Considering it's been around for the past 35 years, it's surprising that the Volkswagen Polo hasn't featured in the European Car of the Year awards, an honour that went to its bigger brother, the Golf, in 1992. But the fifth generation of the Polo walked away with this year's award and, having just driven it, it's easy to see why. Bigger than its predecessor in all dimensions, except height, the redesigned Polo is actually seven per cent lighter than its predecessor, resulting in improved handling, performance and fuel economy.
Although better looking than the previous model, the Polo looks a little bland at first glance. But there's a fine line between blandness and subtlety and a closer look reveals some nice touches. The quality of the build is obvious with tight, shut lines and sharp creases. The front end is particularly attractive with echoes of the new Scirocco and Golf models, and the whole car has a cohesive look, as if finally establishing its own identity.
For a car that is classified as a supermini, or sub-compact in the United States, the interior is much more attractive than the budget restrained quality expected in that class. High-class, durable materials are used in the light and airy cabin, and the fit and finish is typically Germanic. The comfortable driver's seat is height adjustable, the steering wheel looks and feels right, and all controls fall readily to hand. Despite being smaller than the Golf, there is enough rear legroom for adults to get comfortable. The boot holds a reasonable 280 litres and there is a separate compartment below the removable base shelf for larger items. There is also a 12-volt connection in the boot, useful for a portable grill or cool box. Safety is high on the agenda and the Polo has a five-star NCAP rating for safety performance, with both front passengers getting airbags, plus side airbags and head restraints designed to minimise whiplash. In addition, ESP, traction control, ABS, hill hold control for parking on steep slopes and Isofix mounts in the rear for child safety seats are standard.
On the road, the Polo is refined, with little intrusion from wind or tyre noise. The free-revving 1.4-litre engine pumps out a modest 85 bhp, enough to get the car from 0 to 100 km/h in 11.9 seconds and to a top speed of 177 km/h. Just one transmission is offered, VW's slick seven-speed, dual-clutch DSG unit. Snick the lever into D and the gearbox operates like an automatic, but without the energy losses of a hydraulic transmission. Shift the lever to the left and a tap forward or back allows manual gear shifting. Steering wheel paddles are available, but only as an optional extra. Improvements to the engine coupled with the DSG and a lighter body mean that fuel consumption is some 15 per cent better than the previous model at 5.8 litres/100km in the combined cycle, and carbon dioxide emissions are low at 135g/litre.
Driving the Polo is a pleasure. The engine is willing, gear changes are lightning fast, the steering is light and precise, and the handling and roadholding are excellent. However, the most outstanding aspect is the ride. For a small and light car, the ride is outstanding, soaking up bumps, potholes and ripples in a firm, well damped manner, the chassis always composed.
With the Mark 5 Polo, Volkswagen has upped the stakes in the supermini segment.
This is the standard by which all others in the class will be judged. The Polo is a worthy Car of the Year and, at HK$166,000, appears to be exceptional value for money.