Polo players don’t drive German superminis, in the same way Dustin Hoffman never pulled over near a Hollywood studio in a Chevy Celebrity. So, who does drive a Polo? The same people who drive a Golf – only ten years younger, with a bank account ten grand shorter. And until last year, these people have been a little alienated from the VW customer circle – with a new Golf recently introduced and the older Polo getting a little long in the tooth.
Enter the fifth generation Polo. Unlike the MK6 Golf, here’s a car that wasn’t rushed into production: the MK4 Polo was introduced in 2002 and succumbed to irrelevancy over its last years, as the entire European B-segment was stirred by new models and powertrains.
If there’s any comment to be made on the exterior of the MK5 Polo, it’s déjà vu. Take off your glasses, and it’s a Golf – complete with the corporate two-bar grille and spider-leg emblem. It’s as chunky looking in profile as its mature sibling and has the same underwhelmingly dramatic roof line. Glasses back on, and several elements distinguish the junior VW from the Golf: different pentagonal backlights, a cut-out C pillar, an edgy front diffuser spawning speed bump phobia and what appears to be a serious eating disorder.
Underwhelmingly-impressive is the expression you’re looking for. Like the Golf, the Polo is very much a classless car – one that would look just as natural in an Amsterdam suburb as in Munich’s old city, as unprovocative in red as in pearl white and as classy as a teenager’s first car as a grandmother’s last.
Just like the previous Polo, the fifth-gen Polo pushes the interior quality bar further up the scale. Whether this interior is the best in B-segment territory depends on your definition of best: there’s little doubt that this is the most ‘big-car’ interior in the class, but there’s also no avoiding the feeling that it’s just a little dull and expected.
Many – if not most – knobs and controls come straight from the Golf, and seeing as Volkswagen has seemingly unlimited access to that soft-touch material mine, there’s acres of that too. Everything you touch or move – from the door knob to the gear lever – feels like German engineers have spent sleepless nights perfecting its pitch, sound and feel. If you really choose to nitpick, there are harder-than-expected plastics in the door area.
Like its slightly anemic-looking outside proportions imply, the Polo doesn’t shock in spaciousness. Two adults will find sufficient room in the back seats; the third one should consider other transportation options. At 280 liters, the trunk isn’t particularly commodious, but it’s easy to load and has a useful storage compartment underneath. There are numerous additional storage spaces inside the cabin, including two closeable hatches beneath the front seats.
So far, so Volkswagen – solid, impressive, boring. But this particular tester has one interesting ace up its sleeve: the powertrain. Replacing the old model’s 1.6 gas engine and 6 speed Aisin gearbox combination are a direct-injected and turbocharged 1.2 liter TSI engine (oddly featuring only 8 valves) and a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox. On paper, it doesn’t sound like there’s much difference: the horsepower count remains similar – there are around 105 of them – and there’s only one cog joining the party. Even the autojournos’ favorite cliché, torque, only takes a modest 1.34 pound-feet boost to just below 12 pound-feet.
The secret lies in power availability: the old 1.6 needed no less than 3,800 revs to achieve the maximum torque. The turbocharged four pot only needs 1,500 of those – and that’s enough to cut 0-60 time by about two seconds.
On the road, the new engine proves to be a refreshing surprise. Let anyone who doubts the viability of a microscopic turbocharged engine drive this Polo, and he will return fully converted. There’s more than enough power to make progress anywhere across the rev range once the turbocharger kicks in at somewhere around 1,500 rpms, and when pushed to the limits you’d be hard pressed to tell you’re driving something that’s supposed to resemble a 1.6 engine, never mind a puny 1.2.
The engine also rewards the driver and passengers with smoothness unmatched by the gruff and agricultural 1.6. This is where my ambivalent feelings about the DSG gearbox kick in (see what I did there?). Seven speeds are a lot of ratios to choose from, and this particular gearbox doesn’t hesitate to showcase all of them. Left to its own devices, it will upshift as soon as it can – leaving the TSI’s generous power band and constantly requiring one or two downshifts to maintain acceleration. Even in traffic-jam speeds, it’s not uncommon to reach the third and fourth ratios.
The seven speed DSG is also nowhere as smooth as the older 6 speed. This is because the newer version uses a pair of dry clutches instead of wet ones. This setup still hasn’t reached all DSG models since it’s only rated for weaker powerplants – currently, the SEAT Ibitza Cupra and Polo GTi, at 178 bhp, are the strongest models to utilize this particular setup.
You can’t put any blames on shifting speed – but in slower speeds, the gearbox feels somewhat shaky and sluggish, and off the line response is met with a surprising delay. This still remains a very good slushbox – but it’s one you’d have to get used to. It functions better in S mode – where the seventh ratio is disabled, throttle response is made sharper, gears are pushed further up the rev range and braking is met with numerous downshifts – and a neat throttle blip between them. There are no steering wheel shifters, but commanding in manual mode is still pleasurable with instant response from the ‘box and a satisfying feel from the lever itself.
The tiny engine idles surprisingly loudly and with an alarming degree of vibrations. Inside the Polo, however, you’d be hard pressed to tell the engine is even on at all. This is a recurring theme: the baby VW is a quiet cruiser and refinement is at the top of the class. Ride quality is also good – with a slightly harsh initial suspension travel, you’re not likely to confuse it with French hatchbacks of yore, but even the most daunting bumps are dealt with resounding comfort and softness. The front seats are comfortable and supportive, but have an annoying bulge in their upper parts, which forces a slightly artificial back posture.
The surprises end with the driving dynamics. The Polo is a car which pushes you not to push it: the electro-hydraulic steering is number, lighter and longer than I recall from the Skoda Fabia. It’s still in ‘acceptable’ territory, but at no point reminds you of anything remotely sporty. The brake pedal has a slightly awkward travel with a very strong initial bite and less than stellar progress further down the line.
Dynamic challenges are met in a composed manner and with sufficient grip, but not with much pleasure. That’s really a shame, because even other B-segment cars from VW – like the SEAT Ibiza – feature naughtier driving dynamics and more driver involvement, not to mention competition from cars such as the Ford Fiesta.
Greater men than I have already deemed the Polo to be the European Car of the Year. It’s not very surprising to find that the fifth-generation Volkswagen Polo is a very good car. It’s equally as unsurprising to find that it has a class-beating cabin and a class-beating powertrain.
“Unsurprising” and “underwhelmingly-impressive” then, are the recurring ideas behind the Polo. The Polo, like some people, is an example of a textbook execution. Compare it to a person, and you have a very intelligent and pleasant individual which you won’t want to take out for a beer.
To an automotive enthusiast, this may sound like criticism. To Volkswagen’s ears, this is a pat on the shoulder: creating a mini-Golf is exactly the idea behind the new Polo. In that, they’ve succeeded immensely: the transition from Polo to Golf is now as smooth and obvious as ever.
Volkswagen proided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
This review was made possible by icar.co.il