(Pocket-lint) - After the Golf, the smaller Polo is Volkswagen's best-selling car in the UK. It's easy to overlook, but the Polo is everywhere. To our minds, however, it's always had a bit of an odd image. It just doesn't manage the same 'royalty' status in small car land that the Golf does. Yet it's still priced at a premium compared to the equivalent Ford Fiesta or Renault Clio.
In recent years, that image has been brought into sharper focus by the moves into the Polo's playground by genuine premium players. The Audi A1, BMW-designed Mini, and even the DS3 and Fiat 500 all offer a chicer, cooler image and some big car features that the Polo hasn't been able to compete with.
Until now, with the seventh-generation Polo. It has some close family relatives, being based on the same kit of parts as the Seat Ibiza (which gained a coveted 5-star review from us in 2017). And the forthcoming Audi A1 will share the Polo's platform, too. Perhaps the biggest news and biggest change, is that the Polo is now closely twinned with the Golf.
Perfecting the platform
Most modern cars are built on a 'platform' – which means the stuff you don't see beneath the skin is the same on more than one car. Some of the base physical structure, many mechanical elements and electric systems, plus so-called 'hard points' that define things like the distance from the front wheels to the pedals, are the same. But the design teams have flexibility to vary what we see both inside and out, to make the car's design look and feel different to another.
Volkswagen's big move in this area came a few years ago. It developed a platform called 'MQB'. It's highly flexible and is what underpins the current Golf – as well as the Skoda Octavia, Audi A3, Seat Leon, Volkswagen Tiguan and many others. Now, Volkswagen's lightly adjusted 'MQB' to create something called 'MQB A0', which is the basis for the Polo.
'So what?', we hear you say. Well, the 'what' is that the Polo is now bigger. It's a little longer but crucially wider. Indeed, it's as wide as a Golf.
This means the new Polo has a boot that's bigger. Which, in turn, means you could conceivably consider using one as a small family car. Yes, the new Polo is (slightly) more difficult to park than the old one, but it's not exactly unweildy.
The big benefit for anyone buying a new Polo is that there's more room inside, too, plus the whole on-board experience is more refined. By using the Golf platform kit, the Polo can also now be equipped (optionally, we hasten to add) with a lot of features that have previously only been available on the bigger cars. Things like radar cruise control, digital cockpit displays, and all the good tech stuff that we're interested.
But has becoming a mini-Golf actually blunted the Polo's appeal; or has it turned it into a class king of small hatchback cars?
Getting fussy, being more mature
When the Polo was first seen in public (at the Frankfurt motor show in 2017) the most notable change was its exterior design is much more intricate and busy. Where the last Polo featured a simple surface design – with just one crease on the door panel – on the new model we count seven different lines.
It's the same story at the front of the car. Gone is Volkswagen's previously simple, reductionist approach. The company is giving us cars which visually express how much more exciting they are, how much design effort's been poured into them, and how Volkswagen's metal stamping machines can press more creases into a panel than any other car company's. So ,from a design point of view, you're getting more bang for your buck. But we can't help thinking the VW brand represents a more honest and simple approach – and that the design should be a little less fussy.
Still, that new platform is a winner in terms of proportions. The new Polo looks much stronger and more planted on the road. The extra width makes it look like a much more grown up and mature car.
That idea of maturity becomes a familiar story as you get in, drive and live with the Polo. The exterior design might be a tad busy, but the proposition couldn't be clearer: here is the ultimate no-compromises small car. You don't have to tolerate poor performance, lack of comfort, refinement or specification as you do in some other small cars.
In isolation, the Polo is such a complete and sophisticated package that you begin to wonder why on earth you'd actually spend the extra on buying a Golf.
That's true for equipment as much as anything else, even in our 1.0 TSi SE test model (which is only one rung up from base). Volkswagen expects this exact model to be the biggest seller in the UK (there are two power outputs of the 1.0 petrol engine, as well as a 1.4, a diesel, and soon a 2.0 GTi).
SE spec has tended to be relatively basic on previous Volkswagens. But there's an argument for sticking with it on the Polo, and it's an argument based around technology. One of the Polo's big selling points is a standard, 8-inch touchscreen. It's similar to the one seen in bigger VWs like the Golf and Tiguan and is relatively easy to use. There are still a couple of physical knobs and the display is crisp, rich and bright. Specification-wise, it doesn't come with navigation though.
However, it does run, as standard, with VW's App-Connect functionality, which allows you to connect a phone and then use Mirrorlink, Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. And use it we did. Routing with the native Apple/Google mapping systems, we came away after a week wondering why you'd pay extra for the (less good) VW navigation system. Because the screen is big, inputs are easy to make, icons and maps render crisply, and during our week with this Polo it never fluffed a voice input, dropped a phone call or failed to play music from Apple Music or Spotify, as we'd requested. There's even some control of your phone through the steering wheel and instrument cluster display.
Naturally, a DAB radio, some USB ports and rear parking sensors are standard too. You also get a front assist and emergency city brake system, and a collision mitigation system. You can optionally add things like a reverse camera with cross traffic assist, lane keep assist and blind spot warning systems. The Polo plays safety as a one of its big cards and it comes with a 5-star Euro Ncap safety system, a score achieved under the new, much harsher testing regime.
Practical and parsimonious
With better equipment than before, the Polo already feels like a bigger and more mature car. But it's the way things are setup inside that will truly grab your attention. The dashboard is explicitly more fashionable and 'designed' than in the old car. The infotainment display sits at the same height as the instrument cluster in a grey satin surround, which then stretches away to the passenger side of the car, emphasising width.
Depending on trim level, you can have the element in a series of colours such as red or blue, to help the Polo feels a little less grandma and a little more millennial, which would be one of the reasons we'd be tempted to upgrade to a different trim (such as the Beats audio finish) because the Polo is pretty dull and grey-on-grey in this guise.
But it all works, there's space for your phone, keys, drinks, and nothing rattles about. It's slightly imperfect in places: the door bins aren't lined, there's not actually a big enough cupholder for a water bottle in the centre (put it in the door bin), and you don't get quite as many soft-touch plastics and leather parts as in a Golf. That's expected, though, given the price differential.
The important bits are right: the steering wheel is still leather-trimmed and nice to hold, while most areas you touch feel a cut above the competition. Space is luxurious for a small car, too, meaning you can adjust the seat to sit down low without compromising comfort.
There's plenty of space for three kids in the back, but adults fit just fine too (as long as the front seat driver and passenger aren't huge). We popped in two car seats, with six-foot driver up front and didn't have to adjust the seat unnecessarily forwards to accommodate. And you can get a travel system buggy and a reasonable weekly shop in the boot. It's this space factor which we suspect will prove the Polo's ace card.
Adding to the practicality creds, the Polo is now only available as a 5-door. Only the Peugeot 208 and Ford Fiesta will offer 3-door variants in this category before long – there just isn't the demand for them according to car makers, because most customers value the practicality of extra doors over the slightly more sporting looks offered by cars which have just three.
Driving bigger and better
All of this positive build-up means it might come as no surprise that the Polo is a good drive. We're deliberately using the word 'good' here (not 'great') for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the fleet, fun and sparky drive offered by the Ford Fiesta and Seat Ibiza, is absent in the Polo. Instead, the VW majors on refinement and sophistication. You could genuinely be in a much bigger car. It's never uncofortable to be in. And if you drive it like you stole it, one of its most impressive aspects is that it still goes with the flow. It doesn't encourage you to drive with gusto, or put a smile on your face the way that the small Ford or Seat can, but it's still pretty good.
Engines are a big factor for small car. You want something small enough to be cheap to run, but not run out of puff when you get out of town. The Polo's two 1.0 TSi petrol engines should be as far as you need to look. We drove the lower-powered 95hp variant, which on a 100-mile test route mixing city, fast country driving and motorway, saw us achieve nearly 50mpg. That's good going.
The Polo is also set to be affordable to run. The first year's tax on this model is just £20 in the UK; it's also cheap to insure thanks to that good safety rating.
Meanwhile, performance around town is perfectly acceptable. If you're prepared to use the revs then there's enough power on the open road (as long as you don't feel the need to overtake more than one car at once). With only 5-gears in this variant (which seems a little old fashioned), we found they're spaced out nicely so the engine's not screaming away at motorway speeds.
That's the Polo's style: it's slick and sophisticated, favouring refinement over racecar behaviour . Similarly, the handling is safe and consistent, the steering is well weighted, despite its lack of feel. It's an easy car to drive, which is its very point.
Volkswagen has moved the bar with the new Polo. Although the series has always been good, it's never shone in the same way as its big brother, the Golf. Now, however, the Polo has a unique selling point: it's the most mature, sophisticated and comfortable car in this smaller class.
It's also as reasonably equipped as you could expect, narrowing the gap between itself and mainstream competition. It's not even priced at a great premium over a Ford Fiesta any more. So if you're looking for the ultimate, grown-up small hatchback then it's hard to argue why you should choose anything else.
So why no coveted 5-star score? Because while VW has moved the game on, so have others, and the competition is so strong. Ultimately, we see the Renault Clio as better looking, and both the Ford Fiesta and Seat Ibiza as even more complete packages.
Ultimately, what you choose to buy may come down to what badge you prefer and what deal you can get – and if you end up choosing a Polo, we can totally see why. It's close to superb; another example of the amazing array of high quality choice available to buyers in the market for this kind of car.
For us, the stand-out small car of 2017 continues to shine. It shares its platform with the Polo, so matches the VW on space, tech and quality. We think it looks sharper though, it's slightly better value and just a little more fun to drive.
If you're looking for the fun-to-drive and youthful player in the market, the Fiesta has few equals. The youthful-orientated car of its class, it comes with 3- or 5-doors and is a heap of fun to drive. Tech and interior design is now up to date, too, while refinement is close to the Polo's levels.