When the current-generation Volkswagen Polo launched in Australia in mid 2010, it introduced levels of powertrain refinement, dynamic ability and interior sophistication never before seen in the city-car class.
In the three and a half years since, however, the vehicle voted the 2010 World Car of the Year has essentially treaded water, unchanged besides some minor pricing and specification tweaks introduced at the start of 2012.
Our four-car comparison test in September proved the Volkswagen Polo is still the best car in its class, though a number of newer challengers, particularly the Renault Clio and Ford Fiesta, have closed the gap to the point where the South African-built small car is no longer a no-brainer.
The turbocharged 1.2-litre petrol-powered Polo 77TSI Comfortline tested here is the sweet spot in the line-up that also includes the non-turbo 1.4-litre petrol Trendline and the 1.6-litre turbo-diesel 66TDI Comfortline, as well as the twin-charged Polo GTI performance variant.
Its 77kW peak power figure (delivered at 5000rpm) leaves it trailing most of its rivals, though it’s the boosted four-cylinder’s 175Nm of torque – accessible across a generous 1550-4100rpm range – that puts the Polo on a performance plane of its own.
That broad peak torque band makes the little turbo 1.2-litre brilliantly versatile. The standard six-speed manual and ($2500) optional seven-speed dual-clutch ‘DSG’ automatic transmissions can operate in higher gears because the engine pulls comfortably from just a few hundred revolutions above idle, benefitting fuel economy and reducing the amount of drivetrain noise transferred to the cabin.
Strong down low, the Polo 77TSI’s engine also sounds sweet as it approaches its redline, revving freely and remaining refined.
Both transmissions are excellent. The manual shifter slots into gear precisely and the light clutch pedal offers plenty of feel around the pick-up point.
The DSG is arguably even more impressive, however, particularly when compared with the Clio and Fiesta. It’s sharper off the line than its dual-clutch rivals, though even the Polo’s delivers some initial hesitation that’s not present in conventional torque converter autos. It files through gears almost imperceptibly as it accelerates, shifting more cleanly and quietly than its rivals, and will drop up to three ratios in one motion – from seventh to fourth, for example – in response to a quick poke at the throttle pedal.
The transmission’s Sport mode effectively hangs onto gears longer, downshifts more aggressively under braking, and allows manual gear selection by nudging the shifter to the left, and pushing it forward to change up and back to shift down.
The Volkswagen Polo also offers the most sophisticated ride quality in its class. Rough roads, urban bumps and higher-speed undulations are smoothed with little fuss, and road noise is well suppressed. Its greatest weakness is its lack of composure when confronted by sharp road joins, over which the front suspension crashes though.
The Polo’s steering is slower and heavier than some in its class. It can’t match the Fiesta’s class-leading precision, but offers encouraging consistency that gives the driver confidence.
The Volkswagen is a sweet handling car, too, feeling planted as it’s pushed around corners and remaining composed after quick changes of direction.
Most endearing is how the drivetrain and dynamics come together to make the Polo a truly fun car to drive, and one that turns the cheap and cheerful city car cliché on its head.
For some, however, fun driving characteristics will be very much secondary to factors like pricing, running and servicing costs, and standard equipment.
Priced from $18,990 with the manual and $21,490 with the DSG, the Volkswagen Polo 77TSI costs slightly more than its direct rivals (Clio Expression $17,790/$19,790 and Fiesta Trend $17,825/$19,825).
Despite Volkswagen offering a six-year/90,000km capped-price servicing program, the Polo is the most expensive to service among its competitor set, costing $2041-$2113 to four years or 60,000km (with services completed at 12-month/15,000km intervals).
Improving its aftersales value equation is a three-year unlimited kilometre warranty and three years of free roadside assistance.
The 77TSI demands premium unleaded petrol, though as the real-world fuel consumption data from our city-car comparison proved (5.5 litres per 100km claimed, 7.3L/100km on test), there’s little difference in overall fuel costs between the Volkswagen and its rivals.
Never the most generously equipped city car, the Polo’s cabin is now soundly beaten by the Clio for standard equipment. Where the Renault gets a large colour touchscreen, the Polo makes do with a slim monochrome unit.
Showing its age, the Polo is also now one of the only cars in its class not to feature a proper integrated Bluetooth system for wirelessly connecting smartphones for calls and audio streaming. Instead, it features a tacky touch adapter unit, which is unintuitive and delivers its sound out of just one speaker. The best option for portable audio playback is the USB port in the glovebox, which – as it should – plays through all speakers and in contrast to the Bluetooth unit delivers excellent sound quality.
Cruise control, a multi-function trip computer, and one-touch up and down power windows are all included standard, while auto on/off vanity mirror lights and a storage bin in the front centre armrest are nice little touches rare in this class.
The Polo’s cabin is conservatively styled but remains the benchmark in terms of material quality, fit and finish, and comfort. Soft-touch plastics cover the dashboard; the steering wheel, gearlever and handbrake are all wrapped in smooth leather; and brushed metal trim highlights are used to great effect throughout, including on the steering wheel and door handles, and around the air vents and instrument cluster.
The Polo’s interior refinement is untouched by its city-car rivals, and unmatched by many larger cars wearing considerably higher starting pricings.
The driver’s seat is firm but nicely supportive and while rear-seat legroom isn’t class leading, the Polo’s angled seat base that provides under-thigh support makes it one of the most comfortable benches for rear-riders.
The Polo’s 280-litre boot features a shelf that can be removed to add more depth to the cargo area. A full-sized steel spare wheel – the Polo gets 15-inch alloys on each corner – sits below. Storage capacity expands to 952 litres with the 60:40 split rear seats pushed down and the seat bases rolled forwards.
High purchase and servicing costs, conservative looks and an inadequate Bluetooth system will put the Volkswagen Polo off the shopping lists of many in the city-car class where pricing, modern styling and tech features are often high priorities.
But the 77TSI’s superb engine and transmissions, sophisticated suspension, and comfortable and refined interior ensure it’s still the most complete city car in Australia.