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Tested: VW's new Polo 1.6TDI

2010-02-04 12:26

Lance Branquinho

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Volkswagen
Model POLO
Engine 1.6 TDI
Power 77kW @ 4 400r/min
Torque 250Nm @ 1 500-2 500r/min
Transmission Five-speed manual
Zero To Hundred 10.4 sec
Top Speed 189km/h
Fuel Tank 45l
Fuel Consumption 4.8l/100km
Weight 280l
Airbags Dual front and side
Tyres 185/60/16
Front Suspension McPherson struts
Rear Suspension Torsion beam
Warranty 3 year/120 000km
Price R209 900
Rivals Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Renault Clio
For the last two years VW’s Polo hatch range has been selling purely on gravitas. Its more contemporary rivals (Fiesta/Mazda2 and Clio) have been thoroughly better cars – boasting levels of digitisation and drivetrain efficiency Polo buyers could only dream of.

I’ve always had an affinity for the Polo range though, ever since I drove the groundbreaking Mark IV three-cylinder 1.4TDI (sporting those characteristic dual headlights) back in 2003.

First local Polo TDI's tri-cylinder burble, strong in-gear acceleration and good economy helped popularise diesel during the first half of the noughties.

Despite the irony of its name (denoting the more aristocratic game for the entry-level car instead of Golf) I’ve always felt the premium billing was well deserved.

Polos are refined, safe and comfortable long-distance cruisers, although admittedly lacking in ultimate driver involvement and being a trifle short on standard equipment.

With the latest Polo, VW is keen to raise the game – much as it did with the Mark IV car in 2002. With a premium asking price and hugely accomplished competitors, is Polo still the best game around though?

Inflated Polo or miniature Golf?

The new car is significantly larger (54 longer, 32mm wider) and much closer in terms of design and engineering integrity to its Golf6 sibling - much more so than the previous Polo was to Golf5.

From a styling perspective Polo cues design clues very reminiscent of Golf6. In fact, it looks like a miniaturised Golf from a distance.

Although the design could be castigated for being lazy and unimaginative (how plain are those flanks?), the simple parallelogram-shaped rear light clusters, geometric nose and neat surfacing will appeal to a generally conservative audience.

Polo’s styling is - for lack of a better word and at the risk of sounding jargonised - evolutionary. If you wish to extract a central theme of the design, it has to be the use of horizontal lines to create the illusion of width.

A very neat front lip-spoiler (almost at odds with the Polo's conservative rear) and those Sciroccoesque headlights blend to create a look of substance, attempting to eradicate any traces of cutesy small hatchback styling. It’s nowhere as daring as Ford’s Fietsa, yet Polo’s fifth generation detailing does strike a chord of sorts…

Hardly the last world in avant garde design. Steering wheel satellite controls need a rethink. Quality is ace though.

Sombre cabin

VW’s cabins have, for time immortal, being dark-surfaced reflections of German industrial design.

Although the new Polo’s cabin carries the signature of South Africa’s interior design genius Oona Scheepers, it’s not a particularly happy place to be.

The irritating bulbous central exhaust clearance tunnel still ruins any possibility of three-adult portability on the rear bench seat.

Whilst the new three-spoke steering wheel is neat, its satellite controls are not. You can’t change infotainment functions with the left-thumb control for instance – it only controls volume and channel/track selection…

There is dearth of utility stowage space too. How I missed those Polo Mark IV’s stowage trays under the steering column. New Polo even still boasts a manual, girdle operated parking brake, vanquishing any remnant of utility space between the seats. Surely the time has come for an unobtrusive, flip-switch electric parking brake instead?

Wheels are practically sized 16-inch items, rolling 185/60 profile Bridgestones. Has a full-sized sparewheel too - bonus.

Big car feel

Those styling elements Walter de Silva’s team incorporated with the aim of creating an authentic feel of substance with regards to the new Polo’s road presence are not all an illusion courtesy of clever detailing. New Polo sports a significantly more substantial track width both front and rear, with fore and aft axle opposing wheel spacing up by 29- and 30mm respectively.
Although the suspension set-up does not mimic the sophistication of its all-wheel independently sprung Golf6 sibling, Polo does feature a redesigned McPherson strut front suspension which has moved the wheels 5mm forward for a more generous caster angle.

Our test unit was a 1.6TDI. Statically its outputs hardly make for hot hatch reading material (77Kw/250Nm), yet this is a highly sophisticated compression ignition engine, designed to pander to ultra-strict European emission control regimes.

Considering the pending introduction of similar taxation locally, I am sure most buyers won’t mind trading a few units of power for a lower CO2 tax bracket…

Piezo injected engine's 250Nm might seem unimpressive at first, yet these are 250 units of the finest of Sir Isaac's namesakes. Performance is good. Economy otherworldly.

Polo? Fun to play

Is it any good to drive then? Well, yes - infinitely better than the previous one.

For a start, it would appear as if electric power steering systems are (finally) coming of age – blending the need for high efficiency with requisite levels of authentic feel and counterweight through the helm.

I would rate the new Polo’s assisted steering as perhaps the best in class (better than Fiesta’s negligibly over-assisted set-up). It’s light enough to twirl the wheel with ease when navigating obstacle-littered urban spaces, yet manages to never feel completely detached from the resistance of those front Bridgestone 185/60s. In other words - there is plenty of steering feedback.

At all speeds cabin insulation from tyre, mechanical and road surface acoustics are so superior to anything in class, one has no qualms about challenging significant mileages in the Polo. In fact, during the first weekend of testing I notched up 600km - with a full complement of five adults onboard.

The only complaints I had from passengers concerned the lack of legroom in the centre of the rear floor. Despite the Polo burdened by nearly 400kg worth of human and other cargo, it handled mountain passes, dirt-roads and highway work with aplomb.

Engine is 3kW and 10Nm keener than the 1.9TDi it replaces. Quieter too.

Keen 1.6TDI

Any doubts concerning the vivacity of the 1.6TDI engine were quickly dispelled.

Regardless of its seemingly unimpressive power output, the 1.6TDI boasts a nearly square internal architecture (instead of a lazy rotational force biased long-stroke design favoured by most contemporary turbodiesels), which aids its ability to effortlessly gain piston speed.

From a neat 250Nm at 1 500r/min it turns over an impressive turn of pace all the way through to 4 000r/min. Even with the Polo fully loaded a simple clutch-and-shift action down to fourth gear ushered in heavy transport overtaking manoeuvres with a generous safety margin.

Beyond its keen performance, the Polo 1.6TDI's economy was outstanding.

I have never driven a vehicle which so closely shadowed usually unrepeatable manufacturer fuel consumption claims. Polo 1.6TDI’s operational range, despite its rather small 45l tank volume, is simply ridiculous.

Operating over a sweltering Cape weekend (temperatures the wrong side of 30 degrees) the Polo averaged 5.1l/100km despite being driven with requisite enthusiasm (five venues, 48 hours, you know the deal). Keep in mind Climatic air conditioning was on ventilation speed "2" throughout and the car was carrying 400kg of additional mass, too… Hugely impressive.

The 1.6TDI, as a drivetain package, only has two deficiencies.

Firstly, it needs six-speed transmission. Second gear is too short for traffic crawling and third too tall for coasting around medium radius suburban corners.

Secondly, the hill-start assistance system can disengage with alarming violence (and tardiness) which caused much stalling on my behalf. Perhaps I am not quite the driver I used to be, but the hill-start assist systems I’ve experience on small French and Italian cars were much better geared and less obtrusive in operation.


Hardly daring (especially compared to Fiesta) yet the has grown-up, pseudo Golf6 look that should find aspiration appeal amongst a wide spectrum of the South African buying public.


Short on equipment and a touch cramped in the back for adults. Sound insulation class leading though. Curtain airbags a curious omission, should be standard – not an option.


Engine blends borderline 10 second 0-100km/h accelerative verve (you don’t require anything keener in a family hatchback) with staggering economy. A sixth gear would be nice though. Currently has no turbodiesel equal in the market on par in terms of performance/economy.


Fifth generation Polo elevates refinement and the case for entry level diesel driveability to as astonishingly accomplished level.

It really is a fully justifiable junior Golf6 driving experience – and that’s saying something. If it had independent rear suspension it would probably be too close to Golf6's abilities and cannibalise sales…

Although there were some ergonomic foibles to irritate me, you probably just want to know one thing: Polo or Fiesta?

My answer is simple. If you want a dashingly styled, well equipped, ergonomically outstanding and dynamically well sorted petrol hatchback go to a Ford dealer and order the Fiesta.

If you’re a keen compression ignition man bargaining on stupefyingly frugal fuel consumption, and like 250Nm worth of safety margin when overtaking trucking traffic when transporting your family, Polo 1.6TDI is the only game in town.


Performance/economy blend
Nearly Golf6 levels of refinement
Dynamically validated steering and damping
Has a full-sized spare


Sparsely equipped
Rear floor architecture debits passenger comfort
Ergonomics not that great
Maintenance plan optional


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