As evidence that the platform-sharing antics of the Volkswagen Group have truly turned the way we look at motoring on its head, take the latest Volkswagen Polo. You know it's going to be good because it shares the same underpinnings as a Skoda Fabia. You know it's going to be spacious as the spec sheets show it's bigger than a Mk1 Golf. Is it still a Supermini? You be the judge.
After all, a Supermini is all about nippiness in the city traffic, a certain cheeky appeal, cramped rear seats and a marked reluctance to tackle any journey longer than an hour or so. This was a list of criteria Volkswagen obviously junked quite early in the Polo design process. Yes, you do get the cutesy Lupo-style face, but the rest of the car is extremely functional. The tail lights are punctuated by round lenses, but aside from that it's very Germanic. The three-door model's waistline arcs upwards slightly more aggressively than the five-door version, which also features a third side window. From the rear, many will miss the fact that this is an all-new car, whilst from the front, the Polo best resembles a Lupo that's been given a few gallons of growth hormone rather than regular unleaded.
Whereas once a Polo was the stripped-out, somewhat bouncy and decidedly compact social passport for thousands of middle class student girls the length and breadth of the country, it has evolved in to something quite different. The students decamped to the Peugeot 306 as the Polo got plusher and more refined, each successive generation adding a few pounds, both fiscal and physical. The this car accelerated that trend, being a full six inches longer than its predecessor, with a far more spacious interior and a boot that can take much more than a couple of bottles of cheap plonk and a road cone.
An integral aspect of the Polo's appeal is the drive to downsize. That may sound odd given that the car's girth has noticeably swelled, but it now caters very well to drivers no longer interested in running something Mondeo-sized, without making them feel as if they've suddenly become a member of the underclass. Swap from a Passat to a Polo and you certainly won't feel as if your station in life has taken a dive; you'll just feel as though you've taken an informed decision to drive a smaller car, no more, no less.
The finish is certainly slick. Invisible laser welding makes the roof, rear wing and sills look all of a piece and also contributes to Volkswagen's claim that the Polo has better structural rigidity than the majority of its rivals. The key themes behind the Polo are the worthy (but slightly dull) avenues of safety and environmental friendliness. Both were ratcheted up a notch or two with this model, all post-2001 Polos being fitted with anti lock brakes with electronic braking assistance, twin front and side airbags, ISOFIX child seat mountings and a passenger airbag that can be deactivated when a child seat is fitted.
The interior is probably more impressive aspect of the car. With 270 litres of boot space, the Polo, especially in five-door form, can realistically function as family transport, with rear legroom particularly generous. Park yourself behind the steering wheel and you'll witness a level of fit and finish that was previously unseen on Supermini class cars. The steering wheel design is slightly unusual, resembling an early Porsche 911 design, but the rest of the cabin has that elegant, understated simplicity of all Volkswagen Group products. It takes enormous corporate confidence to build something this tasteful and without resorting to gimmickry to pull the punters in, but Volkswagen pulled it off with aplomb. All models get power steering, an adjustable height driver's seat plus a tiltable and telescopic steering column, pretty much guaranteeing comfort behind the wheel.
A nearly new Volkswagen is not a good place to start if you're interesting in hearing 'what went wrong' stories. The Polo is no exception, with no major faults having been reported. The new engines appear to be trouble free, and the older power units have a good pedigree. As with any car that sees its fair share of city driving, check for parking bumps and scrapes Otherwise it's hard to find fault with the Polo. Look for a main-dealer serviced car and you really can't go far wrong.
(approx based on a 1.4 TDi PD) Volkswagen spares have developed a reputation for costliness but you might be surprised at how reasonably priced they now are. A new alternator will set you back almost £245, while an ECU engine management unit is around £550. Other parts are far more reasonable still. An exhaust system is around ££95, rising to £500 if you need a catalytic converter as well. Front brake pads are just over £40 a pair, while a clutch is a little over £150. A new radiator will be around £90 and a new fuel pump is approximately £100.
Polo customers get a 75bhp 1.4-litre 16v engine carried over from the old range and a 100bhp version of this unit. The 1.2-litre engines are well worth a look, but the 1.4-litre FSI engine is the pick of the petrol bunch. Diesel buyers can choose between a non-turbo 1.9-litre and two TDI engines, the 1.4-litre 75bhp three-cylinder unit most will be familiar with and a punchy 100bhp 1.9-litre four, which is probably the best choice for long range work.
The SDI engine should be given a wide berth, such is the obvious superiority of the three-cylinder 1.4 TDI and the four-cylinder 1.9TDI units. With far more midrange power to call upon, they are part of the current breed of diesel superminis that you'd drive just for the fun of it rather than as a necessity.
The 1.4-litre car can make 60mph in 13.6 seconds on the way to 106mph, whilst the 1.9-litre TDI -only available in Sport trim - zips through the increment in a mere 10.7 seconds and doesn't run out of will until 117mph. The 130bhp GT has a 128mph top speed and should reach 60mph in 9.2s while the GTi's 1.8-litre Turbo engine is a second quicker to 60mph - not particularly impressive by today's hot hatch standards. At least the SDI model's terminal velocity of 99mph could be viewed as a potential licence saver. The Polo's handling is a revelation with far crisper turn-in and improved road holding and the electro-hydraulic power steering is a generation on from its predecessor's somewhat baggy helm.
If you track down a well-looked after Polo, you won't be sorry about making a reasonable investment. With the sole exception of the slightly lacklustre SDi diesel car, every model in the range certainly has something to be said for it. Watch out for cars owned by novice drivers or those rare cars purchased as company hacks but otherwise buy with confidence.