The Polo was the car that Volkswagen always hoped would repeat the success of the larger Golf, the company's Escort-sized family hatch. And the reasoning was good; a smaller more compact version of the same thing was what we got in the Seventies. It never really took off here.
The second generation Polo, launched in 1981 and facelifted in 1990, did slightly better, but the rather crude mechanicals and the lack of a five-door option always restricted its impact on the British market. All that changed in 1994 with the announcement of a completely new Polo range with everything on the UK buyer's wish list; three and five doors, saloons, diesels, automatics, a 16-valve hot hatch - even a clever retractable electric opening top. The Polo had at last arrived.
Second generation Polos arrived in Britain in 1981 and the model was substantially facelifted at the end of 1990. The brakes got a servo at last and there was new front and rear styling as well as a revised dashboard and fresh seat trim. Buyers chose between Hatch, Coupe and Saloon, all with the familiar 1.05-litre engine, plus there was also the 1.3-litre Coupe.
In 1991, a potent supercharged G40 hot hatch model was announced, but the press castigated it. In 1992, the Saloon was dropped and the previously special edition-only Genesis installed in the range as the lead-in model with 1.05 or 1.3-litre power.
It wasn't until the introduction of the all-new third generation Polo in 1994, however, that Volkswagen's smallest car was really taken seriously. Originally, there was a choice of 1.0, 1.3 or 1.6-litre power and three or five-door hatchbacks spread across L, CL, GL and GLX trim levels.
The 1.3-litre unit lasted less than a year before being replaced with a much better 1.4-litre engine in 1995. A 1.9-litre diesel option arrived in 1996, as did a saloon range (a lightly restyled and rebadged SEAT Cordoba) plus the option of automatic transmission and a fully retractable electric, folding Open Top roof. A 1.4-litre 16v hot hatch was added in 1997, as was a new 1.0-litre engine for the lead-in car. An estate (also based on a Cordoba) was added to the range in spring 1998. By now, Volkswagen's 100bhp 1.6-litre engine was being used for 1.6-litre models.
The hatchback range was facelifted for a February 2000 launch with a new nose and substantially altered interior with Lupo-style instruments. The saloon and estate were almost unchanged externally but did get the Lupo-like dashboard. Key new models included the 1.6-litre GTi and a three cylinder, 1.4-litre direct injection diesel offered with upmarket SE trim.