VW Polo: Third report

22 Feb, 2012 11:00am Dan Strong

Can our turbocharged supermini really cut the mustard as a family runaround?

Our long-term Volkswagen Polo 1.2 TSI has had it tough since it arrived on the Auto Express test fleet back in July 2011 – we have made big demands of one of the smallest cars in the office car park.

It’s seen service as a city commuter, and been pitched head-to-head with a 1989 Golf GTI MkII to rate its sporting potential. But now it’s facing its sternest test of all: can it really provide practical transport for a fast-growing family of four? I grabbed the keys before Christmas to find out.

‘Downsizing’ is a term you hear a lot these days, but as I had stepped from our Mercedes E-Class Estate to this, a car that’s nearly half the size, it was sure to be an interesting experiment. 

First impressions were very positive. Our five-door VW is every bit as versatile a commuter as larger cars. Of course, the compact dimensions mean it’s easier to drive around town – but it’s out on the motorway where it really scores points. 

The absorbent suspension and accurate steering mean it feels completely at home in fast-moving traffic, while the responsive 104bhp turbocharged engine is lively and powerful, right up to 70mph.

Our car is a top-spec SEL model, and although the stereo and trip computer look a little old hat, both offer plenty of functionality. Air-conditioning is standard, and quickly clears the windows of winter condensation.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Frankly, there’s no escaping the fact that the cabin is right on the limit of what’s practical – and trying to fit child seats has brought this home.

While the car offers seatbelts for five, there’s little chance of squeezing three child seats across the rear bench. And if your kids still use full-sized safety seats, beware... even though the Polo’s ISOFIX system locks them securely in place, it will also offer the children the perfect position from which to spend an entire journey kicking you in the back. 

My two-year-old son discovered this on a 100-mile run to Norfolk. The solution was to leave him sitting behind my wife – which wasn’t exactly a popular move.

At least the 280-litre boot proved more of a success. Although its volume hardly sounds like anything special on paper, its useful shape and easy access make it a really practical space. I easily fitted in an overnight cot, as well as a soft holdall, child’s mattress and bedding. That’s not something I was expecting to be able to do.

Even when fully laden, the VW still proves a relaxed and capable cruiser. But extra weight quickly blunts performance, and you’ll find yourself burying the throttle in the carpet on long motorway climbs. Fuel economy suffers as a result of this, too. On my fully-loaded stint, returns plummeted from the car’s usual 40mpg to 32mpg. 

The suspension, which is bouncy at the best of times, will also see the car pitch and heave on anything but billiard-smooth surfaces, so the Polo lags behind the likes of the Ford Fiesta dynamically.

Despite that, it’s a surprisingly capable family car that takes long journeys in its stride. Call me crazy, but I even like the Savannah Yellow colour...

Extra Info

“I’ve never been a big fan of the little VW, but the 1.2-litre TSI petrol engine transforms it. The car is still no Ford Fiesta to drive, but it’s very capable on motorways.”
Ross Pinnock, Road test editor

“Yes, it’s very nice. Terrific equipment and all that, but is it still a Polo? This car is as big as an old Golf!”
Darrenjs, via autoexpress.co.uk

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So this is what a serious reviewer can write like. Good job.

Key specs

  • On fleet since: June 2011
  • Price when new: £15,925
  • Running costs: 40mpg
  • Mileage: 7,252
  • Engine / Power: 1.2-litre 4cyl turbo/104bhp
  • Trade-in value now: £11,725
  • Insurance Group / Quote: 13/£429
  • Costs: None so far
  • Any problems?: None so far
  • Equipment: Savannah Yellow paint (£225)*, pas. airbag cut out (£45) - *No longer available
Issue 1346
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