For more years than most of us can remember now, VW’s Golf has been the best-selling car in Europe, scoring notable sales success in just about every market in which it is sold. Whilst VW must doubtless be very pleased with this, it must both puzzle and disappoint them that their smaller Polo model – a car that offers the same design and engineering philosophy in a smaller and cheaper package – has never enjoyed anything like the same levels of sales success, especially as cars of Polo size tend to sell in larger volumes in many of those same European markets. It is many years since I last sat behind the wheel of a Polo, and so when Mr Hertz “offered” (not that I was going to get much choice, as he had little else available) a smart looking dark grey Polo, I thought I would get the chance to find out for myself.
Visually, there is little doubt that this is a VW product. The facelift applied to the fourth generation model introduced styling changes at the front of the Polo to bring the latest VW corporate look to the car, with characteristic headlight and grille design. The shape itself is reminiscent both of the third generation Polo and the Golf, though it does remain distinctive enough that there is no danger of incorrectly identifying the car even when seem from a distance. It is, in my opinion, a neat, but ultimately “safe” design, which is doubtless exactly what its maker intended. Open the door, and you expect to find an interior which looks like a quality product, a cut above the Ford, Opel, Fiat and French car competitors with which the Polo must compete for success in the market. That is what greets you. No excesses here, and, let’s be honest, no real visual flair either. A rather sombre mix of various shades of grey on the seats is complemented by a black dashboard, but it all appears well put together and looks and feels solid and durable.
It was when I started the engine that I had what I can only describe as a huge surprise. The test car was endowed with the 1.2 litre 3 cylinder engine, in the lesser of the two available power ratings, so with just 60 bhp. But the noise. Oh dear! Words cannot really describe the aural experience, but they can deliver a verdict on it. Imagine a swarm of angry bees mixed up with a couple of howling coyote and a few anguished moggies all contributing their thoughts to the world at once, and you might get close. Not only was it quite startling, but it appeared to be coming not just from under the bonnet, but almost through the right air vent and round the driver’s door. The engine itself spins very freely, which is probably just as well, as I found that in ordinary driving, I was taking the thing to over 5000 rpm without even trying. Driven like this, the lack of torque was not such a problem, but clearly it did mean that a trip across town was just an aural onslaught all the time. Once in fifth gear on the motorway, things did quieten down more than somewhat and you could hear the distinctive sound of 3 cylinders working away. It did prove surprisingly able not just to keep up with the traffic flow, but without the need to drop down a couple of gears every time you were slowed down little, so although I feared how the car would perform on the motorway, it was in some ways “better” there than in town. Clearly the engine has to work hard, and my average fuel consumption of 38 mpg for a mix of urban and motorway driving is not particularly impressive. Frankly, then, this engine alone would be enough to have me running straight from the VW dealer just about anywhere else.
Sadly, that is not the full extent of the bad news. The other driving dynamics are pretty disappointing, too. The gearchange is not too bad. Although the travel between gears is long, the lever does slot relatively easily from one ratio to another, displaying little of the notchiness that seemed to afflict so many VAG gearboxes long after almost all other manufacturers cracked this problem. The steering and handling are another matter, though. The steering is very light, and almost completely devoid of any feel and the handling would never win any prizes for anything, either. This is definitely a car that is not designed to offer anything to the enthusiast in the way that Ford’s Fiesta does. The brakes seemed a bit grabby, too, although they were light (a former VW bug bear banished, then), and there is a pull handbrake lever in between the seats that had a long travel on it, but which does the job. The Polo rides well, no doubt a consequence of relatively soft suspension and quite a long wheelbase for its size.
The driver is greeted by a clearly presented collection of dials in a hooded binnacle: large ones for the speedo and rev counter, smaller ones for water temperature and fuel level. The centre part of the dash, moulded in a different shade of black and a different smooth finished plastic contains the controls for the radio and air conditioning. Simple stalks, on either side of the column do wipers and indicators and there is a rotary light switch on the right of the dash for the lights. That is it. There is plenty of oddment space in the Polo. A lipped shelf goes across the whole of the car and could be used for a number of reasonable sized items. A glove box that drops down to open is in front of the passenger, and there are several moulded cubby areas in the centre console, as well as door bins. This is a basic car, so you should not expect, and indeed do not get, much in the way of luxury fittings. There is air conditioning, and a decent stereo system, but otherwise there’s not much that the advertising copy writers could write about. For the first time in a long time, I found that the only way to lock and unlock the car was to insert a key into the barrel of the lock. There is central locking, but no remote control for it.
For a small car, room in the back of the Polo is reasonable, though as with any car of this class, I am not sure that three broad shouldered adults would fit comfortably for very long. The boot is deep and was just large enough in floor area to take my suitcase lying down, along with the lap top bag. Obviously this can be extended by folding down the rear seats, though for some reason (probably rain!) I did not test this out and did not take the statutory picture of it. Nonetheless, I would certainly conclude that as a small hatch, the Polo is at least as practical as its rivals.
I started this test wondering why the Polo does not sell in the volumes of its larger Golf brother. I think the answer is pretty clear: in this version at least, it is simply not a very good car. Indeed, of all its competitors that I have driven – which is quite a few – I’d probably rate it absolutely at the bottom of the class. Maybe that’s not entirely fair, as this was a particularly basic spec model, but I’ve driven Punto and Fiesta with 60 bhp engines and they were nothing like as loud. It’s less fair, perhaps, because VW has replaced this car with the fifth generation model, which is just going on sale. It will be interesting to try that car, and see if it offers more than a new style. On the evidence of my test, you would have to want a VW, with its potential reputation for “quality” and longevity pretty badly to pick one over a Fiesta, or a Punto, or a Yaris, or a Colt, or a …………