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by Tim Beissmann

The decision to buy my 2011 Volkswagen Polo was validated within 20 minutes of its first drive. The following is a review of the whole process, from research to ownership.

Research

Nine months ago when I got serious about buying my first car, the thought of buying a brand new one barely crossed my mind. I knew purchasing a brand new car would drain my life savings, and something within me was philosophically opposed to the concept of my first car being brand new. Surely everyone has to start with a heap and work their way up?

Like all people, I had some non-negotiables and some almost equally important desires.

Non-negotiables

  • Manual transmission
  • Fewer than 150,000km
  • Built in 2000 or later
  • At least two airbags and ABS
  • Good fuel economy
  • Something I liked the look of

Desires

  • Light/small size
  • More than three doors
  • At least a 3.5mm auxiliary audio jack, preferably USB connectivity
  • More airbags (side, curtain) and electronic stability control (ESC)
  • Something a little different

Initially I had my heart set on a late model Peugeot 306. The average price and kilometres for a 2000 model 306 is $8000 to $11,000 and 100,000km to 160,000km. Most have two airbags, ABS, CD player, power windows, and not much else. No suggestion of curtain airbags, ESC, traction control or a warranty.

As much as I hated to admit it, for the same price I could get a brand new Suzuki Alto with a three-year warranty, six airbags and ESC. But being a 20-year-old country boy with self-esteem issues, an Alto was never really going to work out.

Next on the list was a first generation Mazda3. It had the cool factor, fewer kilometres, and would be five to seven years newer than the Peugeot. The average price for a 2007 Mazda3 Maxx Sport is $16,000 to $19,000 with average kilometres 45,000km to 70,000km. You get ABS, EBD, four airbags, six-disc CD player (useless as I don’t own any CDs), cruise control and alloy wheels. Still no ESC, AUX plug or warranty, and for that price you can get a brand new Hyundai Getz with Bluetooth, six airbags, ESC and a five-year warranty. But again, I couldn’t live with a Getz.

The biggest problem with used small cars is today’s brand new small cars. They come standard with almost everything you need, for almost the same price. If you can afford to spend $12,000 on a car and can make do with a light/small-sized vehicle, you’d be crazy not to get a brand new one and take advantage of all the extra features, as well as the near-guarantee of at least five years of trouble-free motoring.

After months of grappling with my stubborn preconceptions of what a first car should be, I made the decision to buy a new car. I knew by the end of the year my bank account would be around $20,000 and I didn’t mind if I spent it all. I decided the choice was between a Mazda2 and Volkswagen Polo. Inspecting both cars, I knew the Mazda would be less expensive, but the Volkswagen was so much more refined on the inside and, in my opinion, decidedly less girly on the outside.

In the end, like most car purchases, I went with my heart. The head wasn’t too disappointed either, with the knowledge of the Polo’s European and World Car of the Year titles. Six airbags and ESC also made mum happy, and both features really should be non-negotiables for parents helping their children shop for a first car, as the advanced safety equipment reduces the risk of serious injury or death in a crash by approximately 50 percent.

Buying

The dealer process was an interesting one. I took my father along with me, a man who has owned countless cars and, as an accountant, is rather savvy when it comes to numbers. We drove the six-speed manual and seven-speed DSG 77TSI Comfortline models, steering clear of the less powerful, three-door 66TSI Trendline and the pricier 66TDI Comfortline diesel. At the end of the day, with a $2500 price premium on the dual-clutch transmission pushing the 77TSI DSG beyond $25K on the road, the $19,850 manual was the one for me.

Shopping around saw the price drop by more than $500, and the omission of dealer delivery charges (as prices can’t be fixed under Australian law). I settled at $23,200, stretching the budget slightly when optioned with floor mats, window tinting and the $500 comfort pack (climate control, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, rain-sensing wipers and tyre pressure monitor).

Overall pricing breakdown:

  • Vehicle price – $20,018
  • GST – $2002
  • Stamp duty – $555
  • Registration – $625

Dealers are always keen to finance new vehicles, but if you have the money, pay for it outright – you’ll save thousands in the long run. Shopping around for insurance is also worthwhile, and as a first-car buyer under 25 you can get covered for just north of $1000 if you are willing to trade some premium for excess. Ordering at the end of August, the dealer was hopeful the Polo would arrive before Christmas.

Fast-forward to the beginning of February and the excruciating wait for my little red cutie was over. In the meantime I organised an exemption to drive it, as Victorian P-plate drivers must be approved to drive low-performance supercharged or turbocharged vehicles. How my 77kW Polo could be deemed more dangerous than a P-plate-legal Holden Commodore SV6 with 210kW is beyond me. Surely the government should encourage people to purchase one of the safest and most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road, rather than complicate the process. Regardless, the procedure was largely hassle-free and the exemption was easily earned after mailing off an application.

Picking up the car was a straightforward exercise, although it pays to be on your guard. Giving the car a thorough inspection, I noticed the floor mats were missing and a little defect in the dashboard. These are the kind of things you absolutely must deal with before you drive away, because after that you really are powerless if the dealer decides to turn nasty and not take responsibility. The mats were briskly inserted and a photograph of the dash defect was sent to Volkswagen Australia, with the assurance that it would be either repaired or replaced free of charge. The clock wasn’t set to the right time either. It’s a little thing, but probably not too much to ask of a dealer.

Driving

In the five months between purchasing the car and taking delivery, life’s wonderful twists and turns meant day two of the Polo’s life would comprise a 900km journey from country Victoria to Sydney’s north shore.

Setting off at 8:30am, the rain was as heavy as I have experienced in my five years behind the wheel. Travelling above 70km/h on good roads felt dangerous with visibility below 100m at times. In such conditions, there is simply no comparison between a new car with ESC, six airbags and brand new tyres and an 11-year-old Peugeot. It may have cost a bundle more, but after 20 minutes I was at peace with my decision.

It took 413km for the first ray of sunshine to poke through the clouds, and despite driving on roads that varied from damp to drenched, the Polo felt as solid as a rock. Like most cars, it got a little out of shape through water-filled tyre tracks on the highway, but the 195/55R15 Continental tyres absorbed the bumps of weathered pot holes without much fuss or steering kickback. In good conditions it cruises at 110km/h in sixth gear at a steady and quiet 2200rpm.

The driver’s seat is an easy one to get comfortable in, and although the seat back lacks lumbar control, most people could find a happy position to use the wheel and clutch. A plastic-covered footrest on the left and a carpeted extension of the wheelarch on the right (not a dedicated footrest, but a place to plant your right foot nonetheless) add to the overall comfort and make the Polo a great cruiser. The instrument readout is clean and simple, with revs on the left, speed on the right, and everything else displayed digitally in the middle: driving time, current/average fuel consumption, range, distance travelled, current/average speed and outside temperature. The centre console directed towards the driver makes accessing controls easy.

The steering is light without being floaty, and is always precise. The manual transmission is brilliantly smooth and second gear is an absolute treat for city driving, pulling solidly from 1200rpm (peak torque kicks in at 1500rpm) to beyond 5000rpm. With 77kW of power and 175Nm of torque, the 1.2-litre turbocharged engine has now been fitted to the Golf, such is its ability. The clutch has a nice weight and is especially forgiving, even for someone who has barely driven a manual since getting his probationary licence three years earlier. The handling at high and low speeds inspires confidence and the ride is almost always spot on, regardless of the surface.

The passenger seat is almost as good as the driver’s (as I found out through alternate driving stints with my father), although after a couple of hours it gets a little hard on the lower back while the driver’s remains supportive. The rear bench is a real surprise packet. Two adults or three kids could ride effortlessly and should be reasonably comfortable on longer journeys. Rear legroom won’t be an issue for anyone under 6’ 3’’. It’s more comfortable than the rear seat of the Golf, mostly due to the greater angle of the seat base.

The space behind the 60/40 split-fold rear seats (officially 280 litres) handled all I could throw at it. The boot has an Anne Frank-style false floor for you to store things under to protect or remove entirely to expand the space. A full-size spare steel wheel is also fitted standard.

The basic audio system in the Polo could very well be a deal breaker for those who want more than a single CD player, AUX port and only adequate sound quality. Bluetooth phone connectivity and USB/iPod integration are features 90 percent of young people want, but are optional in the Polo. It’s especially disappointing when you can get a Getz with Bluetooth audio streaming for $9000 less. Listening to music by connecting my iPhone to the AUX wasn’t an entirely enjoyable experience at 110km/h and didn’t last long. Volume on both device and car had to be turned up close to the maximum, and even then it sounded tinny beyond enjoyment. Definitely a feature best saved for city driving.

One feature worth the extra spend is climate control. The temperature was set on 22.5 degrees for the 11-hour trip and remained comfortable from start (18 degrees ambient) to finish (40 degrees), despite the seven-speed fan never moving from the lowest setting.

It’s hard not to appreciate the interior quality, which is not only miles ahead of its light car competitors but also many offerings in the next segment up. Some have criticised it as bland, but I’d say it’s conservative at worst. It is mostly grey and square inside – a world away from the round Mazda2 and the angular Ford Fiesta – but for those after a simple, inoffensive layout, the Polo does the job.

The dash is covered in soft-touch plastic; the steering wheel (height and reach adjustable, lifted straight from the Golf), handbrake lever and gearstick knob and surround are leather; the vents and instrument borders are finished in satin chrome; and all the buttons, switches and dials illuminate in white and have a soft, silent touch. Disappointingly, I noticed two drops of rain from the front passenger door seal, certainly not something you expect from a new car, regardless of the conditions.

Personally, I love the exterior, although I can understand people again labelling it a touch bland. The styling is very Golf VI, with a few sharper lines in the bonnet, front lights and intakes. The only thing bug-eyed in the Polo’s styling is the rear lights, but with a red paint job they’re easy to overlook. Despite not being swept up by the Twilight phenomenon, I am especially besotted by the little ‘vampire fangs’ on the front splitter, but because they protrude a little more than most cars you have to be conscious of them when parking near tall kerbs. But in a car this size, you never need to park anywhere near the kerb anyway. You can leave it a foot from the edge in 45-degree spaces and there’ll always be plenty of room left at the rear.

When I first picked the car up it had 26km on the clock, and by the time I set off for Sydney it was on 84km. At its first fuel stop in Gundagai the odometer read 541km. The indicated consumption on the trip computer was 6.3 litres/100km while my actual calculated consumption was 6.5 litres/100km. Considering it would have spent time idling at the docks and the dealer, and taking into account the non-stop rain and full boot, 6.5 seemed reasonable. Officially, its combined cycle fuel consumption is 5.5 litres/100km.

On the second leg of the journey, the sunlit Hume Hwy from Gundagai to Sydney, it achieved a marvellous 4.9 litres/100km. By the time it reached its destination, the odometer showed 951km, and its actual cumulative consumption of 5.8 litres/100km matched the indicated consumption. It used 55.5 litres of fuel over the journey, and filling it with 98 RON Premium Unleaded set me back $78, which is cheaper than a ticket on most airlines.

It’s been an epic nine-month journey, but honestly, I couldn’t be happier with the end result. Anecdotally, I know many people find the experience of purchasing a car very stressful, and come out the other end feeling at best gypped, and at worst violated. Fortunately, I’ve spent all my money (and some), but I don’t feel worse for the experience. I know I’ve got a car that is a segment leader in terms of quality, safety and performance, and is hard to argue with from an economy, design and value perspective. It misses out on a few tech features that Gen-Yers will struggle to live without, and it may not be the most exciting city car to look at, but for someone after a first car that beats its new car competitors and absolutely trounces its used ones, the Volkswagen Polo has to be at the top of the list.






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