By on June 14, 2010

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.

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20 Comments on “Review: 2011 VW Polo 1.2 TSI...”

  • avatar

    For those of us in places that don’t get these, can you put the size in perspective? My guess is that it is about the same size as a MKII Golf. The MK VI Golf is enormous!

    I’m hoping that the Ford Fiesta is a big hit in the States, then VW might actually bring these over.

  • avatar
    Sammy Hagar

    My BIL drives a Polo; it has a roll cage, a racing harness and much of the interior accoutrements have been deleted (to include back seat, headliner, door cards, carpeting, etc.). Mind you, this is his everyday car…and I don’t know how it passes TUV inspection. Anyway, he and a group of fellow Ludwigshafen BASF workers are “Polo Crazy,” for lack of a better phrase. They all drive similar gutted MK2/3/4 Polos, tour with them on weekends, stage shows, etc; it’s very cliquish and they most definitely do not aspire to be Golf owners. [Conversely, in the the quest for “lightness,” they’re very welcoming of similar-minded Lupo fans.] As an American taking this in, it’s very funny to see a group of enthusiasts show disgust for MK4/5/6 Golfs because of their bloated, “heavy” feel. Then again, what do I know? I lived in Germany for three years and drove an Opel Calibra…ugh.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the review. Question about terminology: now that there are so many different forms of automatic transmissions, I’m used to seeing “slushbox” as a way to distinguish between a torque converter automatic and a newer dual-clutch automatic setup (with wet or dry clutches.)

    Especially given that this is a dry clutch transmission, can it be called a “slushbox”? Maybe I’m reading too much into this.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve always been under the impression that “slushbox” = Automatic, of any type. But you raise an interesting point…

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, driving a DSG and then comparing a conventional automatic, is a great way to understand the term “slushbox.” Compared to the crisp shifts of a DSG, torque-converter-based automatics do indeed feel very slushy. (I haven’t driven the Fiesta yet, but Jack Baruth’s review indicated that it’s DSG actually simulates this feeling a bit, so maybe some DSGs can be slushy. I’m used to the six-speed VW/Audi unit sourced from Borg Warner.)

    • 0 avatar

      Personally, I’d always considered a slushbox to be a transmission that is slower than a (possibly theoretical) manual-shift alternative. Does this DSG unit seem to be quicker in its gear changes standard tranny if it was in manual mode and you get to pick when to change gears?


      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.

      Great analogy, this is something I can relate to :D

    • 0 avatar

      I stand corrected- a quick google search shows that the term seems to originate from the fluid coupling that torque converters use which results in a large amount of loss of power through the drivetrain. So if you want to stay true to the spirit of the term, it should only really be applied to old-school automatics. Yeah, I agree, I’m probably looking into this too much as well :)

  • avatar

    I’m coming from a 300bhp MB car and had for economical reasons to downgrade so I bought a Crosspolo 1.4 DSG 6 (9n3, the previous model… the new model presented is the 6R) and I must tell you that despite the 220 bhp that I lost,the Polo is a superb cruiser and a very very sweet daily drive… It also make you to take the road in a cool and peaceful way, which is great with the flourishing of automatic speed traps in the area where I live.
    I’m very very satisfied with it.
    and btw, the DSG6 is much better than the MB 7G, it has also a tendency to go up the gears as quick as it can, but once you are used to it, you just enjoy the silence (or the music without having to turn the volume up) and the economy it offers… if you need to accelerate, the response is instantaneous and seamless… It’s a superior car in a small package, in short (I live in Belgium)

  • avatar
    Brian E

    Memo to VW: Bring the Polo GTI here to the US ASAP. I’ll buy one as soon as it goes on sale.

    • 0 avatar

      Problem is, a Polo GTI is probably no cheaper to build than a Golf GTI – and may very well cost MORE to build. But for marketing reasons, it has to sell for less money. So seems extremely unlikely that VW will do it. I can see the US eventually getting the more prosaic versions though, once the new CAFE rules really take hold. Assuming the next administration doesn’t deep-six them.

      It’s going to be an interesting next few years.

    • 0 avatar

      The one you want is the Polo R, announced in Europe for next year, with a 4 cylinder 1.6L Turbocharged giving a cool 210bhp.

  • avatar

    Too bad about the handling; I was looking forward to this car coming to North America.

  • avatar

    I’m in Italy at this moment, and saw one of these the moment I got to the airport. 3dr version. Very nice looking.

    Have seen also the current Corsa, Fiesta and 207 (which we don’t get in South America) and like the Fiesta better.

    The VW looks like stated like a mini Golf. I think that’s been the idea since the MKII, which I like a lot.

  • avatar

    “Polo players don’t drive German superminis”

    But I remember a radio game where the winner got a polo shirt and was driven to a polo tournament in a VW Polo.

  • avatar

    “Polo players don’t drive German superminis, in the same way Dustin Hoffman never pulled over near a Hollywood studio in a Chevy Celebrity.”

    Prince William used to own a Golf. Does that count?

  • avatar

    I think a large point of getting the Polo over the Golf is cost. Why then would one get the optional $1000 transmission upgrade? Stick with the stick.

  • avatar

    I really like what I see here. Over the past 10 years gasoline has doubled in price and I recently read oil is expected to go up 40% more over the next 10 years. Meanwhile my paycheck is stagnating. I can see where gas mileage will be more and more desirable when I shop for my next vehicle.

    Currently we get about ~25 mpg in one and ~32 mpg in the other. I want more mileage. We own three VWs and will gladly look at that brand again.

    So how do these fancy automatic hold up over the years? What does a rebuild cost?

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