Volkswagen's latest Polo has proven itself a compact bundle of goodness. But can two reviewers agree on what's good and what misses the mark?
"Substance and depth" is how we described the all-new Volkswagen Polo range at its Aussie launch. "A city car for grown-ups."
Since then, we've assessed the enjoyment factor of the entry 70TSI manual ($17,990 drive-away) – "premium, sturdy and fun" – and parked the top-shelf Launch Edition ($21,490 list) in our garage for the long haul and, in early appraisal, have found the compact hatch to be "truly cavernous". We've also spun a twin test, pitching the 85TSI Comfortline auto ($22,990 drive-away) against the Mazda 2 GT hatch, the German "a class above" in dispatching its Japanese rival.
Which brings us to our garage review of the fully optioned 85TSI Comfortline. And the strong risk of parroting familiar themes and repeating ourselves. This time out, two reviewers – Rob Margeit and yours truly – were dispatched to appraise the Polo in an effort to break an increasingly predictable narrative because, frankly, we editorial types take argumentation as serious sport. If one of us finds reasons to like, the other will unearth reasons to counter.
No, we're not baying for blood, just searching for some counterpoint; a little bit of devil's advocacy.
Let's start with pricing. When you can drive the basic Polo 70TSI manual away from the dealership for just $17,990, our upper-crust auto version's $24,890 drive-away price – almost a 40 per cent premium – starts to not only look steep in isolation, but it's fast approaching Golf 110TSI DSG territory ($26,490 drive-away). That nigh-on $25K price point comes about taking a 85kW Comfortline baseline ($19,490) and stacking it with the auto transmission ($2500), Driver Assistance Package ($1400) and cost-optional silver paintwork ($500).
The Comfortline equipment suite isn't exactly brimming with equipment, though, nor does it lack for needs in an around-the-town package. You get low-speed autonomous emergency braking, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring, a reversing camera, cruise control, auto headlights and wipers, a leather-trimmed wheel and decent cloth trim.
The Driver Assistance pack might seem like an indulgent splurge, but you don't get the Polo's full safety surety unless you fork out that extra $1400. Leaving that box unchecked loses Proactive Occupant safety protocols, blind-spot monitoring with rear traffic alert, and the Front Assist with low-speed City Emergency Braking, but you do get goodies such as adaptive cruise and electric folding mirrors. Oh, there's also parallel and perpendicular parking assistance as well, though if you struggle to park a city car in the city, it might well be time to trade in your licence for a bus pass...
Other options? Slick digital driver's instrumentation is bundled into a Sound and Vision pack ($1900) that also brings Beats 300W audio and Discover infotainment, while a sportier R-Line appearance pack can be had for a further investment ($1500).
Your co-critics agree that you don’t have to squint too hard for the differences in appearance between the Polo and Golf to become quite blurry.
Rob: "Depending on your viewpoint, it is either a good or bad thing. Some larger design differentiation between the Polo and Golf wouldn’t go astray. It’s certainly a stylish take on the city car, although those hard creases can be polarising. Personally, I’d like to see it on 16-inch alloys as per the Launch Edition, if only to provide a hint more sportiness."
No, it's not the sportiest look on the block, but the crease frenzy, the bolder wheel arch lip shape and slimmer C-pillars all conspire towards a properly mature look. It's certainly the most grown-up-looking compact hatchback around. It’s quite a clever design: large in wheelbase to afford the largest possible cabin space, if short and stubby in the nose and in the tail to cap its overall size. And those 15-inch alloy wheels and balloon tyres, while not doing aesthetics any favours, must surely reap a benefit in ride quality by adding an extra sheen of comfort across crook urban roads.
Climb in and the cabin design is mature if stolid and a little cheerless. In Europe, you can get all manner of (optional) interesting and bold colour combinations, but the default grey and black design in Oz is neat and safe – inoffensive, but the lack of colour is bordering on dour. At least everything is clear and legible for those of us with increasingly dodgy eyesight.
The build to cost is evident is some areas – almost the entire door trims are hard, shiny plastic – but there’s some extra effort in the right places, particularly in the neat upmarket steering wheel and slick, glassy infotainment screen. The seat fabric is a little workmanlike, though the contours and support of the seats themselves are excellent.
Rob: "The back row is surprisingly spacious for a small car, and comfortable. It seems incongruous, though, that a sizable transmission tunnel impinges on foot room in the second row, despite the Polo’s front-wheel-drive underpinnings. Still, it’d be a brave Polo owner filling the second row with three average-sized humans for anything other than a short trip – not if they want to maintain lasting friendships."
Agreed. Thanks to decent knee and head room, it’s a great car for loading adults in four-up, which is a rarity in the compact class. And if you’re using the Polo for the children's or grandchildren's school run, there’s a lot of glass area so the kids aren’t going to feel claustrophobic. Problem is, there’s not much passenger support in the rear. No air vents in the rear of the console – there are floor vents, but you don’t breathe through your feet – nor USB ports. Cupholders in the door and that’s about it.
While 351 litres is a large volume by segment and in comparison to Polo forebears, by generic measure it’s practicable rather than overly generous. Handy for groceries, say. The full-size spare wheel is a real bonus within a segment where most competitors make do with space-savers or repair/inflation kits only. In short, not much to gripe about here.
On the move, the 1.0-litre three-pot is a polarising unit. It initially feels punchier than you expect, and there’s certainly enough poke on tap to avert frustration. But one man’s or woman’s ‘rort’ for the engine’s character is another’s ‘gruff’. Under load it could be mistaken as a diesel.
Rob: "Diesel you say? I’m firmly in the ‘rort’ camp on this one. That 1.0-litre three-pot happily sings for its supper, growling nicely when pushed. It’s no fighter jet, but it’s perky enough to have some fun, or get out of some tight situations where a bit of acceleration is needed."
For my money, the dual-clutch seven-speed is one of the smoother and more seamless units from the VAG parts bin crop that occasionally turns out grumpier, less-cooperative transmissions. No paddle-shifter tomfoolery, though the Polo certainly doesn’t suffer because of it. That's certainly not a stance Rob entirely agrees upon...
Rob: "Maybe it’s me, but I encountered some hesitation from that DSG unit down low. Once on the move, it works seamlessly, but take-off was often blighted by some indecision. Shuffling the gear selector to S – for Sport – mode, did little to quell that lag. The only remedy was switching to manual mode and using the gear selector to control your own destiny."
There's certainly some indecision about the 85TSI powertrain. Advice? It's one area worth taking particular focus with when test-driving any Polo.
It’s quite a fun thing to punt around town. The steering is sweet, light and direct, the suspension is slightly firm yet ride comfort is tempered by those balloon-like 15-inch tyres, and it feels well sorted and low in compromise. There are no adaptive suspension smarts – though, like the paddle-shifters, it doesn’t lack by their omission.
Rob: "DSG lag at take-off aside, it is a fun thing to belt around town, with perky throttle response once on the move. The ride is nicely settled, the Polo absorbing imperfections and bumps with aplomb. And speed bumps, that bane of inner-city existence, are dispatched with ease, the Polo settling quickly back into its thrummy rhythm.
"And its svelte proportions are enough to consign any neuroses about parking to the bin..."
Am I the only pundit slightly put off by the Polo's increased size? Perhaps so. There's a certain joy in proper city-car compactness – it's just easier to slice and dice the urban environment with. By making the Polo seem Golf-sized, you immediately removed a key point of difference that for some smaller-car fans was, and is, an attraction.
The flipside is that for a technically compact car, the Polo is impressively planted and settled once you hit the open road. And its quiet-running and refined nature while doing so means that it's a joy to clock up serious seat time bombing along motorways or making beelines cross-country. It plays the tourer convincingly, like few rival city cars could.
The three-year warranty isn’t exactly generous, though you do get free 24/7 roadside assist for that duration. Servicing intervals are 12-month/15,000km, with pricing capped for the first five years at a total outlay of $2400.
Rob: "There’s also the five-star ANCAP rating, issued in 2017."
In conclusion, the only area where the Polo 85TSI Comfortline divided opinion by any reasonable measure was the powertrain – specifically, the vibe of the engine and the co-operation of the DSG transmission. And if there remains a lingering question about the Polo – in higher spec and pricier prospectus – it's whether you'd be better off opting for a similarly priced if lower-spec Golf instead. Perhaps another test for another day, then.
On singular merit, the Polo remains very impressive, offers broad appeal, and doesn't really exhibit shortcomings of major concern in any critical areas. What this latest test has further anchored is the growing belief around the CarAdvice traps that this new generation has lobbed as the most mature offering in the compact class, and looks to maintain its class-act status for overall goodness.