First Drive: 2010 Volkswagen Polo

October 26, 2009
2010 Volkswagen Polo

2010 Volkswagen Polo

Is it 1973 all over again? Volkswagen is amping up for a fuel-economy battle with Honda and Ford, right here in America, with a new hatchback. Only this time, some of the names have changed, and so have the rules. Come 2011 or so, it's the VW Polo readying for a fight with the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta. The fuel economy sea-changes and financial crises? Those things are reassuringly chillingly familiar.

Now, the Polo you see here--the one we drove in Germany recently--isn't the car you'll see in the U.S. in about two years' time. This Polo's a mid-lifecycle freshening of the current car, with the added spin of a three-door hatchback joining the existing five-door lineup in Europe. By the time the Polo gets to the U.S. sometime in 2011, it'll be a new model that will come in hatchback and sedan body styles--but then, you knew that already, since you read our exclusive confirmation of the new VW sedan lineup.

It's still educational, driving the current Polo, in the way that driving around the former East Germany's also a teachable moment. There are some ways in which the former East Germany leapfrogged by the West--skipping land lines for mobile phones and such--but as we played with the Polo in and around Dresden, Germany, we sidled through villages and burgs where it's all too obvious the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall wasn't all that long ago.

What is also obvious, is that the Polo's more that set for a matchup against the best-selling Honda subcompact and the newest global version of Ford's smallest world car. Like the Fiesta, the Polo's taken a sporting aim on this size class with a wide range of engines, from diesels to supercharged and turbocharged Twincharger powerplants, and with a new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, a new three-door version, and handling that's a cut above what you'd expect from something so small and short of wheelbase.

Those dimensions won't reassure anyone in the uniquely American size category of XXL. At 156.3 inches long, with a 97.3-inch wheelbase, the Polo's roughly the size of a MINI Cooper and doesn't entirely have cuteness to make up for its lack of interior room. It's small, we can confirm that: just climbing into our five-door test car required some careful leg geometry. The seating position? Fine, except for constant pressure from the center stack of radio and climate controls on my right leg, and the closeness to my co-driver that bordered on inappropriate touching. Folding into the teensy back seat? Highly unrecommended for anyone over 5'10". There's just not enough leg room, and for me, the bent-over stance wasn't going to do anything good for the vertebrae I planned to keep. However, the Polo's rear seats flip down to make a useful cargo bin, and there's a shallow tray for storage under the covered cargo floor. In terms of usefulness, the Polo's a C plus--but for small young families, more like a B minus.

For one driver, it's more of an unqualified B-plus hoot. It's a lightweight machine, with a deft, responsive feel to steering and brakes that's about as close as you can get to the all-time cheap-car sweet spot (original VW GTI, 1984 Honda CRX). The huge spectrum of drivetrains in the Polo boiled down to one choice for us, a 1.2-liter four with direct injection, turbocharging and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Living with small displacement wouldn't be bad, if it felt like this. Paddle the transmission down and the turbo four responds with gusto. U.S. drivers wouldn't have any qualms with this kind of subcompact performance, which easily put the Polo at sub-9-second acceleration times, and felt even brisker at urban speeds. It's a good thing, as this is likely the kind of powertrain we'll get in the U.S. One thing that won't likely change: the typically bouncy short-wheelbase ride. Cobbly eastern German pathways, you're a total buzzkill.

The Polo--and the Fiesta, too--take the handling tack that the Honda Fit puts aside in favor of interior room. There's none of the Fit's almost-minivan space in the Polo, which blends Golf, Audi A3 and some hints of Scirocco into a plainly handsome shape. You wouldn't mistake the nicely trimmed interior for anything but Volkswagen; it's under the hood where the unfinished engine bay and the clicking of the direct-injection system reminds you that cost doesn't just disappear on its own.

Our Polo came fitted with the gear you'd expect and some at the upper reaches of small-car credibility. A telescoping wheel and power windows are necessities--but will U.S. buyers want to pay up for a navigation system and automatic climate control in a sub-$15,000 subcompact? Volkswagen is asking, and trying to answer plenty of questions just like those as it works on the first U.S.-market Polo. By the time it arrives, a sedan version is more than likely, a sop to the marketing types who believe U.S. buyers won't grab as many hatchbacks.

Then there's the question of price: how much can be charged for the Polo when a new, less-expensive-to-build Jetta and a big, American-made full-size "NMS" sedan are in the pipeline, too? At $15,000, the Polo would beat the likes of the Nissan Versa and Hyundai Accent on fuel economy, but would be $5,000 more in base sticker price. And that's not a winning combination, by VW's reckoning. Could they do $12,500? Or even $14,000? All remains to be seen, but if the new Polo bore more than a passing resemblance to other VW icons, the premium appeal could give it an edge.

Say, how about a turbodiesel Polo with DSG and 50 mpg? A loss leader for sure, but maybe just the car Volkswagen needs to make this brewing battle a real three-way.

High Gear Media accepted airfare and hotel stay from the automaker to be among the first to test-drive this new vehicle.

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