It’s never good news for rivals when the best car in its class gets an update. In the city car segment, it’s the Volkswagen Polo that has led the way since the fifth-generation model launched in Australia in 2010 thanks to its winning combination of benchmark powertrains and dynamics and interior refinement.
The outgoing model also lacks the youthful styling and modern infotainment features of many newer competitors including the Renault Clio, which made a strong push for best in class honours when it went on sale late last year.
The sexy Frenchy still needn’t fear the updated Polo in the styling department – the facelift, due in local showrooms in September, brings only subtle tweaks to the clean but conservative exterior.
The changes are more obvious on the inside, however, where it’s clear the pint-sized Polo has been inspired by its big brother, the Golf. The steering wheel and instrument cluster are new, while fresh trim on the centre console injects life into the previously monotone cabin.
Its infotainment systems also take a much-needed step forward. A 5.0-inch monochrome touchscreen is standard, while a 6.5-inch colour screen is also available. The updated model will gain a properly integrated Bluetooth phone system with audio streaming, correcting one of its predecessor’s biggest oversights, though satellite navigation remains off the table for our market. Australian cars will also miss out on the MirrorLink app system, which, though impressive, currently only works with a handful of smartphones (of which Apple’s iPhone is not one).
Also inherited from the Golf and further emphasising the Polo’s maturity is a host of driver-assist safety technologies that break new ground in the city car segment. Automatic post-collision braking will be standard, while Volkswagen Australia is considering making adaptive cruise control, LED headlights, reverse-view camera, driver fatigue alert system, and front assist radar with city emergency braking available to customers either as individual options or as part of a package.
While plenty of equipment will be added to the updated line-up, one feature that disappears is the diesel engine option, which Volkswagen says sells in only very small numbers in Australia.
Powering the revised range will be the carry-over 1.2-litre four-cylinder direct-injection turbo petrol engine. Previously available in a single power level, the engine is now available in two states of tune.
The first, which will power the entry-level Polo 66TSI Trendline variant, produces 66kW of power at 4800rpm and 160Nm of torque between 1400-4000rpm, giving it a 3kW/28Nm advantage over its predecessor, the non-turbo 1.4-litre. The transmission options are the same (five-speed manual and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic DSG), though Volkswagen says the new Trendline is more than a second quicker from 0-100km/h (10.8sec manual) and about 23 per cent more fuel efficient (4.7 litres per 100km on the combined cycle).
Sitting above it is the high-grade Polo 81TSI Comfortline, which produces 81kW at 5000rpm and 175Nm between 1500-4000rpm. Though only 4kW more powerful than before, Volkswagen claims it is 0.4sec quicker from 0-100km/h (9.3sec manual) as well as 14 per cent more fuel efficient (5.5L/100km). It will again be offered with six-speed manual and seven-speed DSG transmissions.
Though the 81TSI is expected to be the top-selling variant in Australia, a delay in its production meant only the 66TSI was available to test at the updated Volkswagen Polo’s launch in Munich, Germany.
The 66TSI engine is a tangible step up from its normally aspirated predecessor. Its turbocharged benefits are most noticeable down low and through its mid-range – a broad peak torque band and 21 per cent higher power output easily out-punches the old engine’s 3800rpm torque zenith. Those familiar with the outgoing 77TSI tune of this engine will note slightly slower progress from the 66TSI. It’s no slug, however, providing adequate acceleration both from standstill and when called on for higher-speed manoeuvres, such as overtaking. It also loses none of the 77TSI’s refinement – both at low revs and high it’s quiet, smooth, and never sounds strained.
The manual shift feels clicky but confident, but as before the DSG is the pick. Though there’s some initial hesitation it’s acceptably quick off the line, files through gears imperceptibly under acceleration and will instantly drop up to three gears if the throttle pedal is depressed with enough enthusiasm. It also swiftly and intuitively grabs lower ratios around hills and under braking.
The pre-facelift Polo already offers the most sophisticated ride quality in its class, and tweaks to the springs and dampers of the updated model appear to have done it no harm. Our test car proved supremely comfortable and refined riding on 16-inch alloys and 45-aspect Dunlop tyres, smoothing urban bumps and higher-speed undulations while also delivering excellent road noise suppression. It’s impossible to ignore the contrast in quality of Germany’s brilliantly finished roads and our own, however, leaving us keen to put the new model through its paces on Australia’s less perfect surfaces.
Time testing the Polo’s new variable dampers seemed to justify Volkswagen’s decision not to offer the option in our market. The firmer ‘Sport’ setting picks up small bumps, making the ride feel uncharacteristically busy. Few are likely to push a regular Polo hard enough to notice serious improvements in the handling, which with the standard suspension is already sweet, feeling composed and planted in corners.
More noticeable are the advances in the Polo’s steering. The updated car graduates from an electro-hydraulic setup to an electro-mechanical system. Though far from a weakness, the old setup was slower and heavier than some rivals, and lacked the precision of the class-leading Ford Fiesta. The new system is more responsive from the straight-ahead position than before and quicker overall (it now matches the Polo GTI for turns lock-to-lock) yet loses none of the old setup’s predictability or consistency.
Unchanged is the Volkswagen Polo’s unrivalled interior refinement. The soft-touch plastics, quality-feel buttons and dials, smooth leathers and satin chrome highlights of the old model are now complemented by piano black and silver trims, larger display screens and neater air conditioning controls.
The driver’s seat is firm but supportive and the rear bench is also among the most comfortable in its class, though the Polo trails some rivals for second-row head and legroom.
The cargo area is identical to before, featuring a 280-litre boot with a removable shelf, and an expanded 952L opening with the 60:40 split-fold rear seats folded forwards.
Volkswagen says customers should expect small price increases when the updated Polo arrives on our shores later this year. While the enhancements will likely justify the extra spend, the brand faces the challenge of remaining competitive with cheaper city car rivals while also keeping some distance to the $21,490 Golf 90TSI Trendline.
Pricing aside, the fifth-generation Volkswagen Polo has always been an impressively mature and complete city car, and the latest updates make this class leader even better.