The brand new Volkswagen Polo, available to order as we speak, is said to improve over its already highly-credentialed predecessor in every feasible way.
More tech and engine power, greater fuel efficiency and refinement, and interior space to match significantly bigger cars. That’s the Volkswagen spiel, anyhow.
This Euro-centric (though made in South Africa) light car offering technically does battle with popular private-market light cars such as the Mazda 2.
And yet with the Golf moving steadily upmarket – VW cites an average transaction price north of $30k – the Polo may also come to compete with cars a whole ‘segment’ above.
The new Polo is based on the ubiquitous MQB modular architecture toolkit that underpins product as diverse as the Audi A3, Skoda Superb and VW Tiguan. This means it’s more rigid than before – theoretically improving dynamics and safety – but no heavier.
Because the MQB is made to a scale of millions, that magical economic tenet called ‘efficiencies of scale’ also kicks in, to keep the pricing low, allow high-grade in-car and active safety tech to trickle down from much pricier offerings, and cut running costs.
To the boring bits first. It’s 78mm longer between the wheels than its predecessor, 81mm longer overall, and 69mm wider. Its 7mm height reduction enhances the stance. Indeed, you might say the Polo has grown up in every sense but the literal one.
We mentioned that squat stance, which is good. But the rest of the design is typically inoffensive, wearing the toned-down looks of a shrunken Golf. It’s gender neutral, but hardly as chic as a Renault Clio or adventurous as the Mazda.
The launch colours are rather boring white, silver, grey, black or burnt orange. Some brighter hues such as the outgoing model’s bright blue wouldn’t go astray. Light cars are supposed to a little bit bold, right?
Never afraid of confrontation, Volkswagen claims the Polo offers in-car shoulder room comparable to a larger Hyundai i30, and front headroom to match a Kia Cerato, belying its diminutive dimensions like Mary Poppins’ handbag, or the Tardis. Take your pick.
Moreover, its 351-litre boot is 25 per cent bigger and matches the previous generation Golf, and eclipses the Mazda 3’s, despite being fitted with a bulky full-sized spare wheel, in a class loaded with space-savers and patch kits.
Following this theme, the back seats are also capacious, with sufficient headroom and legroom for 180cm tall occupants times-two, big side windows, door bottle holders and ISOFIX/top tether anchors. We’d call the Polo second-in-class to the van-like Honda Jazz.
The cabin mirrors the larger Golf in several key ways, notably the slick glass 8.0-inch touchscreen with smartphone-like swiping that houses Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The horizontally-aligned design is minimalist and borderline austere – though the octagonal coffee cup holders are fun – but most touch points are high end (the steering wheel even at base level is trimmed with leather) and built with reassuring solidity.
Given the entry Polo 70 TSI Trendline’s very reasonable $17,990 drive-away entry price – it bisects current offers on the top-selling Mazda 2 Neo and Maxx – it comes relatively well equipped, beyond the infotainment mentioned.
There’s city autonomous emergency braking (AEB) that recognises pedestrians and cars alike, a tyre pressure monitor, two USB ports, rear-view camera mounted Golf-like behind the flip-up boot badge, cruise control and A/C. There are also 15-inch steel wheels.
Jump up to the $20,490 drive-away Polo 85 TSI Comfortline and you get extras such as a bigger engine, 15-inch alloy wheels, auto headlights, rain-sensing auto windscreen wipers, a rearview mirror that dims at night, a front armrest and better quality seat cloth.
All versions get six airbags and 2017 ANCAP five-star crash ratings. The seven-speed DSG automatic transmission will add $2500 on both, above the base manual gearbox offerings (five-speed on the Trendline, six-speed on the Comfortline).
Atop this you can shell out another $1400 for something called the Driver Assistance package, on the Comfortline, that adds adaptive cruise control, an illuminating blind-spot monitor, automated parking assist with its own AEB program, power-folding mirrors and the Proactive Occupant Protection crash system.
This is all high-end stuff for a car at such a price point, though perhaps VW might do well to offer this package as an extra-cost option on the base Trendline as well? Especially considering it’s hardly ‘poverty pack’ and may be all the average punter wants/needs.
Finally, the $21,490 Polo Launch Edition adds 16-inch wheels, an inductive wireless smartphone charging pad, LED tail lights and dark window tint. This spec precedes the techy Polo Beats, sporty-looking R-Line and hotted-up GTI models lobbing in August.
There’s one engine option at launch, in two states of tune. Both cars get a tiny 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit that punches well above its weight by way of turbocharging. As Euro emissions caps become ever tighter, these engines will grow ever more mainstream.
In the Trendline you get 70kW of power and 175Nm of torque, from 2000rpm. Fuel use is a claimed 4.8-5.0L/100km with premium 95 RON fuel (91 RON Australian fuel is loaded with sulphur and can’t power many Euros), though we averaged 6.1L/100km.
It makes the signature three-pot ‘thrum’ under heavy throttle, which we like but takes acclimation, but what’s inarguable is the rich vein of torque (pulling power) from very early in the throttle pedal travel point.
This engine is a matched with a sweet-shifting and tall-geared five-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed DSG that’s had most of the typical low-speed jerkiness programmed out, and doesn’t roll back thanks to hill-hold assist. The $2500 impost is steep, though.
The Comfortline’s version of this engine has 85kW of power and 200Nm of torque, matching the old 1.4 90 TSI Golf’s latter figure. Again, it’s available at 2000rpm, while the fuel consumption penalty is negligible.
The gearboxes are a six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG. The 0-100km/h sprint time is 9.5 seconds, which is 1.3sec quicker than the 70 TSI’s time. Do you need more engine? No, you do not. You’ll sit at 110km/h ticking along like it’s no bother at all.
All Polos come with MacPherson-style strut front suspension and a rear torsion beam, electromechanical power steering and a 10.6m turning circle. The Comfortline has disc brakes all round, but the Trendline has rear drums.
The dynamic emphasis is on comfort and refinement. The Polo once again offers excellent tyre- and wind-noise suppression by class standards, and a softly-sprung loping ride character that absorbs corrugated urban roads and speed humps happily.
The steering is light for urban twirling but remains lifeless under more dynamic driving, while the body control and road holding is safe and understeer-y without ever being quite as nimble and agile as the otherwise-dated Ford Fiesta.
Will the target buyer care? Almost certainly not, because they’ll probably buy the 147kW/320Nm Polo GTI with its adaptive dampers and stiffer chassis come August. The Polo at launch is not the most fun to steer in class, but it’s certainly the most refined.
From an ownership perspective, the new Polo has excellent 12 month/15,000km service intervals that should limit your visits to once annually, with a capped price scheme keeping five years of services to $2400 all up, compared to $2850 for the old one.
By comparison, a lower-tech Toyota Yaris needs to be serviced twice per year, but its average annual visiting costs overall are 40 per cent cheaper ($140 per service, $280 per year). The Skoda Fabia costs $2078 over five years.
You also get three years of free roadside assistance 24/7, and typically solid resale value. However, we have taken an editorial stance that three-year warranties like that offered by Volkswagen are sub par. Arguments come and go, but one needs base principles.
Lesser-known Skoda has a five-year term, remember…
Yet the new Polo still moves on in every way from its predecessor, which stubbornly sat at the pointy end of the class even seven years into its life cycle.
Affordable? Yep. Refined and solid to drive, like a bigger car? Tick. Loaded with the latest tech at a reasonable impost? Clearly. Are we a broken record when it comes to recommending VW’s passenger car products? No doubt.
The Polo remains defiantly conservative to look at, but that has never hurt the Golf. Indeed, this grown-up entry model might be all the car you reasonably need. As for its direct competitors, they’ve got a mission ahead, to match up.