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Not everyone wants the cheapest city car they can afford. To find out which small car is worth spending (relatively) big money on, we pitch the new Volkswagen Polo 85TSI Comfortline against the flagship Mazda 2 GT.

If the Volkswagen Polo hasn’t been the biggest vehicle in the city car segment, it has always been one of the most grown-up. In a category renowned for cars appealing to a youthful demographic with a blend of cute/funky styling and budget pricing, the German urban car has consistently been conservatively designed and relatively expensive.

The Polo has historically compensated with driving manners and extra equipment more akin to the next class up. And even the first model here, the 1996 Mark 3, was notable for its dual front airbags, central locking, CD player, and power windows and mirrors.

High pricing goes some way to explaining why Volkswagen’s smallest car (with the exception of the 2012–2014 Up!) took so long to pique the interest of Australian buyers.

A decade after its arrival, the Polo’s market share was just over one per cent, and it wasn’t until 2014 that it broke five per cent (6.4 per cent) – and even that was partly attributed to VFACTS splitting the segment into micro cars and light cars.

In 2015, however, VW Oz sold nearly 10,000 Polos for the first time, and last year the late-cycle model was still the fifth most popular in its class – outselling big names such as the Ford Fiesta, Holden Barina and Suzuki Swift.

So, what can the newly arrived sixth-generation Polo achieve with its promise of being more of a junior Golf than ever – with greater refinement, upgraded features and an even bigger body bringing even more interior space?

The Mazda 2 GT is a perfect opponent for the posh Polo. It’s a flagship variant that was introduced only last year, and could almost have been a pre-emptive strike against the baby Vee-Dub.

The GT doesn’t add any equipment over a Genki trim grade, but instead aims to give the Mazda 2 a more premium feel by adding extra lashings of leather to create a more luxurious interior.

CarAdvice sets out to discover which is the smartest city car in more ways than one.


PRICE & EQUIPMENT

Volkswagen Australia hasn’t traditionally been interested in positioning the Polo as one of the segment’s cheapest options, so there’s no surprise seeing the base-model Trendline 70TSI starting at $17,990 – $2000 above an entry-level Mazda, for example.

And our Polo here, the 85TSI Comfortline, is $1200 costlier than the former 81TSI Comfortline: from $19,490 in six-speed-manual form, or from $21,990 with a seven-speed (DSG) dual-clutch auto.

(For now, there’s also a short-term Launch Edition with extra exterior features plus wireless charging, before the $22,490-upwards Beats special edition and $30,990 GTI hot-hatch variant arrive as permanent additions mid-year.)

Based on advertised retail prices, that gives the Polo a clear advantage over the Mazda 2 GT that costs from either $21,690 (six-speed manual) or $23,680 (six-speed auto). For no extra cost, Mazda buyers can opt for a sedan body style over the hatch.

Volkswagen Australia also continues a recent trend for aggressive drive-away pricing. The Trendline’s $17,990 price is unchanged with on-road costs included, while the 85TSI jumps by just a grand to $22,990.

The budgeting waters are muddied slightly if that deal ends on June 30 as advertised, as the manufacturer websites indicate VW’s on-road charges are a fair bit higher than the Mazda’s.

However, it’s worth noting VW held drive-away specials for more than 12 months after they were introduced on the last Polo’s face-lifted range. And this fact can always be used as leverage when negotiating.

A cross-check of the respective equipment lists is needed to properly determine which car is offering the best on-paper value.

The GT, as you would expect for a range-topper, is fairly loaded with features. Most are shared with the Genki trim grade, with the GT adding just upgraded cabin upholstery and materials for its $900-higher price tag.

Starting with the exterior, it sits on 16-inch alloy wheels and features electrically folding side mirrors, daytime running lights, LED fog lights, rain sensor, rear sensors, and LED headlights. Metallic paint is also inclusive (with the exception of the $300 Soul Red), whereas it’s a $500 addition on the Polo (unless you like plain white).

Highlights inside the Mazda 2 include satellite navigation, keyless start, head-up display, a 7.0-inch MZD touchscreen infotainment system, and blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.

The Polo 85TSI has only halogen headlights and misses out on fogs, sensors, keyless start, head-up display and, surprisingly, factory navigation. Its wheels are an inch smaller (and not as stylish as the GT’s, in our view). Metallic paint is $500 – and effectively mandatory, unless you want plain white.

Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) features on both; the Mazda’s works front and rear, the VW’s includes pedestrian detection.

In the advantage-Polo column are fatigue and tyre pressure monitoring systems, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, front armrest, heated side mirrors, and a larger (8.0-inch) touchscreen set-up that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. That compensates partially, though not fully in our view, for the VW’s lack of nav’.

Our test Polo included a $1400 Driver Assistance Package that’s needed to match the Mazda 2 GT’s blind-spot and cross-traffic sensors (and electric folding mirrors), though it also includes rare-for-the-segment adaptive cruise control as well as semi-automatic (self-steering) parking. With front and rear sensors also part of the package, there’s no excuse for bad parking!

(The optional package, as with the previous Polo range, isn’t available on the base Trendline model.)

The package is a good investment as current pricing stands, because you can add that and metallic paint and be spending only a couple of hundred dollars extra over the Mazda. However, you’re also then starting to look at an outlay that could get you into a Golf


INTERIOR COMFORT & PRACTICALITY

The Mazda 2’s GT variant was introduced in April 2017 as part of the first major update for this second-generation Mazda 2, launched in 2014. Its sole purpose was to ramp up the premium feel of the city car’s cabin, adding rather posh-looking white-leather-with-black-cloth upholstery and extra soft-touch padding to the dash and doors.

As well as complementing the leather applied to the gear lever gaiter, handbrake and steering wheel, it also gels well with the Mazda 2’s stylish circular air vents.

Hard plastics are hardly inconspicuous, though, and the trio of round heating/ventilation dials and window switches don’t share the same feeling of expense as the GT’s seats and extra padding.

The driving position isn’t perfect, either, because the overly short swabs of the front seats create a lack of under-thigh support – and a sense of sitting perched on the edge.

Opening the Polo’s driver door doesn’t immediately suggest a more upmarket cabin: the only soft-touch element is the door armrest. The window and mirror switches look smarter, though, and all windows are one-touch up/down – an unexpected feature in this class.

Impressions are then bolstered by the dash, which is dominated by the dark-tinted 8.0-inch touchscreen familiar from bigger, pricier Volkswagens, and is enriched by marshmallowy plastics in the middle and top sections.

The touchscreen is blended classily into the instrument panel via a glossy black surround, and there’s a smart look to the transmission surround and the dark matt-grey central dash strip.

And while the Polo 85TSI’s seats are black cloth only, they’re infinitely more comfortable – and certainly better suited to longer drives with their superior under-thigh support. It’s manual seat adjustments all around, though, despite the higher price points of these two city cars.

The Mazda’s rear bench is similar to the front seats – too short in the cushion – and you’ll find more leg room in a Jetstar economy seat. Head room is a bit more generous, though overall the back seat is almost a no-go zone if you’re six-feet tall or more.

Storage is woefully limited – no door bins or armrest, just one map pocket and a square tray at the back of the rear console.

While the Polo is 7mm shorter than the Mazda 2, its axles are spaced 22mm further apart through a longer wheelbase. Its knee-space advantage seems to be more than that, though, while head room and foot room are also more accommodating for taller passengers.

A nicely angled bench allows passengers to sit in, rather than on, the outer seats, and while sharing the Mazda’s lack of vents and armrest, there are two map pockets and decent-sized door bins.

The VW’s storage is better up front, too, with a centre stack tray, two (octagonally shaped) cupholders, mini coin tray, door bins that will hold large bottles, and a front centre armrest that doubles as a (tall) console bin. The latter gives you an option for hiding valuables that the Mazda doesn’t.

Mazda’s centre console features two cupholders and the aforementioned square tray, and there’s small storage below the centre stack. The door bins aren’t as generously sized.

Both hatches provide 60-40 folding seatbacks. With them upright, the Volkswagen completes its position as the better-packaged vehicle with a 351-litre boot that beats the capacity of a Mazda 3 (308L), let alone the Mazda 2 (250L).

The cargo floor is more in line with the loading lip, too, for easier loading/unloading, and includes a full-size spare wheel underneath, whereas the Mazda 2 provides only a space-saver.

Some extra colour wouldn’t hurt the Comfortline’s highly mature presentation, though the upcoming Beats version will have greater appeal for younger buyers with a black and Energetic Orange interior trim, and exterior options such as bonnet stripes (and a 300W Beats audio system that inspires the variant name).


INFOTAINMENT + CONNECTIVITY

Much of the Polo’s increased visual poshness stems from its richly and slickly presented Discover Media 8.0-inch touchscreen, but it’s not just about form.

The expensive-looking display and smart graphics are supported by logical layouts and quick response to touches. There’s also a proximity sensor that cleverly brings up extra selection options when your hand approaches the screen.

VW’s App-Connect gives you the option to mirror your smartphone’s interface via Apple CarPlay, Android Auto or Mirror Link. The absence of a standard nav’ system makes it a particularly important feature on the 85TSI.

The Polo’s six-speaker audio sounds surprisingly good (for this segment), and is of a much higher quality than the Mazda’s six-speaker system – especially when comparing streamed music, where some background static afflicts the Mazda 2’s sound.

Mazda has also yet to introduce smartphone mirroring technology, while it took longer to pair a phone in the Mazda 2 (not for the first time in a Mazda).

Like the Polo, its front centre console includes a 12-volt socket, two USB ports, and an SD-card slot. The Mazda 2 adds an AUX port.

The Japanese brand’s MZD Connect display’s graphics aren’t as sharp as the VW’s, and are contained in a slightly smaller (7.0-inch) screen that protrudes out of the dash rather than being integrated.

It still presents well, and a rotary controller/joystick plus shortcut buttons on the centre console provides an entirely intuitive way to select functions (and avoid fingerprint smudges common to the Polo’s display).

It’s rather odd, however, that the touchscreen can’t be used on the move as an alternative to the controller, while the response to touches can be tardy.

If the Polo doesn’t look sufficiently sophisticated already, an Active Info Display will become available later this year – giving the city car a digital instrument panel available not just in bigger VWs, but also related to Audi’s fancy Virtual Cockpit. It will form part of a $1900 Sound and Vision Package.


RIDE AND HANDLING

The Volkswagen Group’s highly flexible MQB modular component set is designed to save costs by being spread across a vast range of variously sized Audi, VW, Skoda and Seat passenger cars and SUVs.

It also helps to bring consistency to the way the products drive, and it doesn’t take long behind the wheel of the new Polo – based on the compact A0 set of MQB – to sense you’re in a car related to the Golf and Passat.

Road- and wind-noise suppression is hugely impressive, while you can strain your ears and still fail to hear a squeak or rattle from the robustly constructed cabin.

The Polo’s steering is effortlessly light (if numb), making it both easy and a pleasure to guide the little VW around streets or on country roads. And if handling isn’t the last word in dynamics, the Polo is still enjoyably assured on winding roads with tidy body control and plenty of tyre grip. Traits shared with many other VWs, then.

If there’s one surprise, it’s that the ride isn’t as supple as expected. There’s no crashing or major intrusions, but the suspension can be noisy and feel overly stiff at times – leading to some fidgeting on less-than-stellar road surfaces.

Mazda made some tweaks to the Mazda 2 as part of the same 2017 update that introduced the GT. They included a softening of the suspension and increased noise insulation. The former seems more successful than the latter.

The GT’s 16-inch rubber doesn’t need much speed or particularly bad surfaces before it’s introducing a rumble to the cabin.

The Mazda’s ride isn’t a paragon of supreme smoothness, either, especially across road joins. But it’s equally adept at cushioning occupants over potholes and other big surface indents – while doing it more quietly. Its cabin also feels as solidly built as the Volkswagen’s.

Quick directional changes point to the Mazda 2 as the slightly better-balanced car, though the Mazda’s steering lacks crispness around the straight-ahead position. This results in the driver needing to make lots of tiny steering wheel inputs, even on relatively straight roads such as freeways, whereas the Polo driver would barely be conscious about the steering.

Importantly for city cars, both the Mazda 2 and VW Polo feel agile around town thanks to tight turning circles.


PERFORMANCE

A 1.5-litre four-cylinder has been a feature of Mazda city cars going back to the Mazda 2’s predecessor, the 121 Metro, which was also available with a smaller, 1.3-litre engine. The Mazda 2 is available with two 1.5-litres in two states of tune: 79kW/139Nm and 81kW/141Nm.

The GT, naturally, gets the fractionally more powerful unit. And it’s a willing performer, if sprightlier off the line than it is through the gears.

Extra zest is possible by flicking a Sport switch to enliven the six-speed auto, though this is best left to country roads as the driving experience is otherwise too noisy and jerky around town.

The auto, like so many Mazda transmissions, is well calibrated to extract the most from the small-capacity engine. On hill climbs, for example, the six-speeder cleverly holds a gear to compensate for the shortage of low-rev grunt.

The Polo may have grown in size, but its engine has gone in the opposite direction. Whereas previously you chose from a range of petrol and diesel four-cylinders between 1.2 and 1.6 litres, now there’s a 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder. Buy a Trendline 70TSI and you get a 70kW/175Nm version; the 85TSI’s higher tune brings 85kW and 200Nm.

If the 85TSI’s power isn’t far above the Mazda 2 GT’s output, torque is significantly higher – and it’s produced between 2000 and 3500rpm, whereas the Mazda’s 141Nm peak doesn’t arrive until 4000rpm.

It provides a vastly stronger mid-range that makes the Polo 85TSI a surprisingly effective overtaking machine. The engine is also surprisingly quiet under hard acceleration, when a lovely characteristic three-pot hum becomes an aural bonus.

Volkswagen quotes 9.5 seconds for the 85TSI’s 0–100km/h – two-tenths slower than the former 1.2-litre turbo 81TSI, though still very quick in the context of city cars (and only 1.3 seconds shy of the Golf 110TSI). Mazda doesn’t provide performance figures for the Mazda 2.

Refinement isn’t perfect, as occasionally the 1.0-litre emits a diesel-like rattle, and the engine would feel more spirited if the DSG auto wasn’t seemingly programmed to upshift into as high a gear as possible in the shortest amount of time possible

The healthy torque generally ensures that’s fine, though on hills it’s not uncommon for the auto to climb through the gears before realising it needs to drop one again. It does so smoothly, though, while switching the auto to S (sport) brings livelier response. That can help overcome some of the engine’s turbo lag at low revs, though not necessarily the DSG auto’s continuing tendency to hesitate in some low-speed scenarios.

It’s also tempting to switch off the Polo’s stop-start system, because it seems to take a second or two for the dual-clutch to engage after the engine has fired back into life – leading to a slightly embarrassingly slow reaction to taking off at traffic lights, for example.

There’s hill-start assist, though, so the Polo won’t roll back on a hill from a stationary position, and you can do three-point turns without having to frustratingly engage/disengage a Hill Hold button. Or you could just buy the six-speed manual and save yourself $2500 in the process.

It’s fractionally thirstier than the DSG – 5.1 versus 5.0 litres per 100km – but either way, the Polo is among the most fuel-efficient cars in the class. As is the Mazda 2, which is in the same ballpark as the VW: 5.2 litres per 100km (manual) and 4.9L/100km (auto).


RUNNING COSTS

Those figures place both the Mazda 2 and Polo among the most fuel-efficient in the city car class. The Mazda will be cheaper to fuel, though, as its 1.5-litre can run on regular unleaded, whereas premium petrol is recommended for the Volkswagen.

Both models would be expected to have good resale values for the segment, too, and Mazda and Volkswagen share three-year warranties that seem miserly when much longer peace-of-minds are being offered by a number of other brands.

Servicing a Mazda 2 costs less annually and across a five-year capped-price program. Yearly services cost either $289 or $317, depending on vehicle age/mileage.

Volkswagen’s annual services costs range between $307 and $834, again depending on where the car is in its cycle. That equates to a $2404 total over five years compared with $1501 for the Mazda.

A caveat for the Mazda, though, is that its annual mileage service limit is 10,000km, whereas the VW’s is 15,000km.


VERDICT

Mazda’s GT variant succeeds in giving the Mazda 2 a quasi-luxury vibe with its liberal use of extra white leather. The smartly presented interior even reminded us of a recent stint in a Mazda 6 Atenza sedan.

The GT also provides plenty of price-justifying features beyond its processed animal skin – including many the Polo 85TSI can’t match.

The Mazda 2 is also among the most fun city cars to drive, especially out on the open road.

If cabin space isn’t a priority – and city cars are predominantly driven with single occupancy – it would be understandable why buyers would prefer it to an entry-level Mazda 3 that’s fractionally cheaper but comes with less gear.

Interior room and boot space, however, should still be much better for what is among the few members of the four-metre-plus city car club. Seat comfort doesn’t do justice to the lovely leather upholstery, either.

Mazda’s MZD Connect system isn’t the complete article, either, not least because it continues to lack smartphone-mirroring functionality.

And while the GT’s 1.5-litre and auto are a sufficiently effective combination around town, there are times you wish you could use the Sport mode in urban driving without compromising smoothness.

If VW could fully cure its DSG auto’s chronic low-speed issues, the Polo 85TSI would offer a truly brilliant drivetrain rather than one that is very good. When the Polo is underway, it has the sizeable performance advantage to zip into traffic gaps that would be touch-and-go in the Mazda, while also providing greater overtaking confidence.

Add in the Polo’s greater overall refinement, and it’s a rare city car that feels at home on the freeway.

Ride quality isn’t quite up to the lofty standards we’ve come to expect from compact Volkswagens – including the last Polo, the now-discontinued Up! and the Golf – though as with the Mazda 2, it provides adequate comfort.

Whether the Polo is good value or not depends on how long Volkswagen’s drive-away deals last. There are several rivals, including the Mazda 2 GT, that may cost a little bit more than the 85TSI, but they offer significant extra features – including standard navigation, bigger wheels, and LED headlights.

Volkswagen also seems to have missed an opportunity to make a statement with a notable standard feature – such as the wireless charging featured on the Launch Edition – while the 85TSI isn’t available with some of the more colourful exterior and interior colours of the Launch and Beats versions.

Yet while the sixth-generation Polo isn’t perfect, it’s once again a strong all-rounder – employing a familiar, and formidable, formula of gender-neutral design, sound driving manners, excellent infotainment, and a classy, spacious and practical interior.

And if you are willing to pay small-car money for a city car, it’s helpful when that vehicle feels like it’s from a class above.

MORE: Mazda 2 news, reviews, comparisons and videos
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VOLKSWAGEN POLO BREAKDOWN

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MAZDA 2 BREAKDOWN

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