What is it?
It was a little surprising to find out that the VW Ameo – a late entrant in the super-competitive compact sedan segment – would be entering the market with one arm tied behind its back. It was launched with only a single engine and gearbox option – the 75hp 1.2-litre MPI with a five-speed manual. In fact, the engine was the weakest point in what turned out to be an otherwise rather excellent car. We knew a diesel variant would be introduced by the festive season, and the wait appears to have been worth it, as it’s an upgraded version of the 1.5-litre, four-cylinder TDI motor we’ve already tried in the Vento, Polo and Skoda Rapid. It’s got 5hp more power and the same 250Nm of torque and apart from the manual, you can also have it with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. This could just be what it takes to find the VW Ameo some serious fans.
The exterior is unchanged, of course, and along with the Polo’s nose (ever so slightly modified), it gets a very truncated rear end with a boot that isn’t as well integrated as in some rivals. It does pack in 330 litres of luggage though, which while decent, is far from the segment benchmark.
The superbly appointed interior is back too, with VW’s typically restrained-looking dashboard and exceptional fit and finish. The long equipment list on this Highline trim returns, replete with a touchscreen, rear-view camera, automatic wipers, cornering lamps, cruise control, two airbags and ABS. In fact, those last two safety features are standard across the range. The DSG auto version additionally gets ESC and a hill hold function. Finally, the rear seat – it isn’t the most spacious, especially on knee room, but if your use is only occasional, it might be good enough.
What’s it like to drive?
After the disappointment of VW’s anaemic 1.2 MPI petrol engine in the Ameo, we knew it could only be uphill from there. But this latest version of the 1.5 TDI diesel is just plain impressive. Sure, it's a little noisy at start-up and at higher revs, but the car is quite well insulated and it's something you can get used to. With 110hp and 250Nm, it's a wee bit more powerful than the old version of this motor, thanks to a new, larger turbocharger. There's no way to do an ‘apples to apples’ comparison with the old motor just yet, but we can tell you that in the Ameo, the new one feels supremely punchy and powerful.
Release the slightly firm clutch pedal in the five-speed manual Ameo TDI and it will jump off the line eagerly, the short first gear prompting you flick the light gear lever down into second shortly after. There is a noticeable surge of power at around 2000rpm but there on, there's seemingly no let up right till 5000rpm. And since the powerband is relatively short even by diesel standards, you charge through it rather quickly. It's even got a decent top end. And, because the gear ratios have been smartly chosen, there's little in the way of perceptible lag too.
In fact, it's when you drive the DSG automatic that you'll feel the lag a bit more. Because it's been designed to slur its way through the lower gears for a smoother take-off, you feel more of that sub-1,800rpm sluggishness from the motor. There is, of course, less of this when you tap the lever down to Sport mode and you can eliminate it altogether by selecting gears manually (again via the lever; there are no paddles), but ultimately, it's the manual that is more fun to drive.
The DSG is superb at being an automatic though. It's smooth, clever and quick and makes matters so much more convenient in traffic. It's hugely better than the AMT gearboxes you get in the Maruti Dzire and Tata Zest, but that does come at a premium.
Finally, VW does seem to have fiddled with the suspension to help support the bigger, heavier diesel engine. It's been stiffened up and it is for the better. Where the petrol car rode well at low speeds, its overly soft setup meant it was a bit too bouncy and rolly when you went faster. Not anymore. The diesel car feels much better tied down, and yet absorbs bumps pretty well. In fact, we'd say it has a good chance of being the best riding car in its class. The steering is light and accurate but not quick or sharp enough to make you want to corner the Ameo hard, so while competent, it does shy away from being a fun handling car.
Should I buy one?
Apart from the car itself, what really impressed us about the petrol Ameo was that it was priced competitively, bucking VW’s tradition of premium pricing and even undercutting a few key rivals. They’ve managed to do it again with the diesel car, which too is priced in the upper middle of the segment. The only exception is the DSG Automatic, which costs a fair bit more than the equivalent Tata Zest and Maruti Dzire, both of which use cheaper AMT gearboxes. The incredibly punchy diesel motor is satisfying to drive and fixes our main criticism of the Ameo – the weak petrol engine. It makes for a superb owner-driven car, but as a family vehicle it falls a little short of rivals because of its relatively small boot and low rear seat space. If your use for these two things is minimal, however, you'll find the Ameo TDI is a well-built, well-appointed and well-equipped compact sedan that's now, finally, nice to drive too.