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Tiny, brimming with character, rough around the edges and lacking the latest in-car technology. These are typical characteristics of light-car staples, and yet none of them apply to the sixth-generation Volkswagen Polo.
Instead, the company has given us an entry car that is more 'grown up' than its austere predecessor, with the sort of infotainment, active safety equipment and cabin space typically found on larger, seemingly pricier offerings.
And with buyers increasingly eschewing superminis in favour of jacked-up crossovers, perhaps Volkswagen's approach is the right one. Either way, it's given us a city car that in many ways outstrips other contenders for its crown.
These contenders nominally include the popular Hyundai Accent, Mazda 2 and Suzuki Swift, plus the practical Honda Jazz, related Skoda Fabia, niche Peugeot 208, and ubiquitous Toyota Yaris, though bigger cars such as the Corolla, Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30 are also clear targets this time around.
Australian dealers won't get the MY18 Polo until March next year, but as is the way of things in the automotive world, we were invited to the world launch in Hamburg, Germany, to have a drive of the car in its home market.
From a global perspective, the Polo is one of Volkswagen's staple cars. The company has sold a staggering 14 million of them since 1975, or about 16.5 million if you include spin-offs like the pseudo-tough Cross Polo.
This latest member of the family tree is the smallest vehicle to sit on the Volkswagen's Group's well-publicised MQB 'toolkit' – a flexible, modular architecture that also underpins the Tiguan, Passat and even the Skoda Superb.
Because this setup cuts weight, the Polo has grown. It's 81mm longer overall and 92mm longer between the wheels than the old car and has more cargo space than a Mazda 3. At 4053mm in length, it's not so different from a MK4 Golf of the early 2000s.
Stylistically, the Polo has never been about ostentation, and that hasn't changed. The MY18 Polo may have been designed by a pair of young bucks and launched with the claim of newfound expressiveness and 14 colour choices, but it's still safe. Well-proportioned, but recognisable.
There are four variations available with familiar names – the Polo Trendline, Comfortline, Beats and the flagship 147kW GTI hot hatch. We're not reviewing the latter since it wasn't available, but we promise to have a steer as soon as we can. A luxurious Highline will also arrive, soon.
There are nine different engines globally, using petrol, diesel or gas. But Australia will initially get two choices: a 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo-petrol with either 70kW of power and 175Nm of torque, or 85kW/200Nm depending on spec. That's more than the old 66kW/81kW 1.2 turbo-fours.
There'll also be a 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo in Europe soon with 110kW of power, but since it would cost about the same as the more potent GTI once it came to Australia (it's a new and expensive, low-emissions engine), there's not much chance we'll see it.
While the Australian range isn't settled, expect the Trendline to use the former and the Comfortline/Beats to use the latter. The 70kW unit gets either five-speed manual or seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmissions, while the 85kW gets a six-speed manual or said DSG.
The 70kW engine is actually more than sufficient for the Trendline's 1145kg kerb weight. We had a DSG version with about 300kg on board sitting happily on an unrestricted Autobahn at 155km/h ticking along at 3100rpm without much fuss. The 0-100km/h time is 10.8sec.
In fact, so engaging is this thrumming three-pot that the 85kW version doesn't feel appreciably quicker, though 200Nm of torque is not to be sneezed at. We drove this engine with a slick six-speed manual 'box that almost nobody in Australia will buy.
Volkswagen claims combined-cycle fuel economy of 4.5L/100km, which is slightly down on the old 1.2, though a real-world figure in the mid-6s is more realistic. The fuel tank is 40 litres, and you might want to know that VW requires you to use pricier 95 RON premium fuel.
Typical of Volkswagen, the new Polo has drivetrain refinement matched by few, and isolates occupants from road and wind noise (known as NVH levels) better than many much more expensive offerings. It's about 30 per cent stiffer than before and doesn't skimp on insulation.
We drove several versions on 16-inch wheels over a variety of surfaces from wet country roads, to ancient cobblestones, to smooth freeways, and found the car to be impressively stable, quiet and predictable, with a fixed-damper setup that ironed out bumps well, and great body control over undulations.
The Polo really does feel like a slightly smaller Golf, which it mechanically is. Like the Golf, one of our test cars was also fitted with optional adjustable dampers, with a soft comfort setting, and a sports mode that added a hint of stiffness, without compromising basic comfort. Tick.
The electric-assisted steering is typically light and easy to twirl around town, and relatively responsive just away from centre. Yet – and here's a rare down side – it lacks the sensational engagement and feedback of the outgoing Ford Fiesta. Perhaps that's just not the Polo's style...
To the cabin, which is a technological tour-de-force – if you're willing to fork out. The smallest touchscreen is a 6.5-inch unit, and the largest is the same smartphone-like swipe-able 8.0-inch unit as the MK7.5 Golf's. All Australian versions will, crucially, get App-Connect, meaning Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will be enabled.
The clean and simple horizontal layout has a driver-oriented fascia, redesigned climate control interface, and a variety of changeable coloured plastic inserts to add something approaching funkiness. A very sensible Germanic take on funkiness, anyway.
It's also the first car to get the latest iteration of Volkswagen's Active Info Display digital instrumentation as an extra-cost option (dollar amount unknown), which is not something you expect to find on something in this class. It's a 133dpi, 1280 x 480 pixel 11.7-inch TFT unit that shows maps, driving data et cetera.
The future-proofed MY18 Polo also comes with autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection as standard, and available with tech such as blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, parking assist and automatic post-collision braking.
It's very easy to be taken aback by the tech, but smaller things like the thoughtful storage nooks, familiar yet lovely leather steering wheel, bang-on ergonomics and rear seat legroom/headroom suitable for two 180cm-plus adults – plus massive 351-litre cargo space – also impress. The weird lack of grab handles doesn't...
Perhaps the only other down side is the presence of hard plastics on the doors and along the transmission tunnel which, while pretty much standard in the class, are the one element of the Polo's cabin that don't feel like a luxurious outlier. Nitpicking? We don't believe so...
Various options can be had, from full LED headlights, a R-Line styling package, a 300W Beats audio system, two-tone exterior paint, inductive wireless smartphone charging pad and the largest panoramic glass roof in the class. Though at this point if you ticked all the boxes you'd be well north of Golf pricing...
Given the new Polo isn't hitting Australia until around March next year in Trendline and Comfortline guise, then in Beats and GTI form around July and in Highline luxury spec towards to end of 2018, it's too early to give you precise pricing and specs.
However, the entry price will need to be similar to the outgoing Trendline's $16,990 (before on-road costs) price point, with the 85TSI Comfortline surely a monty to kick off under $20k, and the DSG version to undercut the base manual Golf's $23,990 drive-away price point.
The Active Info Display, adjustable dampers, various active safety tech and more will likely be bundled up into options packs, and the metallic and premium paint choice from within the 14-hue palette will also cost extra. Where will we source the car from? Probably South Africa.
All told, the sixth-generation Volkswagen Polo springs few surprises – trickled-down technology and a premium feel is kind of what one's crystal ball would have suggested – and yet it ticks all the requisite boxes and more.
Provided Volkswagen Australia gets the pricing and positioning correct, it's hard to see it not shooting straight to the top of the light car class when it finally touches down. A predictable result as sure as the sunrise, but still a welcome one.
It's not the last word in excitement or charisma, but that's never been the Polo's bag. What it does offer is a general level of sophistication and a kind of holistic quality that you'd expect in something bigger and pricer. Mini Golf indeed.
Click the Photos tab for more Volkswagen press images, and a few taken by the author