German Drive Report

Volkswagen Polo

1.4 litre, 4 Door

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.

Refinement for small cars is defined by the 4th generation Volkswagen Polo.

Having driven other small cars (Nissan Micra, Rover 415i and Toyota Starlet) in the recent past, it's pleasant to discover why the Polo has become the benchmark for small cars.

The dark blue Polo in question, with 1997 build date, had already covered over 8500 km as a rental vehicle, and had lost it's rear VW badge.

Standard equipment for Polo in Germany includes ABS, twin airbags, and a load of other safety goodies.

The Volkswagen base Alpha radio-cassette is adequate for keeping up with traffic reports and whiling away the minutes/hours in traffic jams. Don't bother turning up the volume to improve the sound, as it'll just cause the bass to boom within the dash from the speakers mounted there.

The tower at the Brocken.
Location of the first TV transmitter in 1935 for the 1936 Olympics.
Berlin Potsdamer Platz
Rebuilding Berlin's centre the Potsdamer Platz

Heating and ventilation is good, except that it needs air conditioning when the sun is out and the temperature climbs above 20. The tilt/slide glass sunroof doesn't help much in warm weather, except to vent built-up heat when returning to a parked vehicle. The sunroof when slid back, leads to unpleasant drumming at some speeds, but is unobtrusive when tilted, even at Autobahn speeds.

The suspension absorbs most road irregularities with aplomb, though bad cobble stones and East German Autobahn joints can upset it at some speeds leading to unpleasant bumps being passed to the occupants. Roll is well controlled, though the more enthusiastic drivers would appreciate more roll resistance.

Neutral handling most of the time tends to mild understeer when pushed... not helped by 13" wheels and high-profile tyres. Steering response is above-average, predictable at speed, though feel is lacking at low speeds. As speeds increase, steering feedback is excellent, inspiring confidence and allowing one to achieve maximum speed on curved, damp Autobahn on- and off-ramps, visibility permitting of course.

Running around town allows you to idle (900 rpm) along in first gear in traffic jams, with the engine pulling smoothly from just over 1000 rpm in all gears, up to the useful maximum around 4800 rpm. Higher engine speeds in the lower gears achieve less than changing up a gear to accelerate, engine torque dropping quite sharply above 5000 rpm.

Sudden torque applications result in significant movement of the gear stick, suggesting soft drivetrain mounting; good for noise and vibration isolation, but not so good for getting power to the ground. Traction can be a problem in the wet especially on cobble stones and concrete. This can cause some embarrassment at busy intersections until one gets used to the zealous throttle response.

The spacing of gears is well matched to engine torque so it's not necessary to stir the lever to keep up with, or ahead of town traffic. I did have problems engaging reverse gear with the transmission cold, a forward gear sometimes being engaged when the lever was in the reverse gear position. This problem is probably isolated to the car in question.

Performance is adequate for Autobahn cruising, with 160 kmh (at around 4500 rpm in 5th gear) achievable in reasonable time, but it needs careful consideration for safe space in the fast lane. It's no GTI, lacking urge above 130kmh. Not unreasonable for a 1.4 litre, tuned for economy and durability. Higher speeds are possible, conditions permitting... 170 kmh could be exceeded on clear, dry stretches. Stability and handling at speed are exemplary, with 150kmh to 170kmh being comfortable, sustainable and safe.

Sanssouci Tea House
Potsdam's Sanssouci Tea House

Brakes inspire confidence, providing ample retardation at all speeds. ABS operation was seldom called upon.
Sanssouci Gazebo
Sanssouci Gazebo
Fuel efficiency is good if not brilliant, considering that the Polo is a relatively heavy small car; defined by its strength and its level of equipment. Cruising along the Autobahn (with inevitable jams and roadworks) and along country roads, as well as buzzing around town and the cities consumes around 6 litres/100km of (95 RON) super unleaded. Fuel consumption remains good at high speeds allowing a cruising range well in excess of 500km (3 to 4 hours) with 45 litres of super-unleaded. Although the car will run on normal (91 RON) unleaded, it feels better with super and marginally more frugal. This is important with German fuel prices hovering around 1.60 DM (about $1.30) per litre. A diesel would consume even less, cheaper fuel, though Germans are taxed more aggressively for diesel cars, so only drivers covering more than 30,000 km a year would find it economically viable.

Luggage capacity is adequate for two on holidays, though careful packing is necessary, and it's likely that some luggage will either wind up on the back seat, or part of the back seat folded forward to expand the compartment.

2+2 touring with light luggage is feasible, there being lots of cubby holes for oddments in the front (no glove compartment for the co-driver because of an airbag). The oddments tray beside the front seats is impossible to get at without opening the car door due to little clearance between the door pocket and the seats' side bolsters.

Four full-size adults will find room in the car, with a surprising amount of space in the back. It's tolerable for short to medium journeys. Legroom in the back is dependent on the generosity of the front-seat occupant. Some compromises will have to be made to maximise comfort for all on long journeys.

Baltic Beach
Baltic beach at Heringsdorf
A4 Rocket
A4 Experimental Rocket from 1930's

Noise from all directions (except passengers) is well isolated, with the engine subdued at cruise, but making its presence heard under full throttle, though it never becomes obtrusive.

The cabin is usually rattle-free, only the worst cobbled streets caused the lid of the driver's side oddments compartment to rattle until it was re-closed properly.

Seats remain supportive (some people would prefer more side-bolsters), firm and comfortable on long cruises. The high seating makes getting in and out easy, and back seat passengers enjoy a good view of the road ahead. There is ample headroom for average-height adults (175 to 180cm) in the back, thanks to the high, yet attractive roofline. Long-limbed drivers will find that the foot rest seems just a little too high and after several hours of cruising, a rest-stop is sometimes called for to stretch the legs.

The overall impression of internal packaging is that of spacious efficiency. It's surprising for some to discover so much room inside such compact dimensions. Many larger cars won't accommodate such large adults without compromising head and/or legroom.

Fit and finish is good. The combination of interior colours on the car in question emphacised dirt and wear. Doors close like they should on a VW, and the various compartment lids work and fit well. The only significant problem was with the bump strips coming off the doors, with the adhesive not doing its job, allowing the strips to peel at both ends. This would appear to be a common problem as many other Polos seen, seemed to be losing the strips. A problem such as this is usually rectified under warranty.

Price of the car as driven would have been around 21000 DM, say $17,000; more expensive than many competitors, yet its popularity is beyond the expectations of the manufacturer, reflected in not only long delivery times, but also high resale values.

The Polo has achieved a sensible maturity in its fourth generation, combining almost all that is desirable in a small car with few quirks, but still enough personality and competence to make it stand out from the crowd.

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