2018 Polo — bold bestseller bulks up
Did Volkswagen make the world’s best small car better or just heavier?
The world of small cars has traditionally had one benchmark — and that benchmark has just taken a big leap forward.
The Volkswagen Polo has just moved on to its sixth generation, becoming not only bigger inside and out in every way than the Mk5 Polo, but surpassing the 1997 Golf Mk4 in most critical dimensions too.
VW promises the new Polo will introduce groundbreaking safety systems into the A0 segment when it arrives in SA early in 2018, including emergency braking, pedestrian recognition, active cruise control and lane-keeping assist, while also adding optional parking assistance.
By moving the Polo onto the smallest version of the Golf’s MQB architecture, the company has introduced the front-drive small car into the world of the Golf and Passat parts modules, so it also scores a digital instrument cluster as an option.
Headlined by the 147kW 2.0l GTi, the Polo remains VW’s second biggest selling car in Europe, though it slipped behind the Tiguan to rank third globally. In SA it dominates the passenger car market, a statistic that swells even more when you add in the previous generation, which is now badged as the Polo Vivo. Such has been the strength of the Polo Mk5 that it was still the biggest selling small car in the world and the 15th biggest selling vehicle overall in the first quarter of 2017, attracting 148,331 people a full eight years after its introduction in 2009.
"The Polo is a young, fresh car," says Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess. "It combines charisma with strong technology. No other car offers so much space for its size. This makes our Polo the number one compact and it will remain number one."
The new generation’s competition will mainly come from the Ford Fiesta and the Renault Clio, though the Clio isn’t a global player. While the Fiesta ranked 23rd in the first quarter of 2017 to be the second biggest selling small car worldwide, the third spot globally went to Honda’s Jazz/Fit. None of them, though, has sold anything like the Polo’s 14-million unit figure.
The move to the all-conquering MQB architecture sees it stretched almost everywhere, crashing through the four-metre barrier for the first time in its history. It grows 81mm in length to 4,053mm, while its wheelbase grows 94mm to 2,564mm.
Those two dimensions alone demonstrate the Polo will run shorter overhangs than its predecessor, particularly at the front, and will offer more rear legroom with a stretch of almost 10cm between the front and rear wheels. It also gains another 15mm of front headroom and 21mm more in the rear.
VW’s designers claim the other key dimension is that, at 1,446mm, it is only 7mm higher, which enabled them to give it a sportier, leaner look.
Its front and rear track widths have been stretched out 62mm and 49mm respectively, while the wheel sizes range from 14 to 16 inches, with the GTi using 17-inch wheels and tyres.
Its luggage space has ballooned by 25% from 280l to 351l, which surpasses even the 330l capacity of the Golf Mk4.
"The new Polo brings the future to the compact class," says Volkswagen’s board member for development, Frank Welsch. "A whole lot of space, based on the modular transverse matrix, sustainable engines like a new natural gas TGI [not planned for SA], the world premiere of a new generation of the Active Info Display, the latest infotainment systems and forward-thinking assistance systems — these qualities enable this VW to overcome traditional class boundaries."
Volkswagen design director Klaus Bischoff says: "The much better proportions create the framework for a grown-up, confident appearance of the sixth-generation Polo — charismatic, progressive, contemporary and friendly.
"We have systematically capitalised on this realignment of dimensions to build a compelling compact car.
"This Volkswagen can immediately be made out as the original of its class, but also as a completely new generation."
It will begin life internationally with five petrol engines, two diesels and a gas-powered model, though there are plans for hybrid and full battery-electric versions in the future.
All the internal combustion engines will sit across the engine bay in a front-wheel drive layout, with Welsch confirming there has been no provision made for all-wheel drive despite the Mk5 Polo winning four consecutive World Rally Championships. The base engines, at least in Europe, will be three-cylinder, 1.0l units with multipoint fuel injection and either 48kW or 55kW of power, combined with five-speed manual gearboxes.
Two direct injection versions of the 1.0l three-cylinder motor will chime in next, with either 70kW or 85kW of power. While they share a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox as an option, the 70kW version has a five-speed manual and the 85kW Polo gets a six-speeder.
The only two petrol-powered four-cylinder engines are expensive to build, starting with the 1.5l, cylinder-on-demand four from the Golf Mk 7.5, with 110kW of power, and moving to the flagship Polo GTi’s 147kW 2.0l engine.
The motors also have either six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions. There will be two diesels, too, both variants on the 1.6l four-cylinder layout.
The entry-level diesel has 59kW of power and a five-speed manual gearbox, while the 70kW version has either the base car’s manual gearbox or a seven-speed dual clutch.
One new bit of tech to the Polo is an optional keyless locking and engine start system, derived from the Golf.
But it’s the assistance systems that will deliver much of the Polo’s real-world safety improvements, derived from larger, more expensive Volkswagens. The active cruise control is similar to the system in the Golf and Passat, complete with stop-and-go for the DSG-equipped cars, despite its old-school manual parking brake.
It can be used at up to 210km/h, which is a bit of over-engineering given two thirds of the Polo range couldn’t be convinced to go that fast without a mineshaft handy (though Volkswagen hasn’t confirmed top speeds).
While many of the advanced systems will be optional on upper-level cars, even the base versions will have City Emergency Braking and Pedestrian Monitoring to alert the driver of people or stationary traffic and then brake.
There are also optional systems such as blind-spot detection and a semi-automated parking system.
While Bischoff’s team clearly worked hard to make the Polo’s exterior crisp and feel longer and leaner, it’s the interior work that stands out. The adoption of the optional digital screen pushes the technology down to new lows on the pricing ladder, while the infotainment screens range from 6.5 inches to eight inches.
VW has joined the two digital screens together to form one extended panel that stretches across two thirds of the dash.
The move has forced the central face vents down to become central navel vents, though the outboard vents remain at face height while the air-conditioner’s controls move down as well.
The car not only connects with Car-Net via MirrorLink, Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay but they are joined by VW’s internal "We by Volkswagen" digital user platform.
It will launch with three standard trim lines, including Trendline, Comfortline and Highline, plus a Beats edition with a higher-end sound system.