Since the arrival of the fifth-generation Volkswagen Polo in 2010, the German brand’s city car has been a CarAdvice favourite.
Great to drive, fuel efficient and more refined inside than some cars twice its price, the Polo has always oozed sophistication and maturity.
If there’s been a criticism throughout the current car’s lifecycle, it’s that it has carried a premium price tag but skimped on equipment, particularly in the area of infotainment.
Enter the 2016 Volkswagen Polo, which aims to address both issues in the face of rising competition from newer rivals such as the Mazda 2, Renault Clio, Skoda Fabia, Toyota Yaris, and almost a dozen other light-sized contenders.
Both the entry-grade Polo 66TSI Trendline and the high-end Polo 81TSI Comfortline now feature the Composition Media infotainment system with a 6.5-inch touchscreen (replacing the 5.0-inch screen) with a reverse-view camera and App-Connect USB interface for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functions.
While the price of the Trendline increases $500, the Comfortline is actually $100 cheaper than before, making the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG) version tested here $20,990 before on-road costs (a six-speed manual Comfortline is also available from $18,490).
The revised pricing now makes the flagship Volkswagen Polo (not including the sporty GTI) cheaper than the high-grade versions of those aforementioned rivals (Yaris ZR $21,490, 2 Genki $22,690, Clio Dynamique $23,990) except its VW Group stablemate, the $20,290 Fabia 81TSI.
Unlike those more expensive models, however, the Polo misses out on standard satellite navigation (as does the Fabia). It’s only available as part of the $1900 Driving Comfort package, which means you’re forced to spend $22,890 to get integrated maps in a Polo - or you could use your smartphone with the App-Connect technology, though that will use your phone data. The package is excellent value if you can afford it, however, as it also adds adaptive cruise control (regular cruise is standard), front assist with city emergency braking, climate control, auto headlights and wipers, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, driver fatigue detection system, and a low tyre pressure indicator.
Our test car missed that package, however, coming instead with the Sport Pack, which we’re convinced actually makes the car worse. For $1500, it adds 17-inch alloy wheels (up from 15s), lowered sports suspension, tinted side and rear windows, front foglights with cornering function, and a tyre pressure monitor.
Those first two additions have a detrimental impact on the Polo’s ride comfort. Impressively supple with its regular suspension and chubbier tyres, the combination of larger wheels, skinnier 40-aspect rubber and shorter springs makes the Polo feel firmer than usual, jittering over ripply surfaces around town, hitting hard into sharp holes and road joins, and failing to isolate the cabin from bumps on coarse roads with its trademark ease.
Still, there’s inherent quality to the smallest Volkswagen’s chassis that makes even our sports pack-equipped test car more dynamically competent than most city cars. It’s super-quick to resettle after hitting bumps and doesn’t react to mid-corner ruts, adding to its feeling of stability on the road. It’s also supremely balanced, its Continental tyres grip well, and it possesses light and predictable steering, inspiring confidence whether you’re throwing it into corners enthusiastically or navigating windy country roads more sedately.
The Polo’s 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine is also among the best in its class. The tiny turbo produces 81kW between 4600-5600rpm and 175Nm from a terrifically broad 1400-4000rpm, motivating the 1151kg hatchback from 0-100km/h in a reasonable 9.3 seconds.
It’s a quiet engine and not completely devoid of character, with a light, zingy note that improves as the revs build, though it remains refined towards its redline. Typical of small turbos, it’s not as zippy as some naturally aspirated rivals in traffic, but has a meaty mid-range that makes it feel stronger under sustained acceleration and more effortless overtaking on the highway.
The engine forms a mostly impressive partnership with the smooth-shifting and clever DSG. In its pursuit of peak fuel efficiency, the transmission files through the gears quickly, which means it can feel sluggish cruising around town in seventh gear, though it responds promptly to sharper throttle inputs, dropping multiple gears at once. Selecting the DSG’s sport mode keeps the engine in those more immediately responsive regions of the rev range and makes the Polo feel eager at all times, though it will burn through more fuel.
The Polo’s drivetrain is least refined when the engine’s stop-start system, lag from the turbo engine, characteristic crawl-speed hesitancy of the DSG, and (when facing up hill) the hill start assist system all collide, which can lead to a delay in power delivery and a jerk when they do eventually coordinate.
The 81TSI’s combined cycle fuel consumption is rated at a super-frugal 4.8 litres per 100 kilometres, albeit using premium unleaded petrol (95 RON). We managed 6.8L/100km across a mix of conditions, though recorded as high as 11.7L/100km in congested city traffic.
As alluded to earlier, the current-gen Volkswagen Polo has always been the benchmark for interior refinement. Soft-touch plastic lines the dashboard, smooth leather wraps around the steering wheel and gear lever, and satin chrome and piano black highlights create a premium ambience where many rivals opt for cheaper painted plastics.
The large infotainment touchscreen is easy to use and adds colour and vibrancy to a cabin that has previously been described by some as grey and bland. The CD player in the glovebox means you’ll need a DJ to switch discs while on the go if you’re old school, but for most the Polo’s Bluetooth audio streaming, USB connectivity and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto will get far more use and are very practical.
The driver’s seat is comfortable and supportive, and rear visibility is better than many rival city hatches, helped by a small third side window. The rear bench is also comfortable, with good angle to the seat base that gives under-thigh support. Space for toes and shins is tight, though headroom and kneeroom are acceptable for a city car.
The boot’s 280-litre capacity is about average for a pint-sized hatch, and features a false floor that allows you to hide or separate smaller items. Split-folding 60:40 rear seats that fold almost flat expand load space to 952L.
Despite coming with capped-price servicing, the Polo is among the most expensive city cars to maintain. Servicing it at the dealership to four years/60,000km (at 12-month/15,000km intervals) will set you back $2389. Servicing a Yaris to the same mileage costs just $840. Volkswagen’s three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty and matching roadside assistance makes the aftersales equation a little more palatable.
The Polo ticks the safety boxes, coming standard with electronic stability control and six airbags and boasting a five-star ANCAP rating.
The updates to the 2016 Volkswagen Polo make a very good thing even better.
While there remain better-value city cars from a simple price and equipment perspective and the servicing costs are sky high, the Polo’s impressive powertrain, confidence-inspiring dynamics, comfortable interior, modern infotainment system and available technology and safety systems make it an all-rounder like few others in its class.
Tick the Driving Comfort package box and give the Sports Pack the flick and the Volkswagen Polo 81TSI Comfortline becomes one of the best cars under $25,000 money can buy.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Mitchell Oke.