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First drive: VW takes Polo upper class

Moving up: The new, grown up VW Polo is set to arrive Down Under in early 2010.

Fifth-generation VW Polo hatch grows in size, safety, refinement – and fun

18 May 2009


VOLKSWAGEN’S diminutive Polo hatchback has always been a bit player in a sea of price-focussed light-sized cars in Australia, with the likes of even Honda’s $20,000-plus, Jazz-based City sedan pushing it further outside the list of top 10 sellers this year.

In Germany, however, Europe’s largest car-maker expects the first all-new Polo since 2001 to further extend its sales dominance in the A0 or ‘supermini’ category, thanks to vastly improved safety, refinement, efficiency, dynamics and performance.

Wrapped in an all-new, more youthful bodyshell that is unmistakably an all-new model yet instantly recognisable as a Volkswagen, the same attributes are expected to lift Polo sales in Australia from a record of 2362 in 2008 – up 36.5 per cent on 2007 numbers.

The fifth-generation Polo, first seen at the Geneva motor show in March, was launched in Europe this weekend and goes on sale there in June, before arriving in Australia in early 2010 in both five-door and three-door guises. The latter will make its global debut at the Frankfurt motor show in September.

Seven brand-new or new-to-Polo Euro V emissions-compliant engines will be available in Europe from launch, many of them mated only to manual transmissions.

Australia is predominantly an automatic transmission market and will therefore receive just three engines, led by a 63kW/132Nm version of the upgraded 1.4-litre inline petrol four-cylinder from the new Golf, to replace the engine in the outgoing Polo 1.4 Edition three-door (priced from $16,990).

All-new engines for the MkV Polo include the 77kW/175Nm direct petrol injection, turbocharged 1.2 TSI, which is expected to come on stream before Australian exports begin in 2010 to replace the 1.6-litre petrol four currently available in the Polo 1.6 Pacific five-door (from $19,990).

3 center imageFinally, Australia should also receive the midrange 66kW/230Nm version of Volkswagen’s new common-rail 1.6-litre turbo-diesel, which is also available in the Golf VI in Europe, where it comes in three states of tune.

The 1.6 TDI will replace the MkIV Polo 1.9 TDI Pacific five-door (from $22,990) and, while a GTI version of the new Polo should also surface at Frankfurt to top the Australian range, don’t expect fuel-sipping BlueMotion versions of our smallest Volkswagen model to be sold here any time soon (see separate story).

All three engines will be available locally with the choice of both manual and (seven-speed) twin-clutch DSG automated manual transmissions – the latter making its debut in the Polo to be the first gearbox of its type in the light-car class.

Also on offer in Europe will be 44kW and 51kW naturally-aspirated versions of the 1.2-litre petrol four, plus 55kW and 77kW versions of the 1.6-litre diesel.

As a five-speed manual, the Polo 1.4 returns claimed fuel economy of 5.9L/100km and CO2 emissions of 139g/km, and is claimed to accelerate to 100km/h in 12.1 seconds and on to a top speed of 177km/h.

Mated to a six-speed manual, the perky 1.2 TSI turbo engine is no less fuel-efficient than the significantly less powerful naturally-aspirated versions – as well as more frugal than the 1.4 – at 5.5L/100km and 129g/km. It also offers the highest top speed of all new Polo variants, at 190km/h, plus 0-100km/h acceleration in 9.7 seconds. VW says the Polo’s petrol engines are between eight and 20 per cent more efficient than before.

All versions of ‘our’ 66kW 1.6 TDI, when matched with a five-speed manual, return a claimed 4.2L/100km and 109g/km, making the diesel the most efficient of the bunch while still offering a 180km/h top speed. VW says it has reduced the fuel consumption of the Polo’s diesel engine range by between five and 15 per cent.

The Polo is bigger in every dimension, despite an average body mass reduction of 7.5 per cent and gross weights that are down by 2.5 per cent on average.

Riding on a 4mm-longer (2470mm) wheelbase and significantly wider 1463mm and 1456mm front and rear wheel tracks (up 29 and 30mm respectively), the new Polo is 54mm longer than before at 3970mm and 32mm wider at 1682mm, yet 14mm lower at 1453mm.

The result is an 8mm-longer cabin (1674mm) that offers a similar improvement in rear knee room and 22mm more front shoulder room (1372mm).

Apart from best-in-class quality, Volkswagen says it expects the new Polo to be the first light-car to meet the tougher new five-star EuroNCAP crash safety standard.

It says a static torsional rigidity figure of 180,000Nm per degree makes it one of the stiffest cars in its class and helps reduce footwell intrusion in a frontal crash by a whole 50 per cent, while side intrusion in a side impact is said to have been reduced 20 per cent.

Of course, VW also says the stiffer new bodyshell brings major reductions in noise, vibration, harshness and overall refinement levels, as well as ride comfort and handling dynamics. The previous 8.5-inch brake booster is replaced by a higher-performance 10-inch system.

An anti-lock braking system (ABS), twin front airbags, five adjustable head restraints and five three-point seatbelts will be standard in all new Polos, although it is yet to be decided whether Australian versions will come standard with electronic stability control (ESC, or ESP in VW-speak), a hill-hold function and twin front seatback-mounted head/thorax airbags, as the Polo will in all major European markets.

Likewise, it is not yet known what equipment levels will be offered in Australia, which could receive a mixture of Europe’s three model grades: base Trendline, midrange Comfortline and the top-shelf Highline.

The former does without a soft-touch dashboard, 60/40-split folding rear seat, power rear windows and power mirrors, but the Polo will also be available with a host of high-end equipment in Europe, including side curtain airbags, daytime running lights, audio and navigation systems from the Golf and Passat, cruise control, climate control and static turning lights integrated into the front fog lights.

Available Polo features also include a dual-level cargo floor, tyre pressure monitoring, a multi-function three-spoke leather steering wheel, folding centre armrest with storage, headlight washers, trip computer, rear parking sensors and an integrated hands-free telephone system. A panoramic sunroof and bi-Xenon headlights will also become available.

Range-wide standard features include electro-hydraulic power steering, front power windows, central locking, a headlights-on warning chime, driver’s seat height adjustment, an illuminated cargo area with tie-down points and illuminated sun visor vanity mirrors, while entry-level Trendline models feature ‘Titanium Black’ trim and ‘Metric’ seat fabric. Wheel sizes range between 14-inch steel items to 17-inch alloys with 215/40-section tyres.

Volkswagen has sold more than 10.6 million Polos since Germany’s first small car appeared 34 years ago in 1975. The MkI Polo was just 3512mm long, and was joined in 1977 by the notchbacked VW Derby derivative.

The MkII Polo emerged in 1982 and became available in three-door hatch, coupe and sedan body styles. The Polo’s first diesel engine appeared from 1985, while a major facelift in 1990 extended the MkII Polo’s life cycle to 12 years, during which time about 3.5 million were sold.

Released in 1994, the larger Polo MkIII spawned hatch, sedan, estate, (Caddy) van and 90kW 16-valve 1.4-litre GTI versions, before being replaced by the quad-headlight MkIV in 2001.

Drive impressions:

VOLKSWAGEN’S baby has grown up. Now practically as big as the MkIII Golf, the new Polo also makes significant strides in refinement, which is the most striking attribute of the fifth generation.

While the new 1.6 TDI’s diesel clatter is in stark contrast to the much quieter 1.4 and 1.2 turbo petrol engines at start-up when cold, once on the move with the windows up all three engine variants are notable for their large-car levels of wind, engine and road noise.

Though we found the seat bases too short even in the leather-clad, more heavily side-bolstered sports buckets of the premium Highline variant, a wide range of fore/aft and height adjustment for both the seats and steering wheel make the Polo a comfortable place to be, both front and rear, where there’s enough head and legroom to accommodate even the longest-legged over a full day of driving.

Neat touches include deep oddments pockets in all four doors (incorporating 1.5-litre bottle holders up front), a flip-up false boot floor that can be held open via a pair of simple side retainers, Golf-style white-backlit instruments and a generally well-executed and extremely ergonomic dashboard design, even if black remains the overriding theme.

The new Polo’s larger and stiffer body not only liberates more interior space, comfort and refinement, a redesigned chassis featuring a new MacPherson strut front suspension makes it a far more dynamic proposition than before.

The conventional hydraulic power-assisted steering system, with electric servo motor, feels far more linear and natural than many all-electric systems, and is as responsive as it is communicative in all three engine variants we drove.

It might not offer the same level of response or feedback we’ve come to expect from class-leading light-cars like Ford’s Fiesta or the Mazda2, but easily eclipses its predecessor and just about every other Japanese, Korean and perhaps even French light-car rival in steering precision and feel.

What’s more, the Polo manages to do so while keeping steering interference from both road irregularities and engine torque to a minimum, in the same way as it strikes a pleasing balance between ride comfort and dynamic agility.

That said, the smoothly surfaced Sardinian roads used for the global launch drive were far less punishing than most Australian roads, and there was a noticeable difference in handling response between models fitted with 15-inch and 17-inch rubber.

While the new 1.6 TDI is lusty and responsive anywhere between 1500 and 5000rpm (and returned consumption of just 5.9L/100km – despite liberal use of the right foot), the 1.4 petrol feel tardy and unresponsive in comparison and was also the thirstiest of the engine trio at 7.3L/100km.

By far the pick of the bunch was the new 1.2 TSI, which when mated to a seven-speed DSG auto sounded crisp and delivered punchy, responsive urge right across its 6000rpm rev range.

Relatively little turbo lag, strong mid to upper-rev performance and an induction crackle on the over-run are hallmarks of this cracking new engine, which nevertheless returned 6.9L/100km to offer easily the best economy and performance combination of all three engines.

As distinctive and recognisable as an all-new model from the outside as it is functional and easy to live with in side, the new Polo brings new levels of safety, economy, performance and agility to VW’s light-car menu.

Price rises have been kept to a minimum in Europe and if Volkswagen Group Australia can deliver enough standard safety and convenience equipment without diminishing its value equation here, there’s no reason this shouldn’t be the most popular Polo ever sold in Australia.

Read more:

First look: VW renews Polo for Geneva

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