At the tail end of the last century, the European built, Eurozone-only Volkswagen Polo was the "Mercedes of small cars.” While the Golf/Rabbits MKIII and MKIV suffered from iffy quality, the smaller, staid Polo was known for being reliably unbreakable. Then, something happened. Just as Mercedes' quality nosedived, the VW Polo lost its rep for bullet-proof build. Since 2005 quality has (reportedly) markedly improved, which has put the car back on the list of frugal consumers looking to buy something “classically VW." But is it ready for a U.S. debut?
If stunning or cheeky or chic looks are a prerequisite to purchase, then no. VW gave the Polo a face lift in 2005. Unfortunately, the car didn't need plastic facial surgery; it needed a tummy tuck, a six-month subscription to a gym, two years at a charm school and some self-help books on self-esteem. While its competitors all aspire to be tautly-drawn mini fashion icons, the Polo is the last of the slab-sided econo-boxes. At best you could say it has a khaki slacks-like classicism. The worst: been there, done that, bought the Golf, already.
On the upside, the Polo’s paint and the quality of detailing are Japanese-excellent. Venture inside and you’d swear you’d stepped into a Mercedes; albeit a Mercedes taxi. The VeeDub’s cabin is perfectly fashioned in the old-fashioned way, built from the kind of solid (not to say stolid) materials that embody and personify the German national stereotype of a generally humorless nation– but in a good way. The Polo feels like it could last forever.
So, my girlfriend asked, is this all they could think of? Excellent point. The Polo is clearly a car that believes in S&O (simple and obvious) instead of S&D (surprise and delight). Or, if you prefer, it arrives woefully under-equipped. At night, the mood lightens, with a weird and dysfunctional display of red and blue lights. The Polo’s iPod aversive death-by-treble CD-radio has 24 separate illuminations. Verrrrry interesting– but shtuppid!
Otherwise, the seats are supportive and comfortable, visibility is ideal (none of that blind spot Sciontology here), the glasshouse is Guido-compatible (left elbow out of window), the ergonomics are good to go, and there’s ample legroom and headroom for four. In fact, the Polo provides more usable space than a 1990’s Golf.
So: the exterior is frumpy and the interior dull but boring. If the driving experience is so-so, we can call this car a high-quality joke and get a beer. But it isn't: the Polo is a mighty fine drive. In a nutshell (literally), it offers unparalleled small car dynamic refinement. Rough-road roar-‘n-rumble is well-suppressed, there’s little wind noise up to 80mph, and the drive is stable at 100mph. More impressively, VW provides this refinement without deadening the driving experience.
The Polo’s steering is wonderfully linear, with more road feel than a crawling baby (closed course, professional baby). The suspension is comfortable yet well-damped in that Mercedes kinda way, enabling a fluid progression through a series of bumpy curves. The shifter and clutch are both precise and shmoove. Unlike some of its more highly strung or loosely suspended competitors, the Polo is an ideal everyday, every way steed. It's easy to drive fast, pleasant to drive slow. The Polo is as at home in tear-assing through narrow city streets as it is watching luxobarges blast past on the Autobahn.
European Polo playas can buy their ride with some damn interesting, class-leading engines. The 180hp GTI sprints from zero to 60 in a not entirely slothlike 7.5 seconds. There’s a ball-busting 130hp TDI Diesel, and a new "Bluemotion" Diesel that does 110mph, yet clocks in at 62mpg and belches-out low enough emissions to single-handedly save a Siamese rainforest (102g CO2/km). So what did I have the "pleasure" of driving? A 1.2-liter three-cylinder counterbalanced low-friction poke-mill. But the mini mill brought to mind that old description of Richard Wagner's music: it's better than it sounds.
My Polo only holstered 64 measly horses, but it revved in the advertised quiet, low-vibration fashion to 7000 rpm, allowing full access to whatever acceleration it could muster. It was also in its happy place at 100mph; the most refined three-pot I’ve ever driven. Albeit not the most economical. Although this Polo is officially rated at 41mpg, I averaged just 38. That’s pretty lame for a car that requires the better part of half a minute (16 seconds) to “accelerate” from rest to 60mph. Still, even this slowest and cheapest of Polos is fun to drive.
Did I say cheapest? My bare-bones tester (which didn't even have remote entry) lists at over €11K (but discounts much lower). That’s around $8k large before the dollar got bushwhacked; now it’s closer to $13k. So much for California-compliant dreamin’. When the new next gen Polo makes the scene in late 2008, let's hope it drives as well, looks better and comes from China.