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First Drive: 2014 Volkswagen Polo [Review]

by Ronan Glon

Join us as we put the Golf\'s smaller sibling through its paces in Bavaria.

Relatively unknown in the United States, the Polo has been one of Volkswagen's best-selling nameplates since the first generation of it was introduced as a cheaper version of the Audi 50 city car in 1975. The current fifth-gen model debuted at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show and was updated in time for the 2014 edition of the event that took place last March.

Positioned directly below the Golf, the Polo stretches 156.3 inches long, 66.8 inches wide and 57.2 inches tall, dimensions that make it a little over three inches shorter than a Ford Fiesta hatchback. Both the five-door and the three-door variants of the city car boast 9.8 cubic feet of trunk space, a figure that grows to 33.6 when the second row of seats is folded flat.

It admittedly takes a well-trained eye to tell the facelifted Polo apart from its predecessor. Visually, the hatchback features only discreet evolutionary modifications such as a new radiator grille accented by a lone chromed slat, a redesigned front bumper with a large air intake, available LED headlights and redrawn tail lamps. Six new alloy wheel designs and eight additional body colors round out the updates, but, generally speaking, the conservative Golf-inspired look carries over unchanged.

Quiet RevolutionThe story is different beneath the skin, where Volkswagen has made the Polo more efficient and quieter thanks to a long list of updates that are largely invisible to the naked eye. For starters, the outgoing Polo's entire lineup of engines was tossed out in favor of three- and four-cylinder units that are either brand new or new to the lineup.

The gasoline offering currently includes five engines rated at 59, 73, 88, 93 and 108 horsepower, respectively. A 147-horsepower BlueGT model equipped with automatic cylinder shut-off and a range-topping GTI-badged hot hatch that boasts 189 ponies will round out the lineup later this year.

Buyers who prefer oil-burners can pick between three TDI turbodiesels available with 73, 88 or 103 horsepower. The headline-grabber is a 1.4-liter three-cylinder turbodiesel unit that will gradually be offered on other Volkswagen products including the Golf.

Volkswagen put a big emphasis on gas mileage when updating the Polo, and the most efficient BlueMotion-badged model is powered by specially-tuned version of the aforementioned 1.4-liter TDI engine officially rated at 75 mpg in a mixed European cycle. To further improve efficiency all across the board, a start/stop system and a regenerative braking system are both standard on cars with an output of 90-horsepower or greater.

In addition to a revamped Golf-inspired cockpit, the 2014 Polo packs a slew of new tech features such as the second generation of Volkswagen's modular infotainment system (MIB in VW-speak) and a standard Automatic Post-Collision Braking system tasked with automatically bringing the car to a stop after a major accident. Optional add-ons gleaned from the Golf include Adaptive Cruise Control and a radar-based Front Assist system that warns the driver if it senses a collision is imminent. If the driver does not react, the City Emergency Braking system integrated into Front Assist can bring the car to a full a stop. These features are becoming increasingly common on larger cars but they are rare in the Polo's segment.

Life AboardUnsurprisingly, the Polo features a typically Teutonic dashboard that puts an unmistakable emphasis on function rather than on form. The dash is covered with a soft-touch material and every part of the cockpit feels solid and well screwed together, giving the Polo an edge over many rivaling models built by French automakers.

The Polo lacks many of the Golf's cleverly-located storage bins - a concession likely made in the name of space. Still, it is roomy enough for even a six-footer to drive on a regular basis, though we doubt that three adults can comfortably fit on the rear bench for any significant length of time.

The center console is dominated by one of four screens depending on which trim level is ordered. Base-model cars feature a five-inch monochrome screen; mid-range models are equipped with a 5-inch touch screen; and finally, upmarket trim levels boast a 6.5-inch touch screen that can be paired with a host of high-tech bells and whistles such as a rear-view camera, a navigation system, Bluetooth connectivity and a MirrorLink function that allows the driver to display and control select functions of a smartphone on the screen. MirrorLink only works with select apps and it is not compatible with all smartphones, though Volkswagen says it will gradually roll out the technology and it hopes to cover the bulk of the market over the coming months.

On the Road

Equipped with the 88-horsepower TSI mill, the Polo is brisk to drive around town and the dual-clutch DSG gearbox goes through the gears in rapid-fire succession if needed. The 'box eagerly downshifts one or more gears in corners or if the gas pedal is pushed in all the way. Overall, the DSG is more user-friendly than a standard automatic equipped with a torque converter but gears occasionally arrive with a slight clunk when downshifting with the paddles mounted behind the steering wheel.

88 horsepower is not much on paper but it's enough to propel the Polo from zero to 62 mph in 10.8 seconds, a respectable time for the segment. The engine runs quietly on the freeway thanks to a long seventh gear designed primarily for high-speed cruising.

The electromechanical power steering setup is well-weighed and precise at all speeds. As a result, the Polo can be easily maneuvered into a spot yet it proves lively when tossed around on a country road, though buyers after a truly sporty ride will be better suited by the range-topping GTI model.

We also sampled the 88-horsepower TDI engine linked to a five-speed manual transmission and noticed the vibrations typically associated with three-cylinder mills have been greatly reduced. The clutch is touchy at first but the transmission is precise to operate and well-geared, enabling the driver to take full advantage of the oil-burner's 170 lb-ft. of torque. However, a sixth gear would help perceptibly lower engine noise at freeway speeds.

The TDI was equipped with the optional Sport Select suspension that stiffens the shock absorbers at the push of a button located towards the top of the center console. The difference between regular and sport mode is marginally noticeable in every day driving, and we hope the next generation of the system will also modify the pedal response like it does in some of Volkswagen's other models.

MG's bottom lineVolkswagen's evolutionary redesign policy has its merits, and the Polo was upgraded where it counts: Under the sheet metal. The hatchback lives up to its promise of being quieter and more efficient.

The Polo has historically been one of the pricier offerings in the segment. That's not about to change with the extra equipment added for 2014 but it's a lot of car for the money - one that would shake up the subcompact segment in the United States if Volkswagen decides to offer it on this side of the pond.

Photos by Ronan Glon.

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