Volkswagen Club Road Test
Volkswagen Polo Automatic


The Under-Graduate

By Bernd Felsche

Copyright © 1998 Bernd Felsche, Perth, Western Australia
All Rights Reserved
This Document may not be copied without the author's written permission.

Bernd Felsche risks losing the use of his left arm by road-testing the Australian version of the Volkswagen Polo automatic.

Volkswagen's Australian Polo is available with an electronically-controlled automatic transmission featuring the Dynamic Shift Program (DSP) which allegedly uses what's called fuzzy logic to determine the right gear at all times. While the system works extremely well in just about all situations, there are some rare situations where its behaviour is quite ill-mannered.

The road test of the manual car can be found in the August edition of ViaWest, which is fairly recent, so I won't address any issues which were already described there. Differences between the manual and automatic cars will be highlighted, and there are one or two surprising ones.

Red Polo
From Volkswagen picture archives


The car was picked up from Regents on the 18th of August, as arranged by TKM. There were less than 6000km on the odometer on the clock when the car was returned, which is very fresh for a Volkswagen.

It was quite a busy week in my schedule and the Polo served well as a runabout; both for my paying job, and for Club business (like September's ViaWest). A higher than usual proportion of short, urban trips dominated its time on the road. It would be unfair to draw any conclusions about fuel consumption, given the duties performed.

Interior and Exterior

Other than the type of gear shift and consequential reduction in the number of pedals, the interior trim differed only in that the automatic did not have the optional plush mats fitted. They were very nice in the manual car and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend that all buyers of new Polos should twist the sales technician's arm to have a set thrown in as part of the deal.

Identical sound systems are fitted to both types of Polo, identical down to the rattle in the dash.

The automatic Polo showed signs of having been through "the wars", evidenced by paint chips, one of which showed rust, right near the top of the driver's door. Opening the bonnet revealed surface corrosion on the alloy engine ancillaries; certainly unexpected for such a new car. Such corrosion typically results from short trips on wet roads, salt or from careless engine washes. It's not a pretty sight but it doesn't affect how the car runs. And this is after all, the 1990's where car owners are more likely to call roadside service than to pop the bonnet.

Another sign of damage through abuse was that the interior rearview mirror had apparently spilled part of its guts; I doubt very much that they come like that from the factory. It would take a ham-fisted oaf to cause that sort of dislocation; but then you know what sort of people motoring journalists can be. (Oops, I guess that includes me.)

On the Road

The automatic Polo proved to be a small parcel of big surprises.

Inexplicably, the automatic shows more poise and balance than the manual. It's possible to induce mild oversteer by pushing deep into a corner, or by lifting off suddenly, mid-corner. Handling is neutral at other times, the car following the helm without question. The weather was dry for the duration of the test, but the plow-on understeer experienced in the wet in the manual Polo, didn't give a hint of recurring in the automatic.

I checked the tyres and wheels for differences in setup, but there's nothing visible externally to indicate why the two nominally identical cars would behave so differently. Perhaps it's a running change in springs and dampers. Volkswagen have a reputation for not announcing improvements.

Brakes were another pleasant surprise. There was no sponginess evident and stopping was well controlled. Unfortunately, I had reason to exercise the brakes heavily on several occasions; but they acquitted themselves very well in the face of stupidity of other road users.

The automatic performs shifting very smoothly and almost without being detected by the driver. I don't normally drive an automatic any more (though I did for about 160,000 km some years ago in an Audi 5+5, and forgive me; a Rover for about 500 miles while in the UK recently, followed by a few hours in a 7-series BMW) and I found the transmission to be useful for driving around town.

On the open road however, some bugs in the DSP become apparent: If you've been cruising down the road for some minutes with just a slight throttle opening (say 80kmh), and you come to a stop at a T junction, then you really need to mash the loud pedal into the plush pile if you're planning to take advantage of a gap in the traffic stream. Otherwise, the transmission will seemingly shift into a high gear very early which means that your acceleration will be severely limited.

If you're approaching a fast bend, and you back off in "Drive", the transmission seems to disengage, allowing the car to coast without power to the driving wheels. Reapplying throttle re-engages drive, which can have dramatic results in a limited-traction situation. I didn't have time or opportunity to try the same, locked into third gear; but that shouldn't be necessary, nor expected of an automatic's driver.

Even around town, the automatic has its moments: On one occasion the DSP hung grimly onto first gear; with the tacho swinging way into the red. OK. I did floor the go pedal at an intersection so as to merge with least aggravation to other drivers, but such an excursion past the red-line was entirely unexpected.

Niggles aside, the automatic does a far better job than its ancestors. Drivers of automatics appreciate the smooth, barely detectable shifts, the safety interlocks which require your foot on the brake before a gear can be engaged, and not least, the engine which harmonises so well with the transmission, thanks to a broad spread of torque.

Top gear engine revs are a little higher in the 4-speed auto than in the 5-speed manual. 100 kmh is achieved at close to 3000 rpm, which means that the engine is well into its power band, allowing even the automatic to produce respectable, though not thrilling, acceleration at freeway speeds and above. It also means that the engine is happy around the 'burbs, allowing the auto to hold 4th gear on even uphill stretches at 60 kmh.

The newly-introduced 40kmh zones did cause this non-auto driver some frustration though; being used to backing off to slow down meant that the car continued merrily in top at about 50 kmh... until the brake was applied. I suppose one gets used to it.

Fuel consumption is nothing to speak of. As mentioned in the introduction, the car was employed in unusual situations and it was very new. Also, I'm now used to driving a manual. So the test consumption of between 8 and 9litres/100km is not even of academic value. You should be able to better that figure quite easily.


The automatic Polo is a worthy car in its class. It isn't perfect, and it would be unreasonable to expect any car to be.

One hopes that Volkswagen will reassess DSP to improve it for the situations noted. It's back to school for DSP. Finishing school at least. Meanwhile, those situations which leave DSP flumoxed should be put into perspective: They wouldn't stop anybody from buying the car as the situations are rare for most drivers.

Adding an automatic transmission doesn't detract from the Polo, it adds another dimension. It's still a nippy car around town and the transmission doesn't suck the life out of the engine. Automatic means convenience, and for some who are unable to drive a manual, access to the Polo experience which is unique in a small car.

Originally Published in ViaWest, October 1997
Copyright © 1997,1998 Bernd Felsche, Perth, Western Australia
All Rights Reserved