Volkswagen Polo (1990 - 1999) review

BY JONATHAN CROUCH

Introduction

The Polo was the car that Volkswagen always hoped would repeat the success of the larger Golf, the company's Escort-sized family hatch. And the reasoning was good; a smaller more compact version of the same thing was what we got in the Seventies. It never really took off here. The second generation Polo, launched in 1981 and facelifted in 1990, did slightly better, but the rather crude mechanicals and the lack of a five-door option always restricted its impact on the British market. All that changed in 1994 with the announcement of a completely new Polo range with everything on the UK buyer's wish list; three and five doors, saloons, diesels, automatics, a 16-valve hot hatch - even a clever retractable electric opening top. The Polo had at last arrived.

Models

Models Covered: Second generation (post-facelift) -1990-1994:2-door saloon, 3-door hatchback, coupe, 1.0, 1.3 [Fox, CL, Genesis, G40] Third generation - 1994-to 1999:3 & 5-door hatchback, 4-door saloon, 5-door estate, 1.3, 1.4, 1.6, 1.4 turbo diesel, 1.9 diesel, 1.9 turbo diesel [L, C, CL100, GL, GLX, E, S, SE, 16v, GTi]

History

Second generation Polos arrived in Britain in 1981 and the model was substantially facelifted at the end of 1990. The brakes got a servo at last and there was new front and rear styling as well as a revised dashboard and fresh seat trim. Buyers chose between Hatch, Coupe and Saloon, all with the familiar 1.05-litre engine, plus there was also the 1.3-litre Coupe. In 1991, a potent supercharged G40 hot hatch model was announced, but the press castigated it. In 1992, the Saloon was dropped and the previously special edition-only Genesis installed in the range as the lead-in model with 1.05 or 1.3-litre power. It wasn't until the introduction of the all-new third generation Polo in 1994, however, that Volkswagen's smallest car was really taken seriously. Originally, there was a choice of 1.0, 1.3 or 1.6-litre power and three or five-door hatchbacks spread across L, CL, GL and GLX trim levels. The 1.3-litre unit lasted less than a year before being replaced with a much better 1.4-litre engine in 1995. A 1.9-litre diesel option arrived in 1996, as did a saloon range (a lightly restyled and rebadged SEAT Cordoba) plus the option of automatic transmission and a fully retractable electric, folding Open Top roof. A 1.4-litre 16v hot hatch was added in 1997, as was a new 1.0-litre engine for the lead-in car. An estate (also based on a Cordoba) was added to the range in spring 1998. By now, Volkswagen's 100bhp 1.6-litre engine was being used for 1.6-litre models. The hatchback range was facelifted for a February 2000 launch with a new nose and substantially altered interior with Lupo-style instruments. The saloon and estate were almost unchanged externally but did get the Lupo-like dashboard. Key new models included the 1.6-litre GTi and a three cylinder, 1.4-litre direct injection diesel offered with upmarket SE trim.

What You Get

Arguably, the classiest small hatch on the market; even the decade-old ones look good, despite their crude underpinnings. The distinctive boxy shape of the second-generation hatch is roomy. The new-shape Polo (post-'94) has been a huge success story for Volkswagen and represents a superb used small car buy.

What You Pay

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What to Look For

Not much goes wrong with the post-'94 Polo, but look for starting and misfire problems on early examples and look for oil leaks through the head gasket on hard-used one-litre cars. A full Volkswagen service history is very desirable. Otherwise, the main attention here has to focus on the 1990-1994 second generation car. Rust sometimes starts on the valance below the front bumper and bonnet edge. Also check the front wings and tailgate (which can leak). Transmissions are good, but check the driveshaft gaiters (rubber couplings on the front wheels) for splits and leaks. Check the suspension struts for leaks and watch for blue smoke from the exhaust (which means the valve guides and seals need replacing). The interior trim can be flimsy; check the headlight switches in particular.

Replacement Parts

(Approx. based on a 1994 1.0L excluding Vat) An exhaust system is about £120. A clutch assembly will be around £50, whilst a new catalyst will be just under £270. An alternator should be close to £90 and a radiator around £90. A starter motor is around £100 and a front wing around £80. Brake pad sets front and rear are about £12 and £14, respectively. A new headlamp is close to £75. A windscreen (tinted) should be in the region of £60. Major and minor services cost around £35 and £75 respectively.

On the Road

These aren't great fun to drive (unless you're in a 1.4 or post-'94 1.6 Polo). Second generation cars had vague and heavy steering. The 1.05-litre engine was slow and geared for economy. The supercharged G40 is quite fast, but wild, and attracts horrendous insurance premiums.

Overall

What a difference between second and third/fourth generation cars! The earlier Polo is quite sound if you buy carefully, but it's mechanically crude and poorly equipped plus there are plenty of rogue examples about. The new generation Polo is one of the best small cars ever made; if you can afford one, you shouldn't go wrong.