VW Polo Review
The Volkswagen Polo is one of those vehicles that seems to have touched everyone in one way or another. Whether your best mate had one or you learned to drive in one, it’s a car that’s woven into the fabric of society. Today, some 45 years after it was first launched, it’s still one of the country’s most popular cars. Its unwavering sense of quality, understated style and impressive practicality have all helped make the Polo one of the most important and best-known cars on sale in this country.
Select's rating score* - 4.4 / 5
A grown-up small hatchback packed with space, solidity and equipment, the Polo is a great all-rounder. VW has somehow managed to cram all the quality and technology of its much larger models into the Polo’s more modest dimensions. Even entry-level Match models come with all the equipment you’ll ever need, while the Beats and United models build on that with some youthful style. The SEL, meanwhile, gets you the premium features of a much bigger car, while the R-Line brings the sporty style. In short, there’s something for everyone.
As you might expect from a Volkswagen, the Polo trades on its mixture of quality and practicality, but there’s plenty of technology on offer, too. Even the cheapest Polos come with smartphone technology that allows you to lock or unlock the doors from an app, while you can scour the options list for a digital instrument cluster.
It’s all technology we’ve come to expect from BMW and Mercedes-Benz, but finding it on a Polo will be a pleasant surprise for plenty of drivers. Add in more conventional stuff, such as the eight-inch touchscreen and air conditioning that are standard across the range, and you’ve got a seriously well kitted-out car.
The Polo engine range is made up of three 1.0-litre petrol engines, all of which are quite characterful three-cylinder motors. A 2.0-litre, 200hp GTI version was originally offered, but Volkswagen has now withdrawn the model from sale.
The entry-level engine is the 80hp EVO engine, which comes with a five-speed manual gearbox and gets the Polo from 0-62mph in a pretty unremarkable 14.9 seconds. The mid-range 95hp engine is a little more sprightly, and it offers a choice of five-speed manual or seven-speed automatic gearboxes. Selecting that engine makes the car much faster, dropping the 0-62mph time below 11 seconds.
But the 110hp engine is the most potent choice, and it comes with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard or a seven-speed automatic as an option. Either way, it’s the beefiest engine in the current range, offering noticeably more oomph than its siblings.
Whichever engine you opt for, however, the Polo will drive in much the same way. The steering and clutch are both light, and the car feels very grown up. It isn’t as sharp as a Ford Fiesta, but it’s very composed and assured. And unlike so many cars in this sector, it feels as stable and substantial as you might expect from a Golf. It really gives you that ‘big car’ feel, despite offering the sort of dimensions that make it easy to park in tight spaces.
When the current-generation Polo was launched, VW offered it with a 1.6-litre diesel engine, but that has since been canned. That decision has left a range that’s much of a muchness when it comes to economy, with all three 1.0-litre petrol engines returning around 50mpg on the official economy test. Drill down into the numbers and you’ll find the two more powerful engines – the 95hp and 110hp versions – offer identical economy of between 49.6 and 53.3mpg when paired with manual transmissions.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, both are very slightly more efficient than the less powerful 80hp version, which returns between 47.9 and 51.4mpg. Perhaps surprisingly, the least polluting model in the range is the 110hp engine, perhaps because it comes with a six-speed manual transmission. On the official economy test, the car will return between 118 and 129g/km, depending on the version in question. That means company car drivers will be charged between 26% and 28% in Benefit-in-Kind tax, but because every engine is essentially the same, you won’t see huge differences in tax rates. If you’re desperate to keep tax rates low, though, it’s best to avoid the automatic gearboxes.
Volkswagen cabins have, in the past, been criticised for blandness, and while they’ve always been very solid and easy to use, they haven’t always been particularly interesting or exciting. With the Polo, VW has tried to rectify that with a massive panel that stretches right the way across the dashboard. You can have it in a choice of colours, including the rather gaudy orange.
But that isn’t the only talking point for a cabin that’s evolved slightly with the arrival of the latest Polo. You also get a new eight-inch touchscreen as standard, and you can have a digital instrument cluster for a really futuristic look. As before, though, everything is laid out in an unerringly sensible fashion, and the build quality is very good. However, this is a small car, and there are signs it has been built down to a price. Some cheap materials lurk in the cabin, although most of the things you’ll use regularly feel tactile and robust.
Every version of the Polo comes with the same eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system, which provides access to all the usual functions such as radio, Bluetooth and the like. The system even allows you to pair two phones at once, allowing the passenger to stream music while the driver has the hands-free phone function. You can also connect your phone via the USB ports (of which there is one standard USB and one USB-C port on a standard Match model) to access the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone connectivity systems.
If you want, you can supplement the touchscreen with a 10.3-inch digital instrument cluster, which replaces the conventional dials. The system is customisable, so you can choose the display to suit your requirements. Other options include wireless smartphone charging and satellite navigation, which is fitted to higher-end models as standard.
Space is one of the Polo’s strong suits, with bags of room in the front and enough space in the back for two adults. It won’t fool anyone into believing it’s a big estate car, but an hour-long schlep down the motorway won’t be too onerous. For kids, there’s more than enough room to spread out.
The real clincher is the boot, though, where Volkswagen proudly claims to have 355 litres of luggage space. That’s almost as much as you’ll find in a Golf, although a fair chunk of that room is hidden beneath the adjustable boot floor. What that does mean, however, is you get a sort of secret compartment and a fairly flat load bay floor when you fold the rear seats. Or, if you’d rather, you can drop the floor to free up more space and sacrifice the flat floor.
The Polo scored impressively in the Euro NCAP crash test, cruising to a five-star rating. Its protection of adult occupants particularly impressed the testing organisation, which gave it a 96% score in that category, while it scored well for child occupant protection, too. That’s thanks in part to the two Isofix child seat mountings in the rear and the usual array of airbags.
The only area that let the Polo down slightly was the ‘active’ driver assistance technology, which is more or less limited to autonomous emergency braking in base-spec Match models. That system allows the car to slam on the brakes automatically if it detects an imminent collision. Match-trim cars do get a system that warns the driver to take a break and a speed limiter, though.
Further up the range, however, a few more goodies are included. The SEL gets a road sign recognition system to show the driver speed limits, for example, while the options list is awash with safety gadgets. You can have adaptive cruise control that maintains a safe distance to the vehicle in front, or lane-keeping assistance with blind-spot monitoring, which not only helps to keep the car in its lane but also alerts the driver to vehicles hiding in the ‘blind spots’ over their shoulders.
The Polo range comprises five different models, with the Match sitting at the foot of the range. Despite being the cheapest Polo, it comes with plenty of standard equipment, including front and rear parking sensors, 15-inch alloy wheels and an eight-inch colour touchscreen. It gets tinted rear windows, too, as well as manual air conditioning and smartphone connectivity that allows the user to lock or unlock the doors using an app. In short, it doesn’t feel like an entry-level model.
Sitting just above the Match is the United, which is marked out by blue trim on the dashboard, badges on the B-pillars and ‘Waveform’ cloth upholstery. It gets satellite navigation, too, as well as automatic windscreen wipers. Then there’s the Beats, which earns special decals and larger 16-inch alloy wheels, although it does without the United’s satellite navigation. Perhaps most importantly, though, the car also gets the Beats audio system that gives it its name.
The SEL is the next rung on the Polo ladder, upping the ante in terms of luxury and equipment. Two-zone climate control is standard, and you get chrome plating around the air vents, as well as chrome trim on the lower bumper. Satellite navigation and ambient lighting also features on the standard equipment list.
Finally, the R-Line rounds out the range, offering sportier styling, as well as extra kit. That means you get a rear diffuser and chrome-effect tailpipe surrounds, as well as bespoke bumpers at the front and rear. Inside, you get black roof lining, aluminium pedals and R-Line logos on the seats. Electrically heated and adjustable mirrors are also standard, along with sports seats and adjustable lumbar support.
The paint options are more vibrant than you might expect, with a choice of blues and a bright orange joining a bold shade of scarlet. Those colours feature alongside the usual array of greys, whites and blacks, adding a little more life to the line-up.
Aside from paint jobs, the most appealing features of the options list include the Black Style Pack, which is available with Match and SEL models. That comes with front sports seats with lumbar support, ‘Level’ cloth seat centre sections and carbon-effect leather side bolsters. Black roof lining and front and rear carpet mats also feature, along with a black roof.
Other top features include two-zone climate control for Match, Beats and R-Line models, a winter pack with heated seats and a panoramic glass sunroof. You can have a rear-view camera, too, and a digital instrument cluster.
You can’t talk about the Volkswagen Polo without a passing mention of its arch rival, the Ford Fiesta. Britain’s best-selling car by quite some way, the Fiesta is something of a phenomenon in the automotive world. A brilliant car to drive in any form, as well as a practical and good-looking supermini, the little Ford deserves its success.
But although the Fiesta might be the most popular small hatchback on the market, it isn’t the only alternative to the Polo. Among the VW’s biggest rivals are its cousins from inside the Volkswagen Group. The Seat Ibiza and Audi A1 share pretty much everything except badges and bodywork with the Polo, and both offer a similar blend of solidity and practicality.
Other options include the Vauxhall Corsa, which once traded on the Vauxhall name alone but is now a truly competent hatchback, and the Peugeot 208, which uses the same mechanical underpinnings as the Vauxhall. Then there’s the stylish and accomplished Renault Clio, the recently revamped Hyundai i20 and the now very well built Kia Rio. But for all their merits, few of these cars can match the Polo’s combination of image, quality and equipment.
The Polo is one of those hatchbacks that somehow bends to suit every occasion. With classy looks, compact dimensions and a mature driving experience, it’ll work in town and on the motorway. And because it’s roomy and well equipped, you don’t have to sacrifice anything to take advantage of its small size. There really is something for everyone, whether you’re a Millennial urbanite, a young family in need of a second car or even a pensioner looking to downsize. It really does feel like a small VW Golf, and when it comes to little hatchbacks, praise doesn’t come much higher than that.
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*Score based on Select’s unique meta score analysis, taking into account the UK’s top six leading independent car website reviews of the Volkswagen Polo
**Correct as of 20/11/2020. Based on 9 months initial payment, 5,000 miles over a 48 month lease. Initial payment equivalent to 9 monthly payments or £1,511.89 Ts and Cs apply. Credit is subject to status.