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The fifth-generation Volkswagen Polo has junior Golf looks, but is that enough?

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Maturity, solidity and trusty old conservatism are all things that you'd associate with the Volkswagen Polo. You wouldn’t think virtues like that would sell a supermini – a part of the new car market fuelled by fashionable style and colourful originality.

But they’re exactly the virtues that continue to sell one of the class’s longest-established entrants, and make the Volkswagen a permanent feature of both the segment’s top sales ranks and of Autocar’s road test top five.

It feels considerably more upmarket than other superminis

Now in its fifth generation, the Volkswagen Polo looks more like a shrunken Volkswagen Golf than ever.

And that pretty neatly sums up what Volkswagen has tried to offer with this current version: all the positive attributes of the Golf, just in a smaller, more affordable package. The derivative styling and bigger dimensions are designed to make the Polo feel even more mature, while the Volkswagen Scirocco-inspired nose and lights add the merest touch of flair.

The next generation Polo looks to build on that concept, with it expected to be larger and lighter than the current generation and it will only be available as a five-door car. It is also the first car of the VW group to built on the new MQB A0 chassis layout which will also be used as the underpinnings of the next Audi A1, Seat Ibiza and Skoda Fabia.

With established market presence comes complexity, of course – and the Volkswagen Polo range is more complex than most. Volkswagen offers the car in three or five-door forms, with a vast array of petrol or diesel engines, which include an ultra-efficient 80mpg-plus BlueMotion model and a be-spoilered 178bhp Volkswagen Polo GTI.

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Between those two extremes lie normally aspirated 1.0 petrol, turbocharged 1.0, 1.2, 1.4 and 1.8-litre TSI petrols, and two further turbodiesels offering between 74 and 89bhp.

Trim levels run from S, through S A/C, Match, Beats, and SEL, to R-Line, Bluemotion, BlueGT and through to the range-topping GTI.

Along with the more mature styling comes an equally grown-up price tag – this isn’t a budget supermini, after all. While this is also the case for the Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Corsa, the supermini class is ultra-competitive and the Polo is facing a string of ever-more-credible, cheaper competitors.

So just how compelling is the prospect of a downsized Volkswagen Golf?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Polo rear

There are few surprises with the Volkswagen Polo. The first discovery that runs true to form is that it is larger than the model it replaces, by 54mm in length and 32mm in width, and is now just 15mm shorter than the Mk2 Golf.

The Polo's styling draws heavily on existing Volkswagen products, but it is the wide, short grille linking the headlights that is most familiar. Although the new Polo uses a different platform from its predecessor (we’ve seen the PQ25 before on the Seat Ibiza), there is little in the suspension set-up that differs from the norm.

The latest Polo is just 15mm shorter than the Mk2 Golf

At the front there are MacPherson struts and at the rear a torsion beam and trailing arms. The lighter and larger 2017 Polo will be built on VW's new MQB A0 chassis, which will only be available in one bodystyle and thus saving developmental costs which can used to include more internal technology.

Wheel size ranges from 14 to 17 inches. The entry-level S trim has steel wheels. Match and SE trims get 15-inch alloys of different designs, while SEL trim comes with 16-inch alloys which can be upgraded to the largest 17-inch design.

The simple, narrow headlights and the flat grille that links them identify the VW family face, a design first seen on the current Scirocco. Below the main bumper unit is a second air inlet, and below this is a forward-reaching spoiler (body coloured on all spec levels) that helps to improve aerodynamic efficiency.

A rear spoiler integrated into the tailgate is standard across the Polo range and, as with the Volkswagen Golf, the tailgate extends right down to the bumper. The tops of the tail-lights are linked with those at the front of the car by a styling line running the length of the Polo. Viewed from behind, the rear lights look rather large and dominate the styling, lacking the design sharpness of the headlights.

The door mirrors (body-coloured on mid-spec levels and above) generate 20 per cent less air resistance than those of the previous model, but their noticeably smaller size restricts the field of vision.

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Polo interior

The extent to which the Volkswagen Polo’s interior impresses depends very much on how you prioritise style and substance. If we look first at the more practical aspects of space, ergonomics and construction, it is difficult not to be hugely impressed.

There is a good range of seat adjustment for the driver (including height adjustment on all trim levels), good pedal placing and reach and rake-adjustable steering. Height adjustment is also standard for the front passenger on mid-level specification and above.

It is difficult not to be hugely impressed by the Polo's cabin

Rear-seat occupants have more space than you’ll find in a Ford Ford Fiesta and access is good through the wide door openings of three-door cars. While the boot is slightly smaller than those of its rivals (280 litres versus 295 and 292 litres in the Fiesta and Seat Seat Ibiza respectively), the Polo is still a flexible, spacious supermini. It is also, for the most part, impressively well made, featuring, for example, a slush-moulded dash with fit and finish levels not far off those found in the Golf.

All is not perfect, though; with the handbrake applied it is possible to see below the surface trim level to the metal below. The bigger problem for the Polo, we suspect, is that some buyers may be put off by a cabin design so restrained that it’s almost dour.

This is subjective, of course, but there’s none of the visual interest here that you find in a Kia Rio or a Ford Fiesta. Volkswagen is aiming the Match and Beats specification at the younger market and as such has a touchscreen infotainment system with USB and Bluetooth streaming, while the latter comes with a 300W stereo system, but still the Polo treads a super-conservative path.

If you venture further up the trim levels or dip into the options catalogue it is possible to fit the Polo with impressively grown-up equipment, as such opting for an S trimmed Polo you will find a 5.0in touchscreen infotainment system with DAB, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, electric front windows and central locking. Upgrade to S A/C and you get the addition of air conditioning, while Match models get a 6.5in touchscreen infotainment system, cruise control, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, and front and rear parking sensors.

The latest trim to join the range - Beats includes, a 300W Beats audio system, decals and colour scheme and the addition of smartphone integration, while the mid-range SEL models get LED headlights, and the R-Line trim include a sporty bodykit, sports seats and 'race' inspired upholstery.

Eco-concious drivers may opt for either the Bluemotion or BlueGT models, with the former including a styling pack, low rolling resistance tyres and cruise control, while the latter includes sports suspension, twin exhaust system and an electronic differential system.

Topping the range is the Polo GTI gets 17in alloys, 15mm lowered suspension, an aggressive bodykit, GTI badging and decals and a locking electronic differential.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volkswagen Polo side profile

Several mainstream supermini ranges – Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Vauxhall Corsa included – start with entry-level models offering around 60bhp. The Polo buyer, however, can opt for a 59bhp 1.0-litre three-pot that’s mechanically identical to the 59bhp unit and which, theoretically at least, offers the same fuel economy.

Nonetheless, the bald performance figures for the 69bhp Polo do not look great. The car’s three-cylinder engine, even if worked as hard as possible, is only capable of pulling what is a relatively light car from rest to 60mph in 14.2sec. That’s competitive, though not exactly impressive. Don’t forget that the peppy, 108bhp 1.0-litre turbocharged engine may very well be the answer.

Those looking for a fast Polo should predictably opt for the GTI model

Diesel engines are often an irrelevance in superminis, but the 1.4-litre oil-burner in the BlueMotion puts a strong case for itself. In spite of pedestrian performance, there’s the lure of an official combined 80.7mpg (you’ll be happy of you get within 10 per cent of that) and a CO2 figure of 91g/km.

But where you save in fuel costs, you pay for on the list price. The BlueMotion is substantially more than the diesel SE model that comes without the BlueMotion gadgetry. The SE still averages more than 70mpg according to the official figures, but it misses out on a free tax disc.

The 1.4-litre turbocharged and supercharged GTI, with a 0-62mph time of less than 7.0sec, are swift and fun, if pricey and a little short of high-revving excitement.

Volkswagen has recently introduced Active Cylinder Management (ACM) to the Polo, promising diesel-like efficiency from a petrol powerplant. Starring in the BlueGT model, the technology features on a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine. A pair of electronic actuators above the cams on the middle two cylinders control the movement of the valves and fuel injection.

Between 1400 and 4000rpm and torque loads of between 18 and 74lb ft – an operating range that VW claims covers nearly 70 per cent of all driving states – the valve operation and injection process on those middle cylinders are shut down, effectively turning the engine into a 700cc twin for improved efficiency, most notably in city driving and at constant motorway speeds.

Moreover, when more performance is required, the BlueGT can also deliver. With 138bhp and a fat wad of torque, it takes just 7.9sec to hit 62mph and will reach 131mph. In our experience, we found the 1.4-litre turbo to be an eager and refined powerplant, albeit a little short on character. However, emissions of just 107g/km should make it a popular junior fleet car for those looking for a realistic added-fun option.

The Polo’s five-speed manual gearbox is light and a pleasure to stir. The brakes, which are ventilated discs at the front and drums at the rear in most cases, provide sufficient stopping power, and the Polo’s lightness and limited pace mean they don’t want for stopping power, even after heavy use.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Polo cornering

Don’t look for things like feedback, amusement or light-hearted spirit in the Polo's driving experience. The handling of this car is as staid as the cabin: it’s a long-standing Polo trait, which, intentionally or otherwise, has also been inherited by this latest model. Instead of verve and sparkle, think instead ‘junior Volkswagen Golf’. Just as with the interior, this is a car that exudes maturity rather than zip and zeal.

So, as you would expect, the latest Polo rides well. Partly that’s down to the immodest height of the tyre sidewalls on many versions, and partly it’s down to damping, which is set towards the softer end of the supermini scale.

At all road speeds the Polo is comfortable and relatively refined

At all road speeds the Polo is a comfortable cruiser. Around town it nonchalantly shrugs off minor surface imperfections, while on a poorly surfaced B-road its cabin remains well isolated.

It feels more softly set-up than the Ibiza and has similar pliancy to a Skoda Fabia, both of which also adopt the VW Group’s PQ25 small-car platform. Body control could and should be better but, for all the chassis’ softness, it seldom gets out of hand.

As a result, however, fun is not really high on the agenda. The overall softness and lack of precision isn’t helped by an electrically assisted power steering system that is, while just sufficiently accurate, devoid of messages or a consistent weighting. The BlueGT and GTI models ought to rebalance the Polo’s priorities on interactivity and fun, but in fact neither really does: they are just grippier, quicker, firmer facsimilies of the ordinary models.

The lowered BlueMotion, running on its stiff eco tyres and lower ride height, trades ride quality for improved economy, with the exchange most noticeable around town. Ride comfort isn’t the best on the GTI either, although it’s better than many other hot hatches. Its biggest problem is the anaesthetised steering and unchecked body roll; a Fiesta ST this is not.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Polo

The Volkswagen Polo is far from a budget supermini, but it’s not the most expensive, either. Perhaps what is most surprising is how well the Polo is equipped.

An electronic stability control system, traction control and side airbags are standard on all models, while all bar the bottom S model get alloy wheels and an MP3 connection. Air-con is pretty prevalent across the range, too.

What is most surprising is how well the Polo is equipped

An automatic gearbox is available on the 1.4-litre petrol (it’s a costly option, too), but an excellent DSG dual-clutch automatic is available with the GTI. It's also an option on the BlueGT and the 1.0-litre TSI.

The 1.4-litre diesel BlueMotion, with CO2 emissions of just 91g/km, is a tempting buy for company car users, and it’s one of the better eco superminis currently available. The official average fuel economy of 80.7mpg is impressive, too – although you’ll be doing well to better 70mpg in the real world.

Even the standard 1.4 diesel without the BlueMotion’s clever bits gets close to that at a real-world 60mpg. Given the premium the BlueMotion costs, some time with a calculator is essential to see if you can make its premium back with fuel and tax savings.

The BlueGT, with its ACM technology, requires similar consideration. Its 62.7mpg and 107g/km are certainly commendable, but it’s an expensive way to save money in the long run, costing plenty at full showroom price.

With the exception of the 1.4-litre models and the GTI (with its turbocharged and supercharged 1.4), all Polos claim an average economy figure of more than 50mpg. The standard 1.4 averages 47.9mpg, a figure that’s impressively matched by the GTI.

Resale values have long been a Polo strong suit – they’re high-demand used cars – and the latest model is no different. Lower-powered petrol models should hold their values best.

Another surprise are the deals on offer in VW showrooms: not only are discounts reasonably forthcoming, but offers such as fixed-price service plans are also worth investigating.

VERDICT

Volkswagen Polo rear quarter

It will not have escaped your notice that each of the cars that compete with the Volkswagen Polo in our supermini Top Five scores a high star rating. This segment of the market is particularly competitive and each car that we recommend thoroughly deserves its score.

Equally, none is completely flawless. And it is no different with the new Polo. This is a polished, mature-feeling, spacious supermini, and given its specification it’s competitively priced. It also rides well. If these are your priorities, the Polo is as good as, if not better than, any other small car you could buy. 

The Polo is a polished supermini that's competitively priced

But if you’re seeking flair, chances are you’ll find the Volkswagen Polo a little dry. Dynamically it is composed and unflappable but offers little motive flavour.

The Ford Fiesta is far more likely to put a smile on your face, as is the Mazda 2 or a Renault Clio. And only the Clio comes close to matching the Polo on its combination of rolling comfort and space.

Similarly, the styling, which mirrors that of the latest Volkswagen Golf, isn’t as youthful as the Ford or Mazda (or a Seat Ibiza), but its conservative looks may pay dividends, especially when it comes to used values, in the longer term.

Purchase prices seem high, especially when compared with increasingly talented Korean superminis, while equipment levels are actually quite good.

The BlueMotion's headline figures are mightily impressive and a huge temptation, while all versions are reasonably frugal. The GTI is an interesting alternative to more frenetic hot hatches, even if ultimately it lacks the finesse and, therefore, fun of many rivals.

Whichever Polo you choose, though, will be a safe bet – and that’s what best describes VW’s latest effort in this tough segment.

 

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 2009-2017 First drives