The success of the Indian Polo is a very big deal for Volkswagen. On the crisply styled shoulders of this all-new hatchback rests not just the weight of its own future, but the hopes of VW in India. If the Polo is a hit, it will give the company the scale it needs for a faster payback on its huge investments in India. It will make selling other VW models easier and establish the German automaker as a volume player in India. Whichever way you look at it, the Polo is a car the German auto giant just has to get right.
Once the baby of the VW range, the Polo has grown to be the size of the earlier-model Golfs. With every generation, it’s become larger and this new Mk5 Polo even shares the sharp and bold styling of its bigger siblings. The large VW badge forms the focal point of the design, with the slot-like grille and aggressive headlamp units forming a single unit. The softly flared wheel arches give the car a planted stance, and the styling is bold but minimalist with strong slashes and crease lines.
The least attractive part is the rear that seems almost too simplistic and outdated to draw any attention. Viewed from the side, the swoopy rear profile is the first hint that form has been given priority over function. This is neither a ‘tall boy’ nor a ‘cab-forward’ design. What you get is a conventional sporty looking hatch with a tight shape that is aerodynamically correct. The large, attractive 15-inch alloys shod with 185/60 Apollo Acelere rubber (available as standard on the Highline version) add to the Polo’s visual appeal.
Under the skin, the Polo is based on the newer PQ25 version and significant changes for India have been carried out. India-spec cars get an increase in ride height by 16mm to 168mm and the shock absorbers have been softened during the compression stroke. A key difference is the power steering system. While the Fabia has an electro-hydraulic unit, the Polo comes with a column-mounted fully electrical power steering system.
The interiors are typically VW – top quality and functional. The black-and-beige combo looks classy and the switchgear feels great to operate. The interior plastics feel hardwearing and the dashboard texture is not as ‘soft feel’ as we would have liked but the overall plastic quality is a class apart.
The centre console is neatly arranged, and there is a surplus of storage space – from well-thought-out slots beside the handbrake to the massive 294-litre boot.
Up front, the driver’s seat with its long seat travel, generous headroom and massive footwell will comfortably accommodate members of the NBA basketball team but short drivers don’t have it good in the base Trendline which doesn’t have seat height adjust. This is especially so because the dashboard is set a bit too high. The seats are deeply contoured and very supportive with the right amount of cushioning.
Rear passengers though are not as well looked after and rear seat space is not the Polo’s forte. While the rear seat is quite comfy with decent under-thigh support and acceptable headroom, you sit lower than usual and kneeroom is quite poor for a premium hatchback. Sitting three abreast is not as bad as it seems, thanks to the Polo’s decent width.
The Polo comes in three variants. While the Trendline gets only basic features, front power windows, power steering and air-con, Comfortline is only slightly better equipped with power windows all round, metallic paint, body colored door handles/mirrors and split seats. It’s only the Highline that gets a CD MP3 player, rear wash/wipe, multi-function display, remote locking, alloy wheels, fog lamps, ABS and airbags. But features like steering-mounted controls, electronic climate control, height adjustable seatbelts and power mirrors are all missing.
A pair of three-cylinder engines – a 1.2 petrol and a 1.2 turbo-diesel (coming only in May) – power the Polo. A 1.6 four-cylinder petrol is also expected later in the year.
The three-cylinder 1.2 petrol engine produces 74bhp and 11.2kgm of torque, which on paper are quite modest. However, the petrol Polo surprised us with its driveability and refinement. Increase the revs and the engine instantly smoothens out and as long as you don’t rev it hard, this motor is pretty silent too.
The Polo neither hesitates nor has a tendency to stall at slow speeds and the engine pulls cleanly from even low speeds. The midrange is the engine’s strongest bit and feels responsive. The light, crisp and short-throw gearbox has the best shift quality of any hatchback.
The 0-100kph time of 16.5sec suggests that performance is at best modest and on the highway you feel the need for more power, especially with a full load of passengers and all the luggage the Polo’s big boot can swallow. Overtaking isn’t effortless but the Polo does the job.
The Polo’s 1.2 common-rail three-cylinder diesel engine is brand new and makes its global debut in the Indian Polo. Again, it’s fairly quiet when it’s not revved too hard but it can’t match the refinement or performance of the four-cylinder motors from Fiat and Ford. The diesel Polo is a pretty relaxed cruiser but under load it’s quite audible and at times you do feel VW could have done a better job of insulation.
But the big issue with this motor is the severe turbo-lag it suffers from – it goes completely off boost below 2000rpm and it takes forever for the turbo to spool up. This problem gets worse on twisty uphill roads, where you need to work hard to make sure you are in the right gear all the time. As a result it’s best not to allow the revs to drop substantially and employ a press-on-driving style. However, once you cross 2000rpm, the turbo kicks in strong and fast.
The mid-range is strong and the diesel Polo shoots forward quite convincingly when in the right part of the powerband.
For city driving and at low speeds the Polo has an almost-perfect set-up. The relatively pliant set-up of the springs and dampers allow the Polo’s light body to skip over poor bits of road without the suspension crashing through, and bump absorption is relatively silent as well. There is also some vertical movement from the long-travel suspension over rough and undulating surfaces but the generous ground clearance allows the Polo to tackle most surfaces with aplomb.
On the whole, the Polo rides brilliantly and ride comfort, especially at low speeds, is its forte. The steering is also well suited to city traffic. Its arcade game light, you can literally twirl it with a single finger.
The soft set-up does, however, mean that there is a bit of roll when you corner hard and the Polo understeers strongly at the limit. However, for normal driving, there is plenty of grip from the very impressive 185/60 R15 Apollo Aceleres. Enthusiasts will, however, be disappointed with the Polo’s electric steering which, though accurate, is devoid of feel and doesn’t weight up in a linear fashion. The brakes are superb and the Polo stops very effectively from high speeds.
All the effort VW has put into making the Polo fuel efficient has paid off. Not only does this car deliver more than one kilometre per litre more in traffic compared to the Fabia (the 1.2 petrol is based on the same engine that powers the Fabia), it is also not too far from competitors like the i20, with a city average of 10.9kpl. And on the highway, it’s even more impressive due to its sophisticated aerodynamic tweaks and relatively low-slung cabin. We couldn’t test the diesel’s economy but with a frugal three-cylinder engine and a light body, the Polo diesel could prove to be the most efficient hatchback yet.
German engineering at an affordable price is what the Polo aims to offer in the Indian market. You get a high-quality car built to exemplary standards for a starting price of Rs 5.08 lakh (on-road, Mumbai) for the base model. On the face of it, it sounds like a great deal but it’s only when you delve into the specification sheet (a lot of essential equipment is missing) or realise that the price ‘walk’ between the base and top-end variants is quite a bit, the Polo doesn’t quite set a benchmark for value for money. But that’s not the reason to buy a Polo. This is a premium hatchback and, apart from the average range of engines, it lives up to the part. It’s contemporary, smartly styled, has a plush ride and a special premium feel that no other hatchback offers. The built-to-last Polo is for those who want a safe, solid and sensible hatchback.