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So COMFORTABLY did the Volkswagen Polo demolish all of its rivals in the May 2018 edition of Wheels that it was almost embarrassing. “It shouldn’t come as any great surprise that the best handling, most polished, most spacious, quickest, most economical and best value car wins this test,” we declared, underscoring the fact that the Polo performed such a slam dunk on the Suzuki Swift, Skoda Fabia, Mazda 2 and Citroen C3 that the comparison rapidly devolved into an unseemly scrabble for the minor placings.
Big reputations count for little at COTY, however. With the slate wiped clean, the Polo had to reassert itself against the five criteria of function, technology, efficiency, safety and value. Unfortunately there were no extra points for additional laps sneakily accrued around the basic durability circuit, or else the Polo GTI would have made the top three.
Volkswagen supplied three Polos for review; an entry-level 70TSI Trendline manual, a mid-spec 85TSI Comfortline with a DSG transmission, plus that DSG-equipped GTI. First acquaintance with the 70TSI was an eye-opener, quite literally. Driving to You Yangs in the pre-dawn, it was striking quite how feeble its incandescent bulb headlights were. Perhaps we’re spoiled by the newest and latest things with LEDs and lasers, but rowing along a manual car while your eyeballs are out on stalks scanning for errant macropods served as a reminder of quite how far technology has advanced.
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It still seems a lot of car for $17,995, though, and while you don’t have to look very far to see how it’s been de-contented compared with plusher versions, the bones are pretty much the same. The Trendline drives with an assurance and polish rarely found sub-$20K. Spend a bit more time in the Comfortline and you begin to wonder whether this is all the car you really need. You’ll start absent-mindedly hatching notions that rather than spending $50K on an electric car, it’d be more sustainable to spend half that on a Polo and invest the other half in luxury care for homeless gibbons.
The muted colour palette helps reinforce the notion of maturity, as does the five-door-only body style. Drop inside and it’s slick yet unadventurous, all of which does little to dispel the impression that it’s all a little normcore. The only nod to extroversion is a slightly tone-deaf hexagonal theme inside, but to drive a Polo is to love one. Even the 70TSI is shot through with quality in its suspension calibration, in the consistency of its control weights, in the precisely lubricated way the manual shifter slips, snicks and slots through its gate. It feels like a product built by people who understand people like us. And that’s important.
The GTI is seriously quick. Shifting just 1355kg, it’ll get to 100km/h in 6.6sec and the acuity of its front end through corners is astonishing. It does lack a little playfulness, but if carving a precise line on give-and-take roads is your thing, it’ll only be found wanting in the very tightest corners, where its XDS e-diff often allows power to bleed away via the unweighted inside front. The ride can be terse, but it was a weapon at the proving ground, registering some almost unbelievable mid-corner speeds.
So what prevented the Polo ascending the podium? It was much the same issue that did for the Corolla; namely that while it’s a very good iteration of its line, it didn’t actually do much to advance the state of the art. Against many of the criteria it did reasonably well, but didn’t excel. In short, it needed some bigger drawcards than all-round incremental improvement to make the next round. As well as scoring well in the judges’ books, the vehicles that made the top three all managed to subtly progress the art in some significant way in their respective classes. We’re not sure the Polo does.