Volkswagen Club Road Test
Australian Volkswagen Polo
1.6 litre, 4 Door
Copyright © 1998 Bernd Felsche, Perth, Western
The car was picked up from Regents on the 24th of June, and after an initial familiarisation process, which lasted 200km or about 2 days, the fuel tank was topped up to allow for an accurate calculation of fuel consumption. During the familiarisation, the performance limits were explored... which doesn't mean that I laid rubber at every set of lights, but rather that flexibility in gear, brakes, handling and roadholding were experienced, which is pretty much what one should be doing when first driving a different car.
Due to initial the impression of the quality and thought that had gone into the design and building of the car, evaluation of details was set accordingly; which means to a high standard and corresponding expectations. It's inevitable that as I'd only recently driven a very similar vehicle for an extended period of 39 days, that comparisons would, and perhaps should be drawn.
In the days following familiarisation, the road test included all my normal driving requirements and then some more, looking for unusual conditions against which to pitch the vehicle. Initial impressions were refined during that period, and where possible, the factors leading to those impressions were re-explored.
Everybody who looks at the interior is almost certainly bound to be impressed by it's aura of solidity and quality. Once seated, the mood is enforced by firm yet comfortable seats.
The interior trim is darker than the European model driven and seats seem to have firmer side-bolsters providing better support during cornering. Either the different seats, or the right-hand drive configuration apparently conspire to reduce legroom in the back, behind the driver. It's still adequate for average adults, but compromises will have to be made, especially on longer trips with 4 large adults on board.
Like its lighter-toned European sibling, the interior exudes a feeling of quality. The lockable compartment in front of the driver is adequate for keeping small items out of sight. Other cubby holes provide ample opportunities to "lose" bits and pieces. Large speakers in the door pockets look impressive and provide a reasonable level and quality of sound, driven by the standard radio-CD player.
Looking somewhat out of place and less integrated than the European sound systems, this particular radio-CD player was prone to rattle, being the only fly in the ointment in that respect.
After dark, the radio's controls are not illuminated, so it takes quite some effort to locate the tiny power switch. Once powered up, one finds that the display, etc do not dim along with the rest of the instruments. The German Polo driven previously provided both features, and it remained on until the ignition key was extracted. It could then be turned on again manually without the key. The Australian installation turns the unit off with the ignition, and it won't switch on at all without the ignition being on.
Opening either of the back doors does not cause the interior courtesy light to come on. The reason for this is not an electrical fault; there are no switches fitted, the holes in the body shell for that purpose having been filled by cheap-looking plastic plugs. One can only guess that the absence of switches is due to cost-cutting to be able to sell the car for "less than $20,000".
The warning chime also which seems to goes off whenever you switch the ignition on, reminding you to fasten seat belts. Also, it chimes when either of the front doors is opened with the ignition on, or if you happen to leave the lights on after switching the engine off. All well-intentioned and useful. But it instills a false sense of trust: it doesn't operate when either of the rear doors, or the hatchback is ajar - or improperly latched.
The central locking operates on all four doors and the hatch; but not the electric front windows. The latter could only be persuaded to move up and down with the ignition on. Volkswagen has the know-how to close the windows when the car is locked, bu not applied it in this case.
A high-level brake light is a requirement in Australia, and the importers have specified a slim-line one mounted to the interior of the hatchback glass. This causes some minor obstruction to middle-distance, rear vision. A better, though more expensive means of satisfying regulations would probably have been to provide a roof spoiler with integral brake light as is readily available in Europe.
The optional factory-fit air conditioning easily coped with the 25 degree "heat wave" during the week of testing. It's a worthwhile investment for Australian conditions, given the alternative of sweltering at those temperatures in a non-airconditioned car.
Optional, light alloy wheel fitted to the test car did not enhance the styling, looking out-of-place and, being the same 13" size as steel wheels, did not seem to provide any benefits in vehicle dynamics. Much more flattering (14") wheels are optional for the Polo in Germany, with the additional benefit of improved steering response, lower rolling resistance, and the potential for better roadholding.
Another mis-feature on the 5-door Polo relates to the occasional requirement to refuel: The all-plastic filler flap is immediately behind the back door on the driver's side. The cap is usually unscrewed and hooked over the flap, (as per the owner's manual) with the cap suspended towards the front of the car. Unfortunately, if the back seat occupant then decides to get out of the car, the cap will be propelled off the flap by the door. This is not only annoying; if the cap lands in some dirt and is then replaced in the filler neck, dirt can eventually be flushed into the fuel tank -- as if the filter didn't have enough to do!
The simple way of avoiding potential disaster is to hook the cap over the flap the other way around, i.e. with it suspended over the tank opening. It's then only a very minor inconvenience when filling the tank.
No matter what your driving style, the Polo exhibits exemplary behaviour for a small car. Not surprisingly, it's reminiscent of a Mark II Golf, being secure and confident, without the tardiness of the Mark III Golf. It's not in the least bit skittish at speed, yet remains responsive to driver input. Most road irregularities are met with impunity, the vehicle running true to the intended direction. It takes a lot to put it off line, even in a bend.
The car handling is neutral and generally tends towards mild understeer; but there's a surprise in store for drivers used to a Golf or the smaller-engined Polo: damp roads produce plow-on understeer when cornering enthusiastically, [I think that this is called "big car feel"] and lifting off the throttle doesn't help much to put the car back on line. Golfs, and the smaller-engined Polos tend towards oversteer with sudden throttle-off -- the degree of understeer depending on vehicle model.
There is some initial roll when cornering, though this is not in the least disconcerting to the occupants. Ride is supple but not wallowy. Being a small car, it is however not impervious to being upset by road conditions. One section of road, when tackled at a particular speed, brought about unpleasant, jarring body movements, though it never felt like the car was out of control. One doubts if there are other small cars which would handle that situation even nearly as well.
If the Golf feels like it's been milled out of solid billet, then the Polo has been cast out of solid steel. There is no unpleasant flexing of the body over bumps or when cornering. It feels solid. It reinforces your decision to drive a Volkswagen, because this sort of quality has to be engineered into the basic design of the car; it can't be slapped on like some optional extra.
Controls are light and responsive, at the same time providing excellent feedback. The gear change was the only notable exception. It varies from rubbery to notchy, depending on the gear being selected, and the direction of movement. A lack of positive feel when a gear is engaged, can result in 3rd gear being engaged instead of first ... the engine and clutch are sufficiently forgiving so that you can get away with this on occasion. The sometimes vague shift may be due to the newness of the car.
The Australian Polo's vacuum-assisted brakes have a typical Volkswagen feel about them. Some pressure needs to be applied before initial sponginess is overcome. Actual braking performance is average. ABS brakes, which are standard equipment in Germany, provide a positive, progressive feel, along with better performance for average drivers. ABS is not presently an option for Australia.
Ancillary controls such as lights and heating are well organized with the rotary switches working exactly as expected. The airconditioning and recirculate push buttons need to be pressed in a little more than one would like.
Engine performance is satisfying and smooth, if a little coarse compared to the 1.4 litre. There is plenty of mid-range torque to make up for a reluctance to rev to the redline (unless you're really determined). Gearing is taller than for the 1.4 litre, revving to about 2600 rpm at 100 kmh, compared to 3000 rpm at the same speed. This manifests itself in the 1.6's inability to sustain 60kmh in top gear when confronted with moderate inclines. A frequently-notchy change down to 4th is called for to keep the engine comfortable on many hills. The benefit of taller gearing is supposed to be reduced fuel consumption, but only if the highest gear can be held.
Fuel consumption proved to be quite good; 6.84l/100 km over the last 660 km of road test, consisting of about 30% light suburban traffic, 65% outer-suburban and freeway cruising, and the rest in heavy traffic. Little use was made of the airconditioner.
Acceleration is brisk; gearing for economy means that the potential to be a GTI is subdued. Manufacturer's performance claims are credible, perhaps even conservative in the long run. As the engine was still fairly new, with less than 10,000 km on the clock at the conclusion of the test, there is probably still some loosening-up to be achieved, resulting in better performance and possibly better fuel consumption.
What there is to criticise about the Polo as tested, would probably be deemed as insignificant in a lesser car. However; as the Polo is acclaimed as the benchmark, it's important to recognize its problems and foibles, perhaps in the hope that later cars will have some of the areas addressed.
It appears that the more severe problems are as a result of Australianising the Polo, be it in the choice and installation of the audio system; selection of accessories, the tuning of the suspension or the choice of engine and gearbox.
Overall, it's still a great car. It's very easy to live with, and certainly something to which other small cars should aspire. When somebody asked me how the Polo compares to a Hyundai, the following came to mind: "The Polo is a car. A Hyundai is an alternative to public transport."