It is hard to credit that the VW Polo has been with us since 1975 and that we are now looking at the sixth generation of a machine that has gestated from utilitarian micromini into a sophisticated and technologically crammed supermini, says Declan Colley.
At this remove it seems difficult to reconcile what was once the Ebenezer Scrooge of the small car market — what with its cravenly primitive innocence — with that which now presents itself to us.
Back then you had to practically specify stuff as commonplace as sun visors, or an ashtray; now you’re getting wildly upmarket things like cruise control or sun visors with — get this — illuminated vanity mirrors.
I’m not saying VW was mean or anything, but back when the Polo was a mere strip of a lad, the company had a utilitarian streak and was not prone to selling products which had much flash or dash about them. In fact they didn’t have much of anything by way of creature comforts.
That said, were you to travel the highways and by-ways of our beloved isle even now, there is a fair chance you will discover any number of Polos still trolling around the place, still plying their trade.
There is a certain irony in this characteristic and it is mirrored by several small Japanese cars. Here we have cars coming from the two countries completely vanquished by the Second World War having been bombed to near oblivion and these are vehicles which are, ironically, largely bombproof.
But enough of the history lesson. The fact of the matter is that the Polo, across several generations of drivers, has provided wonderfully reliable and consistent service. It has served valiantly as a school bus, shopping trolley, tractor, scooter, learner, teacher, grinder, and blue-collar worker.
Perhaps even more than its sibling the Golf, from the outset labelled the ‘everyman’s car’, the Polo is the one that should have that title. It is driven by adults, kids, doctors, nurses, architects, engineers, farmers, clowns, and chancers — i.e., everyone.
It was once tiny, tinny, underpowered, and malignly plastic in many regards (check the original’s bumpers and awfully depressing interior), but it went — and went and went. It was ridiculously simple to maintain, pretty decent on the economy front, easy and cheap to repair. It was always a courageous, noble, gallant, intrepid, and fearless little car.
Great and all as those characteristics are, in our modern world the combination of all those heroic elements is still not quite good enough. Consequently, it has grown up (literally as well as physically), become more of a café society type, and, perhaps, less of an obvious workhorse than it was in previous incarnations.
The Polo is now quite the sophisticate. Some 14m sales later, it has transcended whatever aims and ambitions Volkswagen ever had for it to become something of a small car icon. To be honest, it needs to be what with high-class opposition coming from the likes of the Ford Fiesta, the excellent new Seat Ibiza, the reinvigorated Nissan Micra, the ever-consistent Toyota Yaris, and a host of others.
And if it looks all grown-up, it most certainly is, because it has been stretched to the point where it now has nearly as much rear legroom as the Golf and almost as much boot space, too.
That airiness has also been exploited for the driver and front seat passenger. When you first sit into it, there is a head-scratching moment where you think you’re in the wrong car.
It is much too big to be a supermini, for God’s sake.
But no, it is really a Polo and although flashier, more comfortable than ever before, and bestowed with more techy toys than most in the class, the car has grown up and matured into a new role whereby it is no longer the baby of the range but the teenager.
The bargain basement slot in the VW line-up has been filled by the Fox and the Up! in recent times and this has allowed the Polo to fill out gradually and grow into a new and less utilitarian beast, one which can now appeal to a greater swathe of the buying public.
That, however, presents another slight problem because the Polo has become a lot dearer than many supporters could ever credit — or even get credit to buy.
It’s good though, really good. Now the tester was fitted with the less-than-warp-speed 1.0-litre three cylinder petrol engine which emits just 64bhp and is not the sort of thing you’d want if you like a bit of zip in your life.
This is illustrated by the almost glacial 15.5-second 0-100km/h time and the aspirational 165km/h time. I say aspirational because I’d like to offer a small prize to anyone who actually manages it — a one-way bus ticket from Utah to the Bonneville Salt Flats.
It is not quick, to be fair, and takes a bit of flogging to achieve moderate progress although the five-speed manual ‘box does contain several long ratios to help in this regard.
Having said that, it is completely at home in an urban environment and will suit city dwellers as a hither and thither runabout, but it does lose considerable lustre when asked to step up to a bit of long-distance mileage. The claimed emission and economy levels — 108 g/km and 4.7 l/100km (59.5 mpg) — are decent enough but the real world will not produce anything like that.
That being the case, I would personally choose the 75bhp version on offer as a more viable day-to-day option, especially so given the way this car has grown up so much. The handling is pretty smart and the ride is near the top of the class in the segment, although neither are as good as those in the Fiesta.
While this Comfortline tester does come with a raft of kit — including a spectacularly good infotainment system with an 8” screen, a start/stop system with regenerative braking, voice control, and a multifunction steering wheel — adding stuff on will propel the cost of the car over the 20k mark pretty quickly.
Polo has come millions of miles over the 43 years it has been with us. Undoubtedly this is the best iteration of the lot. It might not be cheap, but it is damn good.
The cost: From €19,470 to €21,049 as tested
The engine: A tad puny
The specification: Unrecognisable from the original Ebenezer Scrooge Polo
The overall verdict: Pretty impressive