Buying Used: Volkswagen Polo (2010-16)

Volkswagen's entry-level Polo delivers award winning performance and driver satisfaction. However they still demand scepticism and a detailed pre-purchase inspection to ensure the car you choose isn't beset by technical issues

History of Polo

Think back, if you can, to 1974, when Volkswagen's Golf made the first serious advance in small-car design since BMC released its Mini Minor. Emerging just a year later from the shadows behind the ground-breaking Golf came a smaller but equally significant design known as the Polo.

It took almost 25 years for Volkswagen's smallest model to arrive in Australia and a further decade before the Polo would rank as a serious threat in the Light Car segment.

The 6R Series Polo was launched here in May 2010. It came with a European 'Car Of The Year' award already in its keeping and many more accolades in the offing.

Locally-sold 6Rs came in three basic models and started at $16,690. That paltry sum bought a three-door Trendline with five-speed manual transmission, remote central locking and window activation, a six-speaker CD stereo and glovebox cooler.

Next in line, accompanied by a $3200 price jump, was the Comfortline. These had five doors and a 1.2-litre, single cam turbo-petrol engine producing 77kW with five-speed manual or seven-speed DSG semi-automatic transmission.

The turbo-diesel Comfortline was bigger in capacity at 1.6 litres, yet produced just 66kW. The difference lay in loads of torque allied to frugal gearing that brought fuel consumption down to an average figure of 4.7L/100km.

Rolling into showrooms a few months after the mass-market cars was a revamped Polo GTi. Under its bonnet sat a conventional 1.4-litre engine which when fed by a sequential supercharger and turbocharger produced 132kW and wiped out any concerns about turbo lag.

Repairing such a complex bit of gear was not an issue often contemplated by original owners. Those considering owning a GTi Polo today might give it some thought though. What may have bothered them, however, was VW's decision to fit the DSG automatic transmission (seven-speed) as standard and not offer a conventional manual gearbox in the GTi until a six-speed unit became available in 2014.

The GTi was priced from a ridiculous $27,790; so far below the $42,990 being asked for a basic Golf GTi that visitors to VW dealerships might have questioned why they were even considering the larger car. Polo GTi features included 17-inch alloy wheels, paddle shifters (for those wanting to out-think the DSG), spoilers and a tyre pressure sensing system.

A complete re-design ensured that the 2010 Polo kept in touch with the advances being made by Light Car rivals including the sales-leading Toyota Yaris. The new car was longer and wider but 80kg lighter than previous versions, due partly to use of lighter, more resilient body components.

Local crash testing wasn't undertaken, however the Polo's performance against 2010 European standards for passenger protection was sufficient for it to be awarded a Five-Star ANCAP ranking. In addition to six airbags and ABS brakes, the Polo delivered switchable traction control and stability control.

The 2014 update brought detail styling changes including reshaped lighting clusters with LED headlights, new front and rear bumpers and wheel designs. Inside were equipment upgrades lifted from the Golf parts-bin and a Multi-Media touch-screen with Smartphone integration.

Under the bonnet were new 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol engines delivering 66kW in Trendline form and 81kW for the Comfortline. The GTi gained 9kW and, despite a general rise in specification, prices didn't increase. There was no diesel.

On the road

Little cars designed for urban use can look out of their depth when plonked into a country as large and unforgiving as Australia. Not the Polo. Most sold here came from South Africa where service facilities aren't on every corner either and the people who fund the roads have slim budgets or other priorities.

The DSG transmission, for all the problems that beset this design, seems suited to the Polo's turbo engines. With seven speeds to exploit the 1.4-litre engine's willing nature, the compact Polo GTi was just fractions of a second slower than the more powerful Golf GTi to 100km/h and the end of a standing 400 metre contest.

Resale values have been affected by Volkswagen's litany of safety-related recalls and the price difference between Trendline and Comfortline versions has virtually disappeared. Spending a thousand or so extra on the more powerful and better-equipped car is a logical decision.

The Comfortline seats are well-shaped and fabric seems to hold up well, even after almost a decade of being parked under the Aussie sun. Some people say the seats are too narrow to be comfortable on longer runs, so if you ribs are getting pummelled by the bolsters perhaps look for something else.

Despite VW's best efforts to make the dash look interesting, it's still a mass of unremarkable plastic with old-fashioned switchgear. The information screen sits a little low to be safely checked while driving.

Headroom and shoulder room are all good, given the overall size of the car, but rear knee-room is a bit restricted for adults. With the seats folded flat there's plenty of carrying capacity and the hatch is a good shape for loading wide objects.

Around-town acceleration in a car with DSG is OK but we think anyone keen on exploiting the little engines' upper reaches will want the six-speed manual. If you choose a car with the automatic idle-stop 'fuel saving' facility it will intrigue for the first hour before it drives you nuts. It can be switched off though.

At the risk of being repetitious, do not blame a poor-handling Polo or one with lack of steering feel on design flaws. These cars won multiple awards when new and were praised for their handling. Subsequent owners who fit cheap, low quality tyres, then don't bother to pump them up or replace worn dampers and suspension bushes are not the car's fault.

Fuel consumption from a petrol-fed Polo isn't in the realms of what a diesel will achieve but certainly won't send you broke. The claimed average for a 1.2-litre is 6.2L/100km and real world testing of a hard-driven GTi returned 8.4L/100.

Volkswagen Polo check points

>> Reports of cars dropping into 'limp home' mode with little warning are a real concern for Polo buyers. This condition can result in the car suddenly slowing and not responding to throttle input, which at freeway speeds is extremely hazardous. There is no way of predicting if this situation might arise, but a car that stutters when accelerating or surges at constant speed is one to avoid.

>> Shudder from the DSG transmission when manoeuvring at low speeds is early warning of problems ahead. Even after the clutch packs which were blamed for the problem have been replaced, the transmission can display erratic behaviour, including sudden loss of drive and engine speed spikes. The best advice when considering a DSG car is to insist on an extended test-drive under various speed and load conditions and then organise a professional pre-purchase inspection.

>> Polo interiors look good when new but owners report cabin plastics cracking and fading when constantly exposed to high temperatures – such as being parked for hours at the beach on a hot day. Check that the column stalks haven't started to crack, that seat adjusters and door hardware are intact and the glovebox latches and stays shut.

>> VW petrol engines consume oil faster than similar designs and owners need to check lubricant levels every 5000km or so. 15,000km is the recommended service interval, but a car used for short runs won't burn off contaminants and needs more frequent oil changes to minimise engine wear.

Used vehicle grading for Volkswagen Polo
Design & Function: 12/20
Safety: 14/20
Practicality: 14/20
Value for Money: 13/20
Wow Factor: 12/20
Score: 65/100

Also consider: Toyota Yaris ; Mazda 2