t get out of bed for less than $19,850, all the cheapies are three-door hatches (Trendline), so the $16,690 with the 1.4-litre five-speed manual petrol powertrain opener gives you just 63kW (Fiesta: 88kW). The similarly priced 76kW Mazda2 and 73kW Honda Jazz both also have more oomph and two more doors. Hmmm, sounds like a familiar Polo tale …

Plus, drive up alongside a Fiesta or Mazda2, and the Trendline is a tad Judith Durham against the others’ Lady Gaga and Beyoncé so funky is not in the VW’s vocabulary, but while we wonder how trendy young things will react to the Polo’s conservatism, like The Seekers’ music, its design may prove more enduring over time.

Furthermore, while the others are hip to the beat with a Tweet from the street, what no rival can manage is the unprecedented solidity, quietness and quality feel. This is the Vee Dub’s USP, and for many, the fact that it (and the five-star ENCAP rating) is available for under $17K will seal the deal.

However, we are keen drivers, so while we love the Polo’s balanced steering, fine handling, firm but absorbent suspension and excellent brake-pedal feel, we loathe the 1.4 engine’s lacklustre performance that requires constant pedal mashing to get mushing.

Still, we would choose to drive the $2500 DSG over the five-speed manual Polo or any other auto light car rival (especially over the disappointing Fiesta 1.4 auto), but this VW is a whopping $19,190 proposition (without cruise control!) and you’re still left with just a three-door Trendline with hubcaps.

Anyway you look at it then, you’re going to be left wanting in the go department in the Polo Trendline. At least you’ll be well cosseted.

Our advice is to save up for the two hugely impressive Comfortline models instead – in sweet-spinning 77kW/175Nm 1.2-litre turbo direct-injection petrol format or torquey 66kW/230Nm 1.6-litre common-rail TDI turbo-diesel guise.

In an unprecedented move in baby car history, the autos – both DSGs – outshine the smooth manual versions with their quick responses, slick shifts and city-friendly easiness.

We thought we’d like the little turbo petrol 77TSI more, because of the way it works its little heart out to provide sparkling, smiles-by-the-miles motoring from the moment you turn the key. Excellent on-paper economy and emissions are further incentives, making the cheapest five-door Polo feel like a junior GTI. Only the need for premium-unleaded petrol takes some of the sheen off the 77TSI.

But the 66TDI confounded our expectations in a big way after the 77TDI version of this diesel is the one real weak link in the current Golf line-up. Here it marries magnificently with the new Polo’s grown-up refinement, sturdy gate and secure demureness. Forget the mini-Golf cliché right here we have a petite Passat, a fillet of Phaeton or a tiny Tiguan if you prefer. There’s torque aplenty when instant (ish) oomph is needed, and a distant, revvy supply of power when all you want to do is whoosh along an open road. Only occasional tyre roar on certain surfaces undermines the peace.

So, to sum up, what we have is an all-new Polo that still seems a bit gutless in the lower reaches of the range against some very fine competition despite its huge strides forward in safety and refinement, but that shines as a Comfortline in either petrol or diesel, because it moves the light-car game on emphatically.

Our first drive-impression verdict then: buy a Fiesta, Mazda2 or Jazz 1.3 if you can’t stretch to the $20K-plus Polo Comfortline, or keep saving to buy the most complete baby car on the planet right now. No littlie is as big for class, safety, refinement or solidity.

VW says about 85 per cent of new Polo buyers will choose the Comfortline anyway, and we can see why.

The little sister can finally step out of the shadows and hold her head up high alongside big sibling Golf.

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