The light car segment is fiercely competitive, and at eight years old, the current Volkswagen Polo is one of the oldest in its class. Despite an extensive facelift in 2014 it is still the same car underneath, so the question remains: should it still be on your shopping list?
As you will read, that answer is, yes.
My Polo was purchased in September 2015 as a four-month old demonstrator in 81TSI guise and equipped with the Sports package. Originally I was searching for a used Golf, a bigger but older car. However, I realised that for the same money I could land myself a new mid-spec Polo.
Why did I settle for a smaller car? The reality is I rarely carry extra passengers, especially in the rear seats, so the Polo fits my needs just as well as a Golf. Furthermore, thanks to ever-growing dimensions in each new generation of car, the current Polo is not much smaller than the Golf of fifteen years ago. Add on the fact a new Polo comes with a new car warranty and no uncertainty of previous owners, it quickly became my preferred option.
Now, the car itself. Firstly: the looks. It is undeniably German, handsome rather than cute. The facelifted 2014 model has a more grown-up face than the original that debuted in 2009. The front bumper has a wide air intake topped with a chrome bar; the grille is similarly styled and features another chrome piece that extends outwards from the centre badge and through the headlights.
The rear has L-shaped LED tail lamps that line up with the crease across the boot. Such unbroken horizontal lines broaden the aesthetic of the Polo and with a long wheelbase, the Polo has a bigger road presence than its dimensions would suggest.
Into the cabin and it is here the Polo shows its age the most. Minimalist or bland? For me, it’s rather utilitarian, but nonetheless there is a feeling of quality.
There are bright, crisp interior graphics on the infotainment screen and next to the speedometer, the steering wheel is wrapped in genuine leather and has a sporty flat-bottom, and the dash plastics are soft and padded.
The result is, despite its age, the Polo tangibly feels more expensive than its competitors. The buttons are nicely dampened and much of the switchgear (plus the steering wheel) come from Volkswagens that cost four times that of the Polo, such as the Passat and Touareg.
Visibility, especially out the rear, is excellent. The infotainment system is easy to use and connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth, from which it streams media (with the song information) and can access your contacts.
From MY16, Polos came with a larger, updated screen that also bring as standard a rear-view camera, although this camera lacks good night-time clarity and has static trajectory lines only. The Sports pack also brings tyre pressure monitoring.
Under the bonnet is a small 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged unit. In a car as light as the Polo, this is a capable engine. From a standstill, it is a bit sluggish, but at speed, that hesitation quickly dissipates.
Mated to a seven-speed DSG (dual clutch automatic), the gears shift crisply and effortlessly, although in its standard mode the car quickly shifts out of first and tries to find seventh gear as fast as it can, for fuel efficiency reasons.
Shift into Sports mode, however, and the gears are drawn out, revving much higher, maintaining the turbo in its sweet spot as it audibly spools up. The character of the Polo completely changes. The seamless connection between the engine and the transmission feels that of a more expensive, larger car.
Is a seven-speed DSG overkill in a hatchback the size of a Polo? Probably, but a welcome inclusion for those who wants a more spirited drive.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Polo’s drive is how comfortable it is at high speed. There is minimal sound intrusion into the cabin and a very planted feeling, with good weight to the speed-sensitive power steering.
Boot space is not the largest in segment but what I find particularly handy is the very wide and square-shaped aperture of the boot opening. This allows bulkier items to fit in comfortably. There is a false floor that can be removed, but I leave it in place so I can slide boxes easily across the boot lid and onto the folding rear seats.
Rear legroom and shoulder-room is not outstanding but there is substantial headroom, and I have fit five adults in the car before. If you regularly need to carry adults in the rear seats, I would look at a larger car but for occasional rear seat passengers, the Polo is fine.
In the cabin there are ample storage spots in the front, with medium-sized door bins and four drinks holders including two in the centre console. The glovebox is reasonably large and square-shaped, and also features ventilation so you can keep drink bottles chilled, useful in Australian summers.
After testing its competitors, what remains with me about the Polo is its big car character in a small car package. From the soft-touch materials on the dash and the flat-bottomed leather steering wheel, to the 81TSI’s high-speed stability and lack of ‘tinniness’ that plagues cheap cars, I have not looked back at my purchase. Since purchase it has returned only for servicing and one warranty issue relating to the air conditioner.
Buying tips? Push more on Sports-package equipped Polos; I have heard salespeople describe these as tougher to sell. Personally, I love the Sports pack; the 17-inch rims and lowered ride give the car a more athletic look and flatter ride, although it is harsher than the standard setup so test drive both.
Furthermore, the next generation Polo has debuted in Germany so look for runout deals at Volkswagen dealers and do not pay anything near the list price.