At last year's Geneva Motor Show, we got our first in-person look at the all-new fifth-generation Volkswagen Polo, the brand's popular B-segment model that slots in below the ever-expanding Golf and Jetta range. While subcompact vehicles like the Polo have been a staple in Europe for decades where fuel prices hover around $8/gallon, in the last few years, Americans have finally started to take a serious look at cars of this size. With the Honda Fit and Mini Cooper well established, the Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 twins on the way and an all-new Chevrolet Aveo coming late in 2010, the market for subcompact runabouts is picking up steam in the States – and VW is taking a long, hard look at adding the Polo to its North American lineup in the next few years.
With that in mind, VW trotted out a fleet of Polos for us to sample on its home turf near Wolfsburg, Germany recently – and while the automaker has yet to make a firm decision about importing the Polo to the U.S., they clearly wanted our feedback. Here's what we told VW of America CEO Stefan Jacoby and his staff.
Photos by Sam Abuelsamid / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
The new Polo is a handsome little hatchback with a very attractive implementation of Volkswagen's latest design language. The front fascia shares a lot with the new Golf, including the slim, black, horizontal grille above the bumper and the primary air intake and fog-lamp mounts down below. Along the sides, the pronounced wheel arches work nicely with the chiseled character lines just below the windows and along the rocker panels to give the Polo a pleasantly aggressive stance. For such a small car, it looks quite stocky, especially on the 17-inch, five-spoke alloys fitted to our tester.
All of the Polos on hand were powered by one of VW's newest engines: the 1.2-liter TSI four-cylinder. As its TSI designation implies, the 1.2 includes both a turbocharger and direct fuel injection, with a different cylinder head configuration than current TSI mills. Larger displacement versions from this engine familly all feature dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, while the 1.2 uses a single cam and only two valves per cylinder. While this might seem like a step backwards, there's some solid reasoning behind it.
The first and most obvious is cost. A single cam, two-valve head is considerably less expensive to build, along with being notably lighter. Both of these elements are important in an engine for an entry-level car. However, there is also a functional reason that could make the two-valve layout advantageous for a direct-injected engine. Four smaller valves take more space in the combustion chamber, and they don't leave much space to locate the spark plug and injector. This usually creates a situation where the spark plug is located in the center and the injector is off to one side. With only two valves, both the plug and the injector can be located closer to the middle, so fuel is distributed more evenly. The pressurized intake air from the turbocharger also helps to offset some of the four-valve configuration's breathing advantage. Overall, this results in a reasonable compromise for a subcompact vehicle and a rather impressive amount of power.
The 1.2-liter TSI churns out 103 horsepower and 129 pound-feet of torque, and while that doesn't sound like much, maximum twist is available between 1,500 and 3,500 rpm, making for excellent around town drivability. By comparison, the 1.5-liter, 16-valve normally aspirated engine in the North American-spec Honda Fit produces 117 hp, while maximum torque – a meager 106 lb-ft – peaks at 4,800 rpm. Mated to either a six-speed manual or new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the Polo's demeanor is nearly unmatched by anything in the U.S., and the run to 62 miles per hour takes place in a perfectly adequate 9.7 seconds. Making things even more enticing is the Polo's fuel economy, up from 35.1 mpg (U.S.) to 42.8 mpg compared to the outgoing port-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder in the previous Polo, with a drop in CO2 emissions to boot (159 g/km versus 129 g/km).
Inside, the Polo provides typical Volkswagen fare – well finished, high quality materials of the sort rarely found in Stateside subcompacts. The design is simple, clean and functional, with everything located exactly where it should be. Large, round gauges for the speedometer and tach flank an information display that keeps tabs on the clock, mileage, range and other useful info-tidbits. The overall design is very similar to the Golf, with a seamless surface across the top of the dashboard. Our tester came equipped with an optional in-dash navigation system, along with a large storage bin below the climate controls and cloth seats that proved comfortable while providing plenty of lateral support.
One aspect where the Polo loses out to the class-leading Honda Fit is interior volume. The Japanese hatch is about five inches longer and 2.5 inches taller than the Volkswagen, although the wheelbase is only about an inch longer. Most of the Fit's extra length is the result of its longer nose (something not found on non-North American variants), yet its extra size can be felt most clearly from the rear seat, where the extra height allows for a more upright position for passengers and room for four adults. The Polo is noticeably more snug, albeit easily on par with the forthcoming Ford Fiesta.
The five-door Polo we sampled was equipped with a DSG transmission but, unlike the Golf TDI, it didn't have paddle shifters. If you're hot to swap your own cogs, slotting the gear selector to the right from Drive allows you to tap-shift the transmission up or down. Around town, the torquey engine proved very responsive and the Polo never felt sluggish or strained, and shifts were quick and smooth whether commanded by the powertrain ECU or the driver.
Going around corners, the Polo's steering was quick and the electro-hydraulic assist had good feedback. Our drive loop south of the Oschersleben track included stretches through several small villages coated in cobblestones, and the Polo's poise and reasonably comfortable ride on such uneven surfaces bodes well for how the V-Dub will behave on pitted U.S. roads.
But will it make the trek?
Officials from Volkswagen of America seem intent on bringing the Polo to the States, but the big question seems to be what bodystyle U.S. consumers will get. While European VW dealers offer three- and five-door hatchback configurations, the thought seems to be that Americans would prefer a sedan. To our eyes, a hatchback and its attendant utility makes a lot more sense than an undersized trunk, but our position might not jibe with mainstream consumer tastes. From where we sit, the smarter choice may be something analogous to the Euro-only Golf Plus, which is a taller version of VW's C-segment hatch. A vertically stretched Polo Plus could match the space of the Fit on its existing footprint, negating our only serious ding with the Polo – a lack of interior space.
However, the more intractable problem is cost. With the euro trading at nearly $1.50, sourcing an inexpensive B-segment car from across The Pond is a non-starter. VWoA CEO Stefan Jacoby told us that the site of the new Chattanooga, TN assembly plant has space to double in size and could ultimately produce up to 500,000 vehicles annually. The Puebla, Mexico plant that builds the Jetta and New Beetle is also being expanded, so if the Polo is offered here, it will almost certainly be built in North America and offered throughout North, Central and South America.
VW will no doubt be closely watching how the all-new Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 fare to help determine its path. And if we were betting gentlemen – and we often are – our money would be on the Polo arriving on U.S. shores within the next three-to-four years. With the exemplary 1.2-liter TSI and an enlarged cabin, the Polo could easily find favor with Stateside consumers currently reassessing what they need in a vehicle, and with more subcompacts arriving each year, VW needs to strike while the iron is hot to solidify its place in a segment that's finally garnering some attention in America.
Photos by Sam Abuelsamid / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.