Volkswagen Polo: Small favourite gets bigger
The world’s best small car just got a lot better. Not perfect, but better
The Volkswagen Polo has long forged a reputation as the car that sets the bar for small cars and the sixth generation, which will be manufactured in SA and will go on sale in the second quarter of 2018, is no different.
It has options for full digital instrument clusters, large, high-resolution infotainment screens, groundbreaking connectivity and the full raft of the MQB architecture’s safety systems. All of that pales into insignificance alongside the car’s sheer composure, sophistication and maturity of the powertrain, the ride and the handling.
The sixth-generation Polo is even better, stronger, bigger and safer, with more driver assistance systems and more digital frippery. It has morphed into a little big car with astonishing levels of ride, noise and powertrain sophistication.
It has grown again, adding 81mm in length to sit at 4,053mm as it moves across to VW’s ubiquitous MQB architecture, which hosts everything from the Golf to the Tiguan and the China/US/Russia Atlas SUV.
Though this is its smallest application, the Polo uses all of the stuff offered by the MQB’s mechanical and electronic systems and even debuts (as an expensive option) the next generation of VW’s digital instrument cluster. It offers self-parking for both parallel and 90° parks, city braking, active cruise control, lane-keeping systems and pedestrian warnings.
It does all of this in a car that has 92mm of metal added to the wheelbase (now at 2,548mm) and most of that has been given over to the rear seat’s occupants. Luggage capacity has also grown 71l, from 280 to 351. At 1,751mm, it’s 69mm wider, though the roof height has been lowered 7mm to 1,446mm.
So it’s bigger, but also more practical and it’s still economical and, at 1,105kg for the lightest version, it’s roughly line ball with its predecessor for weight.
VW insists the body design is a sight to behold and it probably is if you like your A0-sized hatchbacks looking distinctly like a quite famous other VW hatch that’s slightly bigger but a bit fresher. The proportions move away from the slightly long-nose stance of the Gen V version and towards more balance, important for the interior space.
The cargo area is a big step up. It fits a pair of carry-on roller bags lengthways or even a mighty big suitcase laid flat with space left over. It’s 705mm long and that can rise to 1,380mm with the 60:40 split-fold seats down, which they do with a much flatter layout than before.
The downside is that the Polo loses its false-floor that gave it a boost in practicality and allowed drivers to hide things they’d rather people didn’t see. The floor still lifts up, but there’s a spare 15-inch tyre in there now.
The rear seats are the primary beneficiaries of the bigger wheelbase, with more headroom despite the lower roofline and demonstrably more legroom than its predecessor. The front seats are the place to be, though. Everything is slightly tilted towards the driver, including the air-conditioning controls, which have been dropped down low in the centre console area.
The base cabin spec delivers a traditional pair of analogue dials, split by a small digital screen, but that can be replaced (at a significant cost) for an 11.7-inch digital instrument cluster. It’s clear and clean, with the ability to switch between views and which can be tailored.
On the same level as the dash, is an infotainment screen that can be either 6.5 or eight inches with three levels of sophistication, including a glass screen over the bigger units. They’re gesture control, with supplementary touchscreen options popping up as your fingers get closer.
VW also makes much of the connectivity of the Polo, which makes it even more odd that the standard car doesn’t come with a USB socket. Pay enough, and VW will deliver inductive charging for your cellphone.
There are disappointments, though. The plastic trim down low in the cabin feels a fair bit below premium and they’ve done away with overhead grab handles. CEO Herbert Deiss insists the decision was taken before he arrived in mid-2015, but it means the only grab handles are part of the armrests.
There are also some design bits and pieces, which VW has almost hidden cleverly, but not quite. Where the two pieces of colour for the dashboard meet, the bottom is separated by the steering column, but the top part has an angled seam that’s usually hidden from the driver by the steering wheel. But it’s not hidden from the passenger.
The Polo runs a raft of conventional powertrains and there are no immediate plans to electrify it. Instead, it will eventually receive some mild hybridisation to lower the petrol engines’ CO2 emissions, but for now they’ll be powered by petrol or diesel.
Local models have yet to be confirmed, but internationally the range will start with a pair of nonturbo, three-cylinder engines. The entry-level 1.0l has just 48kW of power and 95Nm of torque, which explains away the 15.5-second "sprint" to 100km/h, but doesn’t suggest why that might be slower than its predecessor.
The stronger of the two atmo three-pots has 55kW and the same 95Nm of torque (its power peak is higher than the 48kW car) and oozes through to 100km/h in 14.9 seconds. Not spritely. The more favourable option is the 70kW/ 175Nm turbocharged version of the same 999cc engine, which pulls the 0-100km/h time down to 10.8 seconds and rips a full 6.5 seconds off the fourth-gear burst from 80-120km/h.
The good, strong, smooth engine fits right in to the new Polo’s mind-boggling levels of sophistication and maturity, without losing the vocal character of the warbling three-cylinder layout. It’s unmistakable for its maturity, firing up evenly and cleanly and VW has done a remarkable job of isolating its inherent vibrations from the cabin and the driver’s seat.
It’s a lot stronger than the paperwork suggests, too, with our urban-heavy drive programme showing the Polo could comfortably pace city traffic, pull strongly away from lights, punch into small traffic gaps and do it all with ease.
While the poverty pack Polos use five-speed manual gearboxes, the turbo 70kW version comes with either the stick shifter or a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. With more gears to spread the workload, the DSG car posts the same acceleration figures and its claimed fuel consumption rises from 4.4l/100km to 4.6, almost certainly down to its beltline burgeoning from 1,145kg to 1,180kg.
Interestingly, it reaches up to 187km/h, the same top speed as the original Golf GTi. We didn’t have enough unlimited autobahn to hit those heights, but we climbed easily beyond 160 and the car was rock solid, stable and comfortable.
There are other engines coming and we also managed some seat time in the 85kW version of this same turbocharged three-cylinder motor, plus the 70kW turbodiesel that punches mightily but is an engine technology on its last legs. It’s still smooth and far stronger for in-gear acceleration than the petrol cars, but it’s also more expensive and it’s a fuel that, for city-focused cars, is increasingly being frowned upon.
Above that there is the new 1.5l turbocharged four-cylinder engine, with cylinder-on-demand and a raft of other high-tech (and expensive) stuff for 110kW, then there’s the 2.0l Polo GTi with 147kW.
It’s the chassis that has taken a big step forward. VW claims its torsional rigidity has improved plus it runs a four-link rear suspension and has adjustable dampers as an option. It helps the ride quality that giant wheels and tyres aren’t anywhere near the Polo. It doesn’t matter that you know this is coming from the same MQB that is so impressive beneath the Golf and the Arteon and Tiguan and Passat. It’s so good as a ride package on rough city streets that you can only sit back in astonishment.
Cabin noise levels are surprisingly low for a C-segment car, much less an A0 car.
The steering is a bit lifeless, but neatly accurate and fast enough for rapid, city work and comfortable on highways, and the brakes are strong and the driving position is near perfect.
But whatever else you take away from the Polo will fall away into relative insignificance when you notice the things that should be happening beneath you on typical roads, but aren’t.
It wouldn’t matter what levels of connectivity Volkswagen put into the car, if this was all it did well. Because it does it like no other small car out there.