The improved fifth generation Volkswagen Polo is undeniably impressive but can it work its way into June Neary's affections?
Will It Suit Me?
Despite coming to me for recommendations as to what sort of car to buy and, predictably, ignoring them, three of my good female friends have recently bought brand new Polos. It's not that it's a bad car - quite the opposite is true - but it's one that has never really suited me. Every time I'd driven a Polo in the past, it had never really felt like a car with its own persona, instead coming across as a shortchanged Golf. As my friends seemed to have confirmed, it was a safe fallback option; socially acceptable but terminally unadventurous. Since then, I've been changing my views and the revised fifth generation version we're going to look at here is a far more fully-formed vehicle than its predecessors.
You wouldn't guess as much from the styling which, more than ever, seems like a Russian doll version of the Golf. So low key is the Polo's styling that the updates to this latest car will be lost on many customers. Exterior changes are ultra-subtle, with sharper creases on the redesigned front bumper and grille and the addition of a chrome line that separates the front fog lights. Drop inside and the instrument panel has been redesigned, as has the steering wheel design. The centre console has also been given a mild makeover with heating and ventilation controls now easier to operate. Soft touch plastics and subtle aluminium detailing are the order of the day but the cabin is notably less austere than before. There's a 280-litre boot which increases to 952-litres when the rear seats are folded down. In the cabin it at first appears that Volkswagen has lavished quite a budget on the Polo with soft touch plastics and subtle aluminium detailing giving it a high class look. Scratch beneath this veneer, however, and there is evidence of cost cutting. Nothing you couldn't live with though.
Behind the Wheel
The big surprise for me was the way the Polo drove. I've never found Polos to deliver much in the way of a grin when squirted along a challenging road, but underneath its sober suit, this car was a bit of an extrovert. It helped that it was powered by Volkswagen's 105bhp 1.2-litre TSI engine which is a really puppyish thing but the suspension system seemed far more supple and less crashy than the old Polo's and there;'s enough pep to be able to maintain a good pace. The steering feels very light at low speeds but weights up nicely when you start shifting. I also had the opportunity to try the 90bhp 1.4 turbodiesel engine that all three of my friends bought and while it's impressively refined and gets great fuel consumption, I can't help but think that they've missed a trick in not specifying the 1.2 TSI petrol.
Value For Money
The reason I place the 1.2 TSI above the 1.4 TDI diesel, apart from it being a more spirited drive, is largely down to simple economics. None of my friends drive their cars big distances. They might get the occasional weekend outing but they're largely used for school run and shopping duties. The diesel car is £500 dearer to buy, costs more to service and at the modest mileages my friends do, will never pay for itself back. They'd have been better sticking with the quicker petrol car. So much for intra-family rivalries. How does the Polo fare as a value proposition against, say, a Ford Fiesta? Despite the Fiesta's more blue-collar image, it isn't actually any cheaper to run. To buy one that gets close to the Polo 1.2 TSI's speed, you need to fork out for a 1.6-litre Zetec model which returns worse fuel economy and can't get close to the Polo's residual values. Now I'm beginning to see why friends wear a rather self-satisfied expression at the wheel of their VWs.
Could I Live With One?
I can see that buying and running a Volkswagen Polo makes all kinds of sense. They're reliable, genuinely classless (in the best meaning of the word), and in 1.2-litre TSI form, a good drive. These qualities should make this little VW a car I could easily live with but despite earning my respect, I never fully bonded with the Polo. Perhaps my refusal to grow up means that I could find all of these qualities in the rather more extrovert SEAT Ibiza, which shares much of the Polo's mechanicals. It comes down to brand loyalty I suppose. If you've always liked the idea of a Volkswagen, you'll almost certainly like the idea of this one.