We know the Polo is capable, handsome and refined, but can it be fun? The base-model manual certainly makes a good fist of it.
We've done 19 reviews of the Volkswagen Polo, spanning 12 years and three model generations. Words like premium and sturdy come up a lot, along with comfortable and, this one's real, funkiness. Thanks to Paul Maric for that last one.
But fun or charming? Those words don't feature so highly. The base-model 70TSI Trendline we have here, complete with manual gearbox, could be the exception to the rule.
Before we get into why, let's take a look at the basics. Motivation comes from the same 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine offered in more expensive variants, albeit making 70kW of power and 175Nm of torque instead of the 85kW/200Nm on tap in the 85TSI.
Although a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is optional, our tester came with a five-speed manual. More expensive models get a sixth ratio, reinforcing the fact this is a true base model – or as close as Volkswagen gets in 2018.
There are a few other hints as to the 70TSI's humble billing, although they're few and far between. It rides on 15-inch steel wheels (steelies, if you're into that) with hubcaps, and the headlamps are fairly dull halogens.
When we say dull, we mean in both senses of the word: they're not that exciting to look at, and their high-beam performance is disappointingly dim. Not a dealbreaker in town, but something to keep in mind if you're spending time in the country. Thankfully, LED units will be available later in the year.
The only real indication you're driving a base model is the lack of a central armrest inside, along with the missing '6' on the gear knob. There's also manual air-conditioning in place of climate control, old-fashioned manual headlights and no wireless phone charging in the centre console. Given my iPhone is from 2015, that's no great loss.
An 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is standard, along with a reversing camera, Bluetooth music streaming and two USB ports, matching our Launch Edition long-termer for tech. The screen itself is clear and the infotainment is responsive to the touch, just like the systems in more expensive Volkswagen models.
You even get a leather steering wheel, not to mention niceties like city-speed auto-emergency braking and tyre-pressure monitoring. Those who want adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitoring will need to stump for the Comfortline, and pay $1400 for the Driver Assistance pack.
The cabin itself is well screwed together, although there are some hard materials to be found if you go searching down low. With a 78mm longer wheelbase than the outgoing model, the space on offer feels more Golf than Polo, too.
The driver's seat drops down low, the steering wheel has a huge range of reach/tilt adjustment, and the seats themselves blend comfort with all the sort of sturdy-feeling Euro-bolstering you could possibly expect of a base city hatch.
Taller rear passengers (think 180cm-plus) will find the rear seats usable, plus the full-size spare wheel clearly hasn't limited boot space, which is quoted at a TARDIS-like 351 litres. It can't quite match the Honda Jazz for load-lugging practicality, but the Polo isn't far behind.
Anyway, enough talk about the boring stuff. How does the cheapest Polo drive? The answer, predictably, is that it drives well – very well, in fact.
One look at that 70kW power figure (or the 10.8-second sprint to 100km/h) should be enough to tell you it isn't quick, but the engine is a determined little bugger, thrumming happily away in that endearing manner unique to three-cylinder engines. The noise never gets uncouth or uncomfortable and vibrations are well suppressed, lending it a refined feeling.
There's that word again, refined. Here's another one for you: paired with a manual, the engine is also fun.
We're not questioning the technical competence of the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission offered optionally ($2500) on this car. It shifts unbelievably fast on the move, is efficient on the highway and, if you're in the mood, drivers can pick their own ratios.
The manual should be immeasurably worse, but it just isn't. All the hallmarks of a Volkswagen Group gearbox – inoffensively light, user-friendly clutch and shortish throw – make it the perfect partner for the city, where these cars will spend most of their time.
There's a bit of a torque hole between first and second gear if you shift below about 3200rpm, and you can't just lean on the engine in higher gears. Overtakes at anything below about 60km/h require a shift back to third, and despite the trip computer's urging, it's not wise to push into fifth until highway speeds.
Don't be fooled into thinking this is a hardship, because it's all really good fun. You're never not flat-out in the 70TSI, and you can't just lean on in-gear torque to get where you need to go, which forces you to actually do some driving.
Swapping the DSG for a manual brings other benefits, too. There's none of the awkward low-speed hesitation we complain about in dual-clutch ’boxes in the manual, and Volkswagen Group's aggressive start/stop system – which cuts in at around 7km/h and kills power steering – is neutered, because it only activates when you let the clutch out in neutral.
Despite a heavy right foot and lots of time in traffic, we averaged 6.1L/100km during our week with the Polo, up on the official 4.8L/100km claim. 95RON is a requirement, by the way, adding to your long-term running costs.
James Wong has been running a dual-clutch Launch Edition for a month now, and most of his gripes are gearbox-related. The manual solves them all.
There are some complaints about the 70TSI manual, though. Wind noise is well suppressed and there's minimal tyre roar at highway speeds, but the lack of a sixth (let alone seventh) gear means the car feels a bit buzzier than higher-grade models cruising at 100 or 110km/h.
Missing out on rear disc brakes also rankles, even though most buyers won't notice the difference between discs and drums in their day-to-day driving. Keener drivers might be a bit disappointed to know it's not especially invigorating through the corners – but those people are likely to buy the Polo GTI when it arrives.
Like most of the Volkswagen range, it feels planted and stable, tending to safety instead of outright fun.
The steering is light and relatively quick for easy in-town manoeuvring, with a 10.6m turning circle perfect for all the quick U-turns and tight parallel parks you could possibly need. Given a reversing camera (which flips up from under the badge) is standard, there's really no excuse for scraped hubcaps or panels, unless another car is at fault. It's always someone else's fault, right?
When it comes to long-term ownership, the Polo needs maintenance every 12 months or 15,000km. Capped-price servicing means you'll pay a total of $2400 over five years, compared to $2078 for the Skoda Fabia or $1400 for the Toyota Yaris.
It's worth remembering that the Skoda offers a five-year warranty in place of the three years offered by Volkswagen.
So, is the base 70TSI worth the spend? Priced at $17,990 drive-away, it's $1000 more expensive than the base Mazda 2 manual in drive-away guise. The cabin is comfortable, the engine and gearbox are charming, and it feels more mature than any of its light-car rivals.
The lure of a sixth gear and 15kW more will be too strong for some, and people who want the Driver Assistance Package are forced to stump the extra $3000. I'd bank the extra cash and buzz around town in my base-model Polo. It's premium and sturdy, but more importantly it's fun.