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Volkswagen’s ever-sensible supermini gets even more grown-up as the Polo hits its fifth decade, but can it take top honours?

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Since the 1976 original Volkswagen Polo reached these shores as a rebadged Audi 50, Volkswagen  has conferred more than 1.4 million examples of the car to us Brits.

For context, that’s some way short of the 4.5m or so Ford Fiestas sold since that model was introduced in the very same year, but it’s a fantastically large figure nonetheless. And with it comes to the pressure to err on the side of conservatism.

Volkswagen claims the Polo’s redesigned front end is more emotionally engaging than its predecessor, but we’re not so sure

So here’s the sixth-generation Volkswagen Polo although, at a glance, you may have mistaken it for the fifth-generation Volksagen Polo, introduced in 2009.

That momentary confusion is one of the hallmarks of an extraordinarily successful model, because the manufacturers of such vehicles know that they alter a successful recipe at their extreme peril. The new car thus springs few initial surprises. Its proportions are instantly recognisable and so, too, are its facial features. However, it is in fact something of a quiet revolution.

That revolution comes in the form of a redesigned interior. Thanks to the car’s new chassis, the cabin is more spacious and, as the vanguard of the Polo’s charge into the ‘digital era’, it’s also more technologically able than anything yet seen in a supermini.

There’s also the trickle down of safety systems from larger models such as the Volkswagen Volkswagen Golf. It’s why you can now have an optional active instrument binnacle that feels as though it should still be the preserve of Audi’s more luxurious models.

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It’s also why the Polo has a bigger boot than some hatchback rivals in the class above (and, as you’ll discover, such cars should now be considered fair game for the Polo).

Finally, it’s why those who do choose to buy this car will navigate our increasingly congested road network with such systems as emergency braking, pedestrian monitoring blindspot detection, adaptive cruise control and rear traffic alert, which can detect approaching objects up to 40m away and help to prevent a collision while the car is reversing.

It seems that the Polo is becoming the Golf, then, and the Golf is becoming… well, that’s another story.

Right now, it’s time to see whether this is the supermini you should test drive before any other, and consequently whether convenience is a substitute for fun.

DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Polo front end

When is a supermini not a supermini? When it’s near enough the size of a Mk5 Golf, perhaps.

With the help of its new, modular MQB-A0 platform, Volkswagen has stretched the sixth-generation Polo by 81mm, widened it by 63mm and lowered it just a touch.

The Polo isn’t particularly exciting, but it does the job of being a practical, easy-to-drive and comfortable runabout without breaking a sweat

The result is a car with a greater visual presence than its predecessor, and a few aesthetic licks have been effected to further toughen up the Polo.

Most conspicuous are poker-faced LED headlights – replacing the xenons of the old model – that merge into a clean-cut radiator grille made shallow by a strip of body-coloured plastic.

There’s also a double swage line that halves the car, top to bottom. Such things are adventurous for Volkswagen although still not enough to give the car the kind of personality that emanates from, say, a Peugeot 208.

That said, the French car, and many other rivals beside, can only dream of possessing shut lines as slender as those found between the German car’s crisp body panels.

Using the MQB platform brings benefits other than the ability to easily build a bigger car. The new Polo is now more rigid (18,000Nm per degree versus 14,000Nm), which theoretically allows for greater body control at the same time as yielding a more supple ride.

To this end, on higher-spec Polos VW has introduced Sport Select running gear, which comprises adaptive dampers complete with auxiliary springs and 15mm drop in ride height. Our test car didn’t have this set-up.

Meanwhile the engine line-up is broad, ranging from a naturally aspirated 1.0-litre MPI petrol with 64bhp to the 197bhp 2.0-litre TSI petrol in the flagship GTI. There are diesel options, too, although you’ll be limited to an SCR-equipped (selective catalytic reduction) 1.6-litre TDI and none tops 100bhp. Is it surprising that VW expects just one in every 20 buyers to opt for diesel? We’d say not, and not necessarily because of the company’s recent misdemeanours.

The standard transmissions are five-speed or six-speed manuals, and there’s the option of a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic.

Our test car had a five-speed manual gearbox attached to what VW expects to be the Polo’s most popular engine (1.0 TSI 95) and trim (SE).

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Polo interior

The styling of the Polo’s cabin is sufficiently reserved to rob it of much in the way of wow factor, but it is unquestionably a very solidly built, well-equipped and pleasant small car in which to spend time.

As you’d expect from a VW Group product, everything feels solidly integrated, assiduously finished and fitted, and thoroughly well screwed together.

The Polo’s instrument pack is a lesson to other manufacturers in how to deliver simple, brilliantly clear and readable dials

Absolutely nothing wobbles, creaks or flexes when you touch it. That Germanic sense of quality is more clearly present than in any other car in the class, save perhaps one or two with a proper premium badge.

In typical supermini fashion, VW uses hard plastics on the door cards and in the lower reaches of the cabin but they’re grained ones and certainly don’t do the interior’s quality aura any harm, while soft-touch plastics on the top of the dashboard improve tactile quality somewhat. The decorative panels on the main fascia can be finished in a number of different colours thanks to a range of optional colour packs, although a reserved Limestone Grey featured in our test car.

Opt for a more vibrant shade, such as the Energetic Orange dash-pad pack, and you’ll give the cabin a considerable visual lift. Continuing the trend of interior personalisation is a selection of upholstery patterns, which vary from trim level to trim level.

On spaciousness, the Polo is very impressive by supermini standards. There’s plenty of head room in the front, and although loftier passengers may find rear head and knee room too tight to be truly comfortable, anyone around the six-foot mark will find they fit in the back with little complaint.

If you’ve three kids to cart about, the Polo will be more than up to the task – provided they’re in booster seats. There are Isofix child seat anchorages for the outer rear seats only.

Boot space is 355 litres with the back seats in place and the adjustable floor in its lowest position, meaning that the Polo is identical to the class-leading Seat Ibiza and 62 litres more commodious than the Fiesta.

Fold the seats down and this will free up a total of 1125 litres. In short, although the Polo isn’t quite out on its own on practicality, you won’t find a more accommodating supermini.

Our test car came equipped with Volkswagen’s Composition Media infotainment system as standard.

The 8.0in touchscreen incorporated features such as: DAB radio; Bluetooth connectivity; voice recognition and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring (although you have to pay extra for the latter on entry-grade cars).

A factory-installed sat-nav system is available higher up the trim range, but if you’re willing to use your own smartphone data, the lack of one won’t prove too much of a problem.

We had no qualms about the system’s functionality, either. The display is clear and easy to read, and the touchscreen is responsive to touch and swipe gestures. Dedicated shortcut ‘buttons’ border the screen and make it that much easier to navigate the system’s various functions. They are far preferable to those units which are controlled exclusively through the touchscreen.

Likewise, it’s good to see Volkswagen sticking with proper knobs for controlling the volume and for scrolling.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.0-litre TSI Volkswagen Polo engine

Despite being tested in slippery conditions and on modestly sized 15in wheels and 185-section tyres, the Polo hit an objectively competitive standard when compared with its rivals and subjectively felt decently strong and flexible on the road.

That it accelerated slightly slower against the clock than the identically engined Seat Ibiza we tested last year was partly to do with our test conditions but may also have been attributable to a set of gear ratios for the VW’s five-speed manual gearbox that seemed long for such a small car – even though the engine’s healthy provision of turbocharged torque seldom made it struggle to accelerate in the higher ratios.

Long gearing presents a problem on steep climbs, where you slowly lose momentum even at full throttle in third gear

It takes a steep incline to force you to come down to third gear out of town, and on the motorway, the Polo will pick up speed from 60mph at an acceptable rate even if you leave it in top gear. So it seems a piffling complaint to make, but the Polo gives you the occasional impression that you’re driving a car geared for meat-and-potatoes economy, rather than one with the zest and enthusiasm of a spirited, fun, small hatchback.

For a recently qualified driver in his teenage years, this would always feel like his parents’ car; rarely the one he’d have picked himself.

So much, of course, we’ve been used to from the normal Polo over the years – and it’s fair to say the new one conforms to the same character type.

This is a very rounded, grown-up, refined, small car with many dynamic qualities you don’t routinely find in the supermini class. It has intuitive, solid-feeling controls that are well matched for weight and nicely isolated from vibration and changing load, with the only exception being a gearbox that begins to feel notchy through the gate when you hurry it.

The three-cylinder engine sounds a little rorty under load but settles to a muted, smooth, background level at a cruise.

The Polo’s cabin is better isolated from both wind and road noise than the average small car’s is.

And pulling less than 3000rpm even at a fast motorway clip, the engine is an easy one from which to produce better than 55mpg, as evidenced by our 57.1mpg touring test result.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Polo cornering

The Polo is supple, calm, quiet and rubber-footed in its ride, and comfortable in a way that small cars often aren’t.

At high speeds, it keeps its cabin settled but is still decently controlled over larger, longer-wave bumps.

Responsive, predictable steering makes it easy to get to the apices even when you’re carrying plenty of speed

At town speeds, it’s nicely forgiving and absorptive over sleeping policemen and soothes away all but the shortest, sharpest edges, which can sometimes be felt but seldom thump or crash.

This is the kind of small, affordable car, in other words, to effectively ease you through the urban rush hour with the minimum of stress and strain, and to reassure you on motorway trips that it can mix it with bigger cars, at higher speeds, without feeling at all out of its depth.

With medium-light, medium-fast steering, the Polo is agile enough at town speeds, with a grip level and responsiveness more than capable of making a dynamic virtue of its compact size.

Thanks to VW’s preference for ever-linear, predictable handling, it’s also very easy to drive. The car isn’t among the most grippy or compelling prospects in the class, but it has better body control than some and a very consistent balance of grip that resists understeer well initially and allows it to build only gradually as the car corners, and only in a proportion great enough to add a blanket of stability to everything the car does.

There’s little joy about the Polo’s handling, true, but it’s a car tuned to filter out many of the influences that might otherwise enrich a supermini’s driving experience for a keener driver.

So although weight builds usefully into the steering as the car corners and rolls and you ask more of its front tyres, there’s little contact-patch feel to tell you how much grip is left.

And although the chassis always keeps the car feeling stable and assured, even at high speeds, it’s also closed to any attempt to engage the rear axle in the cornering conversation by deliberately unloading it on a trailing throttle.

The Polo effectively does what Polos have been intended to do for generations – soothes, reassures, isolates, obliges and protects – and does it better than any predecessor, or any other small car in the class.

The Polo’s handling around the Millbrook hill route won’t linger long in the memory and that’s both a compliment and a criticism. You won’t find a more viceless small car to drive quickly. Its grip level is ample, even on the standard 15in wheels and in damp, chilly conditions, and its handling is as near to unflappable as superminis get.

Take a tight corner hard and the car rolls, but in contained fashion on both lean angle and roll rate. It responds fairly keenly on turn-in and keeps gripping hard at the front wheels even when the body’s settled on the outside wheels, allowing you to tighten your line if you need to.

Although the stability control system has a Sport mode, you’ll rarely need it: the system is far from intrusive even when you’re driving quickly and it neatly and cleverly keeps the car on line and under control without you realising that it’s working.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Polo

The Polo has always been more expensive than its many rivals and it’s no different this time.

The difference is small, though – often only three figures, rather than four, compared with the commensurate Ford Fiesta and Seat Ibiza, its chief rivals. The Polo almost always hold its value better than those cars, which is something to consider when it comes to that initial outlay.

The Polo should maintain familiar strength here, retaining 4% more value than the Fiesta over three years/36,000 miles

The entry-level S trim can be had with only the anaemic, naturally aspirated 1.0-litre engine – it panders to those who seek the lowest possible insurance premium – but, if possible, you should aim for one of the turbocharged TSI options. That means you’ll be looking at SE trim, which is the second branch up the equipment tree and features 15in wheels, plenty of body-coloured trim and smartphone mirroring.

If you can bear the go-faster body stripe, Beats trim lends the Polo a more aggressive persona, raises the wheel size to 16in and includes a 300W sound system.

The benefits of going for SEL, the next level up, chiefly concern the infotainment system, but by then, the Polo is an expensive supermini: £18,180 with the six-speed manual.

As for fuel economy, all petrol-engined Polos apart from the GTI model achieve around 60mpg combined and manage to keep CO2 emissions at or below 110g/km.

 

VERDICT

4.5 star Volkswagen Polo

The Polo has never been an easy car about which to enthuse and it remains resolutely that way.

Even so, its sheer completeness, distinguishing practicality and abundant rational appeal are all impossible to deny.

The Volkswagen Polo brings ‘big car’ space, class, kit and finish to this class like never before

This is a more grown-up, spacious, well-mannered Polo than VW has made before, with a breadth of ability that most supermini makers wouldn’t even aim for, never mind achieve.

It comes at a price premium but justifies that in so many ways: with its technological sophistication; with its reassuring on-road handling manners; with its rounded blend of performance, drivability, economy and refinement and with its perceived quality.

If you prefer your small cars with a youthful, spring-heeled sense of dynamic vivacity or a keen sense of style – and both tend to mark out an appealing supermini in our book – the Polo is unlikely to hit the spot, which partly explains why it falls marginally shy of the class leader – the Seat Ibiza.

Substance is prioritised front and centre before style in this car, but the success with which it’s delivered remains a convincing advert for rational thinking.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volkswagen Polo First drives