Volkswagen does not currently offer anything smaller than the Golf/New Beetle in the U.S. The carmaker that was once known here for providing nothing but economy cars has kept its smallest models off U.S. soil...but that may change soon.
In other parts of the world VW has kept its reputation for solid economy cars by providing multiple vehicles that slot below the Golf. Now that fuel economy has become a buzzword with American buyers again, VW has expressed interested in bringing a smaller vehicle to our market. Rumors have been floating around that Volkswagen will expand the lower end of its lineup and bring its compact Polo model to the U.S.
The size of the Polo hatchback falls in between the five-door versions of the Toyota Yaris and Ford Fiesta. This represents territory Volkswagen has not competed for in the U.S. since it tried out its small Fox in the 80s and early 1990s. So before the Polo returns Volkswagen to its small car roots, we wanted to find out if it was right for our roads. The Polo has been available for decades in the U.K. and continues to be a best seller. We decided this would be the perfect place to start.
The Polo carries the new family face of Volkswagen. A sweeping line across the hood matches the horizontal bar grille. This frames the headlights and creates a line that follows the entire car. The front bumper mimics this same line, which almost makes the Polo look like it is smiling.
It doesn't get all the high-end fixtures, like the LED brow lights found on the Touareg, but there is nothing bargain bin about the Polo's appearance. Our hatchback carried many of the same visual features as the more expensive Jetta, but the five-door design means it could easily be mistaken for a Golf. If the two hatchbacks were side-by-side, you could easily identify the physical differences in size and front fascia. Without the Golf and Polo parked next to each other, however, it would be difficult for most people to tell them apart.
There is also a sedan variation of the Polo currently available in Eastern Europe. Because the Polo's front end looks strikingly similar to the Jetta, the prevalence of mistaken identity is even greater. Don't be surprised if America's preference for cars with trunks means VW will offer this version here, too.
Part of what is lost at the lower end of the automotive price spectrum is choice. For those who do not like black interiors, this Polo may present a problem. The dashboard, center console, steering wheel housing, and most gauge clusters are various shades/textures of black plastics. Blue back lighting and small silver outlines occasionally break the monotony, but the overall feeling is still very sober. There is a tan interior option on premium Polo models, but even that has very few colored inserts the driver will actually see from behind the wheel.
The color should not overshadow the quality available inside this small car. Standard on the Polo are items like power windows and door locks and a leatherette three-spoke steering wheel. These may seem common to most cars today, but they are still luxury items in this price class. Many of the materials and components appear to be directly borrowed from the Golf and Jetta, which may make interior room the only argument in favor of upgrading to ether of those two cars.
The front seats are comfortable for long trips. The rear bench has full seating for three, as long as only one of three is a full-sized adult. Not only would the width of three full-grown Americans in the back seat prove a very tight fit, but as is expected with a small car, legroom is a little scarce. The overall feeling for a family of four riding in a Polo will likely be comfortable and not claustrophobic. But as the kids grow, this may no longer be the car to make the long journey to Grandma's house in.
Volkswagen likes to position itself as an inexpensive way for anyone to get a little piece of German engineering. While the Polo would be its cheapest car in the U.S., VW did not skimp on the driving dynamics. Both the suspension and steering feel crisp, and its small size gives confidence in maneuvering and parking in an urban environment.
Our tester had a 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine that is unlikely to make it to the U.S. The small 69 hp unit would not sell well over here, but driving a low-powered model prompted some interesting revelations. Even in a car that is underpowered by our standards, the Polo was able to keep up in traffic. Overtaking cars on the interstate takes some planning ahead, but otherwise the power was not missed.
The Polo's powerplant is like a small dog. Its little legs may have to work harder than the larger breeds to cover the same distance, but running hard seems to be in this mighty car's DNA. High power moments like merging means a heavy right foot, but the Polo feels solid through its entire torque curve. There was no feeling like the car was coming apart at the seams when approaching the redline, which cannot be stated for every economy car out there.
A big reason why this engine felt so capable is due to the five-speed manual transmission. Having the ability to control the gear changes can make a car feel measurably more powerful than its automatic counterparts - something good to remember when testing any economy car.
The likely candidate for the U.S. market would be the 1.2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that is rated at 104 hp. In Germany, VW posts figures for this engine around 40-mpg. The slightly heavier engine should offset some of the power increase from the Polo we tested, but it should still give this mighty dog some longer legs.
While the Volkswagen Polo may not carry the more radical styling of its peers, the solid driving dynamics may make it the best deal in small cars. In Europe, the Polo's base price is about one third less than the Golf. Using that basis the Polo could start in the U.S. for $13,000 - $14,000. This kind of pricing would put the little car in the crosshairs of Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris, and likely the upcoming Chevrolet Sonic (Aveo). The Polo may even end up less expensive than the $15,100 Honda Fit.
The Polo we tested would be a good first car to give children. Kids would like it because the VW brand holds some prestige, and it is a new car. Parents would embrace the idea of an inexpensive and safe small car that is not powerful enough to get into any real trouble (but just powerful enough to stay out of it too). The U.S.-bound Polos shouldn't stray too far from this idea. VW probably won't give the base Polo a large enough engine to be a sports car, but it shouldn't disappoint either.
It is important to remember that Volkswagen has not announced any specifications for U.S. models because the Polo has not yet been officially announced for the North American market. The largest problem that may spoil the Polo's arrival in the U.S. is that it has the ability to create a sales conundrum for VW. A well-optioned Polo makes a less persuasive argument for the more expensive (and more profitable) Golf and Jetta.