Volkswagen Polo: Second report

24 Oct, 2011 4:39pm James Disdale

Can a 1.2-litre Polo really match our man’s classic Golf GTI for pace? We carried out a unique test to find out

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It's clear a lot of thought has been put into the design and layout of the Polo’s cabin. A real highlight is the neat stereo. Chunky controls and a large display make it a doddle to use, while the sound quality from the six-speaker set-up is good. An iPod connection is standard.
Against: 
In range-topping SEL guise, the Polo comes with 16-inch alloys as standard. While the multi-spoke wheels boost the car’s kerb appeal, they spoil the ride comfort, causing the VW to crash into potholes. A recent drive in a Match model with 15-inchers proved to be much more comfortable.
Could today’s sensible superminis really be faster than yesterday’s hot hatch heroes? It’s a question that’s been running through my head ever since our VW Polo arrived in the Auto Express car park four months ago.

You see, as the owner of a 1989 VW Golf GTI, the muscular mid-range acceleration and keen throttle response of the Polo’s turbocharged 1.2-litre engine felt extremely familiar. In fact, back-to-back stints in the two cars convinced me that there was little to choose between them for outright pace. There was only one way to settle this – a race!

Well, sort of. The eighties-style traffic light grand prix is frowned upon these days, so I decided to take our dynamic duo to the Longcross test track in Surrey where they could be hooked up to our Racelogic GPS timing gear.

On paper the pair are surprisingly evenly matched. The 112bhp 1.8-litre Golf has an 8bhp power advantage over the heavier Polo, but the newer car strikes back with a 175Nm torque output – 16Nm more than the GTI.

At the test track, the Polo went first – and completed 0-60mph in only 9.4 seconds. But it was the overtaking urge that impressed, with the 30-50mph sprint in third gear taking 4.3 seconds.

Next up was the Golf – and I was a little nervous. I’ve owned the car in our pictures for nearly a decade, so I was going to take any defeat personally. My jangling nerves weren’t helped when the GTI also posted a 30-50mph time of 4.3 seconds. I knew the two were close on performance, but I wasn’t expecting them to be identical.

However, the GTI’s slightly lower kerbweight and higher power output finally helped it claim a lead in the remaining tests, with 0-60mph taking 9.0 seconds and 50-70mph in fifth gear needing 8.7 seconds – a full half a second faster than the Polo.

So, it was a narrow victory for the past master. Yet the acceleration figures only tell half the story. While modern-day superminis can now almost match the pace of legendary pocket rockets, in all other respects the newer cars are leagues ahead.

For instance, the Polo delivers its performance with a mechanical refinement that owners of old GTIs can only dream of. And while there’s a deftness and delicacy to the Golf’s handling that the woolly feeling modern machine can’t match, the old-timer runs out of grip at much lower speeds.

You also get more kit and nearly as much space in the Polo. Additions such as air-con, electric windows and an iPod connection make spending extended periods in the new VW a pleasure. Low wind noise – even by current supermini standards – and excellent seats also mean the bright yellow machine is a more comfortable motorway cruiser.

Then there is the matter of performance per pound. In 1989, the Golf cost £11,429. Take into account inflation and the GTI would set you back around £23,000 in 2011 – nearly £7,000 more expensive than the Polo.

But perhaps the most sobering demonstration of progress comes when you want to stop. In its day, the Golf’s four-disc braking set-up was reckoned to provide powerful stopping.

At Longcross, it brought the GTI to a halt from 70mph in 59.4 metres – although it took two attempts, as the first run finished in clouds of tyre smoke and locked up wheels. The Polo stopped in only 49.1 metres.

And this was on a bone dry day. Factor in rain and surface changes, and the Polo’s ABS-backed system is at even more of an advantage.

So, modern superminis aren’t quite as fast as yesterday’s hot hatches, but that really misses the point. The march of progress means that in every other respect the Polo is far and away the better car. Still, that won’t stop me loving my creaky old GTI...

Extra Info

“Like James, every time I’ve driven the Polo I’ve enjoyed it, with the quality cabin and subtle looks particularly impressive. However, the real highlight has been the 1.2-litre turbocharged engine – with a linear spread of power throughout the rev range, it punches far above its weight.”
Graeme Lambert, Road Tester

Disqus - noscript

looks like a toy compared to the polo. If you count the fact that its built like a toy compared to todays standards that says a lot about the 1.2 TSi compared to the defunct unit in the gti.

History is just that. History, not to be compared with the future.

A very interesting comparison and well written up too. Thanks.

So lets get this right...

You are testing a 20yr old hatch against a new similiar sized hatch from the same manufacturer that is ten times the cost...

Incredible...

Now if you had the older car equipped with new brakes, alloys and latest grippy tyres then not only will the older, lighter car go faster in a straight line, but round the corners too...

Also have severe doubts whether a small capacity turbo can do as many miles (with hammering) that a uncomplicated 8v engine can with an extra 600cc...

100,000 miles on both engines and my monies gonna be saved on the less complicated extra cc car!

Soz AutoExpress... less is more and uncomplicated is best...

How bout a new shell of a MK1 Golf with latest rubber, alloys and brakes with a 1.4TDi... Now that would be a good eco-car!

VW classic collection?

Thanks for the comparison. I bought the GTI 8V in 1987 - best all round car I have ever owned. Sadly had to replace it with a Passat estate with same engine, but half the fun, as new baby revealed the harsh ride that I had never noticed. My wife considered the Polo, but went for a Fabia with the same engine -£4000 cheaper (VAT off deal) including a DSG gearbox and Elegance trim. I have often compared it's performance with the Golf, but here is proof! The big difference is refinement and ride - the Fabia happily pulling from a near silent 1300RPM in 6th. around town and soaking up the bumps like my old E36 Beemer. Excellent machine - fun and rorty when asked and DSG only £700 verses double for the same thing in many VWs/Audis.

The 8V 1.8gti was not very hot 20years ago however the MK2 GTI 16V could be considered a hot hatch and probably would have left the the Polo standing.

Key specs

  • On fleet since: June 2011
  • Price when new: £15,785
  • Running costs: 40.0mpg
  • Mileage: 4,252
  • Engine / Power: 1.2-litre 4cyl/104bhp
  • Trade-in value now: £11,450
  • Insurance Group / Quote: 13
  • Costs: None so far
  • Any problems?: None so far
  • Equipment: Savannah Yellow paint (£225)*, passenger airbag cut out (£45)
AEX 1,341
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