- Updated 17 March 2020
- 7 minute read
- By Gavin Braithwaite-Smith
The Volkswagen Polo is like a pair of jeans. This might seem like an unlikely way to start a review of a small car, but bear with me.
I suspect you have a pair of jeans that are suitable for any occasion. Smart enough for the office, but perfectly acceptable attire for a night out with the boys or girls. Whether it’s a black tie do, a red carpet event or a flat white in town, blue denim works.
The Volkswagen Polo, in common with the aforementioned legwear, is utterly classless. It can do dress down Friday as well as it can do dress up Saturday. It simply fits in anywhere.
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The point is the Polo manages to appeal to everyone – you’ll find these cars sitting outside student digs, the hottest night spots and the poshest houses. The Volkswagen Polo is a safe bet. It’s the car your parents would want you to drive. But don’t let that put you off.
Prices start from £15,500, which is around £500 cheaper than an entry-level Ford Fiesta. Spend a little more and you can go sporty, spicy or posh – there’s even a colour option that does a passable impression of ginger. But don’t worry, the Polo doesn’t do scary – it has a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating to fall back on.
Looks, tech and design
If the Polo could talk, I suspect it would ask ‘does my bum look big in this?’ It’s been around for 45 years, and although it’s had a few nips, tucks and facelifts since then (thank goodness), the current Polo seems to have developed a bit of middle-age spread.
It’s not a bad looking supermini, but when parked alongside the lithe and toned Seat Ibiza (which is essentially rhe same car beneath the surface), it looks like it could use a few days in the gym. Upon closer inspection, there are some neat touches and sharp creases, but from some angles it can look a little frumpy. Best avoid those 360-degree mirrors.
Accessorising your Polo will help matters – there’s a wide range of alloy wheels to choose from, along with some bold style packs. Opt for Energetic Orange metallic paint if you want to make a statement. Alternatively, the audio-enhanced Polo Beats wears its racing stripe with pride.
On the inside, the Polo presents a radiant display, with a look that mimics bigger members of the Volkswagen family. It looks and feels thoroughly modern, with an 8.0-inch colour touchscreen that integrates seamlessly with its surroundings.
The Polo Beats boasts red highlights on the dashboard, doors and centre console, but orange, silver or grey are available as options on the other models. This is not especially subtle - it’s the equivalent of wearing a pair of brightly coloured socks in combo with a sombre suit. I fear Volkswagen took some fashion advice from Peter Jones.
Standard tech is pretty good, but I’d avoid the entry-level S trim. The monthly lease on a Polo SE is almost identical, but adds alloy wheels, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, electric windows and a leather trimmed three-spoke multifunction steering wheel to the mix.
There are no fewer than eight trim levels: S, SE, Match, Beats, SEL, R-Line, GTI and GTI+. All versions have five doors, which means you won’t have to risk a fashion faux pas when clambering into the back.
Once there, you’ll find rear accommodation that’s adequate rather than generous. The boot looks relatively small, but there’s an extra load area beneath the floor to provide 355 litres of space. You and three of your mates will have no problem packing for a long weekend.
One final word about the interior. Although many people make a big song and dance about the quality of Volkswagen cabins, the Polo isn’t up to scratch. Some of the surfaces feel plasticky and lacking in quality. I doubt it will be a deal-breaker, but I’d hate for you to be disappointed.
There are four engines available, ranging from a 1.0 non-turbo three-cylinder petrol to a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol powerhouse in the GTI. I’d rule out that entry-level 1.0-litre on the basis of it having only 80hp and being gutless, and the fact that the 95hp 1.0-litre TSI turbo is far superior and actually more efficient.
I’d also avoid the 2.0, because although it’s undoubtedly rapid, the Polo GTI lacks fizz. If you're looking for those kinds of thrills, spend your bucks on something more exciting, like the Ford Fiesta ST or Mini Cooper.
As for the 1.6-litre diesel, unless you need the torque, I’d rule that out on the grounds of noise – especially since these days turning up to a party in a diesel is akin to saying something horrible about Greta Thunberg on Twitter.
If I had to summarise the driving experience in one word, I’d say ‘uninspiring’. The Polo has never been the sharpest tool in the supermini box, but this latest version is about as exciting as instant coffee in a styrofoam cup. Look elsewhere if you’re after an espresso.
It’s not even that comfortable, so you should avoid opting for the admittedly stylish 17- and 18-inch alloy wheels. At least Volkswagen had the sense to fit 16-inch rims to the R-Line model, which is the most attractive Polo you can buy.
And don't be too dismayed by all this - the Polo still has plenty of other talents.
Cost and economy
For the lowest running costs, opt for the 1.0 TSI. It’s only marginally less economical than the 1.0 Evo, but because it offers more poke, you’ll spend less time thrashing it. Any small economy gains will be wiped out by your right foot.
The 1.6 TDI could return 53.3mpg to 57.6mpg, which makes it the best choice if you’re spending time on a motorway. In all other cases, the petrol engines make more sense, with CO2 emissions no higher than 111g/km.
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There’s also the risk that a Polo diesel could be unwelcome in some cities by the time your lease is up. If your name’s not down, you’re not coming in – and no amount of sweet talking the bouncer will change that.
Speaking of leasing, you’ll spend less than £200 a month on an S or SE, while SEL or GTI versions will cost in the region of £330. The Beats costs £285 a month, which should be music to your ears.
The Volkswagen Polo offers the most wide-ranging and far-reaching appeal of all the modern superminis. At home everywhere, even with those questionable Beats decals.
Today, I’m almost certain the Polo’s biggest threat comes from within the Volkswagen stable. The T-Cross mini SUV looks more upmarket without appearing flashy, and it’s not that much more expensive than the Polo. There’s a definite feeling that you’re getting more for your money with one of those - so check it out.
Decisions, decisions. It turns out deciding how to wear a pair of jeans is far simpler than deciding what car to buy. Where’s a jean genie when you need one?
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