Volkswagen Polo review
The VW Polo is a fantastic supermini, with smart styling, an impressive interior and great engines
The Volkswagen Polo is still one of the most desirable superminis money can buy, thanks to a strong combination of running costs, build quality and practicality. It’s not quite as stylish as the new Renault Clio and the Ford Fiesta is more fun to drive but as an overall package, the Volkswagen Polo is one of the best small cars on the market.
The economical and powerful engine range is a big selling point for the Polo, with the 1.4 TDI diesel capable of more than 80mpg. There’s also a huge amount of choice in terms of trims and specifications, ranging from the basic 1.0 S model right up to the new and improved GTI. If a classy, supremely competent B-segment hatch is what you’re after, there is bound to be a Volkswagen Polo that perfectly fits your needs.
Now into its fifth generation, having been on sale in the UK for 40 years, the Volkswagen Polo takes its inspiration from the hugely successful Golf model in the class above. Just like the Golf, it aims to be a refined, grown-up hatchback in a highly competitive marketplace filled with plenty of affordable, fun alternatives.
With more than 14 million Polos sold globally, it’s an important model to Volkswagen and the UK is a key market. A total of 1,235,000 have found homes here since 1975 and in 2014, 48,004 units were shifted – it is Volkswagen’s second best-seller in the UK after the Golf and around 70 per cent of Polos purchased go to private buyers.
Two hatchback bodystyles are available, the three-door and the five-door, the latter accounting for 70 per cent of sales. Trim levels run S, SE, SE Design, R Line and SEL, but there’s also the super-economical BlueMotion as well as the more performance-focused BlueGT and GTI. The GTI hot hatch model joined the range in March 2015 and the BlueMotion and R Line were both added to the line-up after the facelifted cars arrived in 2014.
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Don’t be confused by the use of the word BlueMotion throughout the Polo engine range. The name BlueMotion Technology is applied to various Polo engine options to underline the fact that they aim to be economical. The BlueMotion model, however, is a standalone vehicle with extra aerodynamic tweaks, low rolling resistance tyres and longer gear ratios to make the most of its 1.0-litre TSI petrol engine.
Standard gearboxes are either five- or six-speed manuals depending on the engine, or there’s an optional seven-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic. All Polos are front-wheel drive, with the performance-oriented BlueGT and GTI variants benefitting from the XDS+ electronic front differential lock.
The Polo sits in Volkswagen’s line-up between the up! city car and the evergreen Golf, representing the second most affordable model VW offers in the UK. Its key rivals are the big-selling Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Corsa, Volkswagen Group alternatives such as the Skoda Fabia and SEAT Ibiza, chic French rivals in the form of the Renault Clio and Peugeot 208, and improving cars from South Korea and Japan, such as the Hyundai i20, Honda Jazz and Mazda2.
Engines, performance and drive
The Polo has always lagged behind the Ford Fiesta when it comes to entertainment behind the wheel, mainly due to its rather lifeless steering. However, where the Polo does excel is with its refinement and composure on the move. It feels like a bigger car than it is and the 2014 facelifted models are even more grown-up than before.
On cars with 16-inch alloy wheels, there’s a slight firmness to the ride but the SE’s standard 15-inch rims help the soft suspension iron out most bumpy surfaces. There’s a touch more road noise than rivals from Mazda and Ford, but the Polo still feels refined on long motorway journeys.
Happily, this comfort and refinement does not come at the expense of handling. There’s a fair amount of body roll, but grip is good and the Volkswagen isn’t unsettled by mid-corner bumps. The steering is naturally weighted and precise, just not quite as communicative as the Ford Fiesta’s. Visibility is good, making it easy to place the car and in general the predictable Polo inspires confidence on the road.
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Transmissions across the range are either five- or six-speed manuals – the five on the 1.0 MPI and 1.2 TSI 89bhp engines, the six on the 108bhp 1.2, the 1.0-litre TSI and the 1.4- and 1.8-litre petrols. Both variants of 1.4 TDI have five-speed gearboxes as standard too.
A DSG dual-clutch automatic is offered for £1,375 on all models bar the 1.0-litre MPI and TSI engines, and it’s a seven-speed affair in all instances. There are no problems with any Polo gearboxes – all are slick operators.
An optional Sport pack is available for the Polo GTI hot hatch, which alters the stability control, dampers, throttle response, exhaust note and steering weighting. While it sharpens up the car’s behaviour, the dampers provide a harsh ride on UK roads. It’s better to stay with the GTI in its standard set-up, where it proves to be an accomplished performance supermini. With plenty of torque, lots of grip and impressive handling, it’s a highly enjoyable car on a back-road blast.
Volkswagen provides a range of three- and four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines for the Polo, from a mere 59bhp right up to 189bhp. The entry level unit is borrowed from the up! city car, a 1.0-litre MPI normally-aspirated three-cylinder engine of either 59- or 74bhp. Be warned, though, it feels markedly underpowered, especially the 59bhp example, thanks to just 95Nm of torque at a relatively high 3,000rpm.
It’s better to opt for the superb 1.2-litre TSI unit, which produces 89bhp. It returns the same economy and emissions data as the 59bhp MPI engine, but offers a healthier 160Nm of torque from 1,400rpm to make it much more pleasant in day-to-day driving. There's also a 1.0-litre 108bhp TSI, too, which is available on R Line and SEL models.
At the top of the range sit two performance models, the warm BlueGT and the full-blooded GTI hot hatch. The former uses a 1.4-litre TSI engine rated at 148bhp at 5,500rpm and 250Nm from 1,500rpm; it also employs Active Cylinder Technology (ACT), which allows it to shut down two cylinders under light driving demands to save fuel.
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The pre-facelift Polo GTI had a 1.4-litre supercharged and turbocharged petrol engine, which has now been replaced by a muscular 1.8-litre TSI turbo-only unit. This delivers a robust 189bhp from 4,200 to 6,200rpm and the most torque of any Polo with 320Nm from 1,450rpm to the point that peak power arrives.
All the engines are smooth and pleasant motors, although we think the 1.2-litre is the sweet spot of the range – it’s an enjoyable powerplant that’s more than capable of dealing with the Polo’s weight which is in the 1,100kg ballpark.
There is another petrol option but only on the BlueMotion eco-model – it’s the Volkswagen Group’s new 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder unit. It delivers more power than the 1.2 TSI with 94bhp at 5,000rpm and matches the 1.2 on torque, delivering 160Nm from 1,500- to 3,000rpm. It’s an excellent little motor that has already spread further up the range with the R Line and SEL models.
The diesel side of the line-up is handled by a solitary 1.4-litre, three-cylinder TDI engine in two forms – rated at either 74bhp at 3,000rpm and 210Nm from 1,500rpm, or 89bhp at 3,500rpm with 230Nm from 1,500rpm. We like this engine, as despite being a touch harsh on start-up, for a diesel in such a small car it’s surprisingly quiet. It is worth noting, however, that the TDI engine is heavier than the TSI units so it renders the Polo less agile in the corners.
Performance ranges from the outright slow to the seriously rapid. The 1.0 MPI engines take at least 14.3s and as much as 15.5s to drag the Polo from 0-62mph, with top speeds struggling to surpass 100mph. Even the 89bhp 1.2 TSI significantly improves the benchmark sprint to 10.8s and the BlueMotion’s 1.0 TSI just edges it at 10.5s.
The TDI is not great on paper, with a 0-62mph time of 12.9 seconds in its low-power guise, but the extra midrange torque it provides is well worth having. And while the GTI obviously takes the performance spoils with a 6.7-second sprint and 146mph capability, don’t overlook the BlueGT – it manages respectable data of 0-62mph in 7.8 seconds and a top speed of 137mph; more than enough for most people’s needs.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
Go for the Volkswagen Polo 1.4-litre TDI diesel, which emits 88g/km of CO2 and returns in excess of 80mpg, if you’re after the most efficient Polo you can get. Although the price tag is very high, if you’re driving a lot of miles and want low fuel costs it’s a solid choice. The entry-level 1.0-litre petrol gets at least 58.9mpg and emits an impressive 108g/km, but it feels very underpowered.
The BlueGT gets up to 60.1mpg and CO2 emissions of 107g/km thanks to its cylinder shut-off technology, and even the stop-start equipped GTI has an official 47mpg economy figure.
In an effort to move its efficiency focus away from diesel power alone, the Volkswagen Polo BlueMotion is powered by an economical 1.0-litre turbocharged TSI petrol. This produces 94bhp, which is much more than its predecessor, and yet it is capable of returning up to 68.9mpg with CO2 emissions of just 94g/km. Those figures are pretty decent for a small petrol engine, but they’re nowhere near the official 91mpg you used to get with the diesel engine in the old Bluemotion.
As you’d expect, premiums will be higher for the GTI as it’s in a lofty group 29 for insurance, but other models in the Polo range will suit young drivers’ requirements for low insurance costs. The 1.0-litre MPI engine is in insurance groups 6-10 depending on spec, while the 1.2-litre TSI is in either group 14 (89bhp) or 18 (108bhp). The BlueMotion 1.0 TSI is in group 15, while the BlueGT bridges the gap to the GTI in insurance group 23.
This is one area where the Polo is bound to shine, as the strength of parent brand Volkswagen ensures it will be class-leading in terms of residual values. As an example, the 1.4 TDI SE is expected to retain 48.8 per cent of its purchase price over three years and 36,000 miles.
Optional extras are expensive across the range, however, and the cheapest models don’t get too much equipment, so be aware that buying the car in the first place will require considerable outlay, especially compared to some non-European competitors.
Interior, design and technology
Whichever model you decide to go for, the Volkswagen Polo is a stylish little car. It lacks the imaginative design of the Renault Clio and Mazda2, but it looks smart and understated. The interior quality is up there with bigger cars like the Volkswagen Golf, and puts it ahead of rivals like the Ford Fiesta and Peugeot 208 on first impressions when you sit inside.
The 2014 model overhaul was by no means radical in terms of design, with the exterior gaining sharper bumpers, a chrome strip for the grille and redesigned LED headlights on top-spec models.
While the Polo isn’t the most exciting car to look at, you can’t fault its fit and finish. Tight shut lines are a sign of its quality, plus the classless looks mean it will appeal to a broad cross-section of customers.
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Inside, there’s a neat three-spoke steering wheel and entry-level S trim is now slightly better equipped but still doesn’t even get air conditioning. For that, you'll need to pay a £720 premium although we’d recommend mid-range SE which also comes with 15-inch alloy wheels, a chrome-rimmed front air intake, leather-trimmed multi-function steering wheel, glovebox-mounted CD player and electrically adjustable door mirrors.
Go for the SE Design (£1,100 more than an SE) for a more stylish look, including 16-inch alloys, black gloss exterior detailing, front fog lights, tinted rear lights and windows, plus front sports seats and revised interior upholstery. The R Line simply adds body styling extras and interior goodies to make it look sporty. It starts at £16,230.
SEL cars build on SE spec with a number of these styling changes, but also feature standard-fit parking sensors – however, it’s not exactly cheap. BlueGT models (from £17,910) get a unique body kit, 15mm lower sports suspension and even bigger wheels signalling the presence of the punchy 148bhp 1.4-litre TSI engine.
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The Polo GTI has styling similar to the larger Golf GTI. There are red accents for the honeycomb grille, big alloys, a roof spoiler and twin exhausts out back, while the cabin gets tartan trim. It’s less than a grand more expensive than the BlueGT, at £18,900 for a manual three-door.
If you’re interested in the Polo BlueMotion, it is priced at £14,780. Upgrading any Polo from three doors to five costs just £630, so we reckon it’s well worth opting for the extra practicality offered by the rear doors.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The Polo has the same infotainment system as found in the MkVII Golf. A five-inch touchscreen is standard on entry-level models, with all variants getting Bluetooth connectivity, DAB digital radio and a USB port. Opting for higher spec models adds a 6.5-inch display that’s better, with smartphone-style swiping movements used to navigate through the different menus.
Sat-nav is not standard equipment on any Polo, including the GTI. At £700 for Discover navigation, it’s not hugely expensive but we feel the higher-spec cars should get this as standard, considering their purchase prices. Also, it cannot be specified with the five-inch screen on the S models; it’s only available from SE spec and upwards.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
Even entry-level Polos come with a full size spare wheel, which is rare in this class – so you’ve got peace of mind in case of a puncture while on the road. Avoid the very cheapest models and there’s a reasonable level of standard equipment to make life comfortable. The interior is very well built and should stand up to family life very well.
There are deep cup-holders and a handy tray in front of the USB and 12V sockets on the centre console to keep your smartphone in, while the standard touchscreen infotainment system is logically laid out and easy to use.
At sub-four metres in length, the Polo is actually smaller than some rivals, such as the Hyundai i20 and the Ford Fiesta. It also weighs around only 1,100kg, give or take a few kilos according to specifications (the diesel engine, DSG gearbox and five-door options all add weight), which makes it a nimble car.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
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There’s decent head- and legroom in the rear, and if you go for the five-door model it's easy enough to get in and out as well. Access to the rear seats is simple thanks to the wide-opening back doors, but legroom is a little tight. A high window line and dark cabin materials mean it feels claustrophobic in the back.
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The Polo’s 280-litre boot is not bad for its class, but it’s nowhere near as spacious as the Honda Jazz and it’s not great for trips to the dump. Split-folding rear seats are standard across the range, which boosts the capacity to 952 litres. The Peugeot 208’s maximum of 1,152 litres means the Polo falls behind for boot space in its class, but it does get a false floor for hiding valuables.
Reliability and Safety
The pre-facelift Polo finished our Driver Power 2014 satisfaction survey in a lowly 119th place, so Volkswagen would have been hoping for a stronger showing in the 2015 poll. What a shame, then, that the Polo slumped to 167th out of 200, with an 84.58 per cent overall satisfaction rating, scoring poorly for reliability (183rd), performance (188th) and seat comfort (191st).
By way of compensation, Volkswagen has worked hard on the Polo’s safety and all cars get electronic stability control, traction control, brake assist and post-collision brake application. Extras include adaptive cruise control, parking sensors and a driver fatigue sensor – but lane departure warning isn’t available as an option.
The Polo earned a five-star Euro NCAP rating in 2009, and the percentage score should improve with the new model. However, it only gets four airbags as standard – curtain bags will set you back an extra £465.
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On the plus side, it does benefit from Volkswagen’s latest touchscreen technology and will come with the most recent software updates, so the in-car infotainment should be trouble free.
Volkswagen provides a three-year/60,000-mile warranty but it’s worth investigating the small print. Years one and two are manufacturer cover with unlimited mileage, while year three is a 12-month/60,000-mile retailer warranty. Should you exceed 60,000 miles in the first 24 months, the manufacturer warranty will remain valid but the extra year will no longer be available.
An extended warranty is available for a fee, offering cover up to a maximum of five years or 90,000 miles. Body protection is good, the Polo’s internal body sections and panels covered against rusting through from the inside for 12 years. The paintwork is covered for just three years, though.
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Working on a variable, condition-based servicing schedule, each Polo will require maintenance at different times according to how it is driven – urban drivers, of which there should be plenty with this Volkswagen supermini, will put more strain on the car’s consumables than those who do a lot of motorway miles. However, there’s a three-year fixed servicing plan on offer, which means you won’t get stung for costly maintenance.