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First Oz drive: Polo charts course for sales

Solid stuff: The VW Polo is the best riding small car we have ever driven.

VW expands its small car range with three and five-door choices and a sub-$20,000 starting price

8 Jul 2002

VOLKSWAGEN has been a resurgent performer here in recent times. The factory's reclamation of distribution rights, some model refining, pencil sharpening on price and plenty of advertising dollars have kicked things along.

But now, for the first time since Wolfsburg took back direct control, VW is launching an all-new generation model in Australia - the fourth generation Polo hatchback.

While sales expectations are not outlandish, at 180-200 sales per month the Polo does present a sales and marketing challenge.

Because of exchange rates, European labour rates, build quality and so on, it is too expensive to compete in what the official sales analysis service, VFACTS, would call "light cars" against the likes of the Hyundai Accent, Toyota Echo and Holden Barina.

So instead it ends up like a boxer punching out of its weight class, lining up against the likes of the Mazda 323, Nissan Pulsar and Hyundai Elantra. And on specification as well as size it struggles there.

To avoid the issue, the European importers have coined a sub-segment called "premium light", where the Polo can slug it out against the Peugeot 206, Renault Clio and, before the end of the year, an entrant from Japan, the replacement for the Mazda 121, the Mazda2.

But even in this rarified atmosphere VW appears to be struggling. Yes it has succeeded in getting the Polo onto the market under $20,000, but only by $200, but then only in the three-door, only in manual form, only with a 1.4-litre engine and only without air-conditioning.

The Peugeot and Renault only get under $20,000 by $1, but they do offer two more doors and standard air-conditioning.

VW is launching a five-model range in distinctively different three and five-door bodystyles spread from $19,800 to $25,500, replacing the five-door heavily specced old model which sold for $19,990 at the end of its life. The base model in the new range is simply called the Polo three-door, and from there it climbs through the S and SE in both bodies.

Before we get into range specifics, here is what's central to the entire range.

All Polos share the same new platform that has a 53mm longer wheelbase than the old car. This is a VW Group platform that also underpins the Skoda Fabia, which went on sale in Europe before the Polo, but does not get here as part of the local relaunch of the Czech brand until 2004.

Front suspension is via MacPherson struts and lower wishbones mounted to a new concept twin-layer subframe said to reduce tyre noise intrusion and enhance handling and crashworthiness. At the rear there's a new transverse torsion beam axle which cleverly doubles as a rear anti-roll bar, thus saving a little weight.

Which is handy, considering the Polos are not only bigger and torsionally stiffer, but also heavier by more than 70kg. The Polos measure up 15.4cm longer than their predecessor, height has increased by 4.7cm to 1.465 metres and width has increased 1.8cm to 1.650 metres.

Crashworthiness and safety are big selling points of the Polo. The independent Euro NCAP testing system has just awarded it four stars out of five and VW itself claims a 45 per cent improvement in side impact protection over the previous model. Dual airbags, five lap-sash seatbelts and head restraints are standard across the range. Also standard - and carried over from the old model - is that 1.4-litre, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine, sitting transversely in the engine bay, driving 55kW at 5000rpm to the front wheels, along with 126Nm of torque at 3800rpm, via either a five-speed manual gearbox or an adaptive four-speed electronic automatic.

So that's the basics: a strong, safe if not powerful little car. Nor is it overly well endowed when it comes to luxury items.

There's a few other interesting deletions and additions. The easiest way to examine it is to go straight to the top-spec SE three and five-door.

This is the only version which gets an alarm, remote central locking with fuel filler operation, foglights, rear passenger reading lights, luggage compartment light, drawers under the front seat, "easy entry" back seat release for three-door, front seat height adjustment, centre sun visor, multi-function trip computer, sports cloth seats and power front windows. But not even the SE has alloy wheels as standard.

On the positive side, all Polos get power steering, a single CD audio system, colour coding of the door handles and outside power mirrors, height and reach adjustable steering, 60/40 split-fold rear seat and intermittent wipers.

ABS, EBD (electronic brakeforce distribution) and an electric glass sunroof are optional on all models but the base three-door and cost $700 and $990 respectively. Metallic paint ($490) and the $2000 auto box are the only options offered across the range.

Polo 3-door $19,800
Polo 3-door auto $21,800
Polo S 3-door $20,800
Polo S 3-door auto $22,800
Polo SE 3-door $22,500
Polo S 5-door $21,800
Polo S 5-door auto $23,800
Polo SE 5-door $23,500
Polo SE 5-door auto $25,500


THERE is no doubting this is a Volkswagen - thanks to the big VW badges implanted front and back. Those four headlights are a VW giveaway too, closely linked to the even smaller Lupo model that we do not see in Australia.

It drives like a VW should too - very solid, very planted and very safe.

Inspiring? Perhaps not. The engine while smooth, quiet and keen, feels somewhat breathless when called upon to perform short, sharp overtaking work, and that was working with the snappy five-speed manual gearbox rather than the auto, which should slow things down that bit further.

The steering, while accurate and devoid of front-wheel drive bains like kickback and rack rattle, is a little heavy and lifeless at highway speeds. Appropriately enough, it feels more at home being twirled in slower, tighter situations in the suburbs.

So it is uninspiring? That would be unfair. The ride is better than any small car we have ever sampled, coping with some extremely rough roads on the launch drive with aplomb.

The aforementioned manual gearbox is a positive, as is the predictable nature of the chassis, which tends to understeer (front-end slide) when cornered enthusiastically.

The five-door was beautifully quiet for a car of this class and size, allowing little wind, engine or tyre noise to penetrate. Not so the three-door, our example generating much more tyre roar and rumble. There seemed to be no specific reason for this.

Inside, the story is universally good. The quality is high, the seats are wide, deep and well bolstered and the instruments and dashboard are a bespoke design for this car rather than collected together out of the parts bin. The only downer is the predatorial cupholder which lunges rather aggressively from the dash looking for victims.

Interior space is also significantly improved. It is possible for a couple of six-footers to sit behind each other for a reasonable trip, although the back seat is more suited to the kids. There's even enough boot space to fit a golf club or two.

Speaking of which, this fourth generation Polo is actually bigger than the original Golf. It is a measure of how we and our cars are growing.

The crucial lack here for the Polo is that the engine has not grown up as well. That and a short equipment list are the major challenges for what is a very solid little car.

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