The range-topping Polo Highline derivative proves Volkswagen’s celebrated small hatch isn’t quite perfect…
It’s often the case that, even before you drive a vehicle, you have a fairly good idea of how the road test will turn out. This may be based on a colleague’s feedback from said vehicle’s international launch a few months prior, or it could be because we’ve already sampled another derivative in an earlier test. Both instances apply in this case.
However, life, as they say, is full of little surprises.
We’ll get to that, but first a recap on what we know. This, of course, is the latest-generation Volkswagen Polo, a car which, in 1,0 TSI Comfortline manual guise, we evaluated in a first drive at the start of 2018. That 70 kW derivative received a resounding thumbs-up from the CAR team, scoring 82/100 in the magazine test (February 2018) and garnering praise for its refined ride, excellent fit and finish, class-leading interior design and infotainment tech, and frugal habits. Basically, it’s a vehicle that, rather than exhibiting a generational leap, has seen marginal gains over its predecessor in just about every area. It’s now more of a mini-Golf than ever and surely that can only be a good thing.
Until the arrival of the 2,0-litre GTI model, the subject of this test is the current range-topper, the 1,0 TSI Highline. Whereas all models in the current Polo range share VW’s 999 cm3 turbopetrol engine, the version in the two Highline derivatives is tuned to deliver an extra 15 kW and 25 N.m. This more powerful engine is – like the 70 kW DSG – mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Externally, there’s little to distinguish this top-spec Polo other than the 16-inch “Las Minas” alloys. That said, look carefully at the rear wheels and you will notice disc brakes, as opposed to the drums on the lesser models.
Apart from the engine upgrade, it’s inside where the Highline’s superior status is apparent, with some extra spec over the Comfortline model. This includes cloth-trimmed “sport seats” (Art Veloru leather trim is an option) and a front centre armrest with storage box and cupholder at the rear. Highline also gets you an upgraded Composition Media infotainment system with a bigger eight-inch display (as opposed to 6,5 inches), app connect functionality and voice control. Ambient interior lighting is standard, as is cruise control with a speed limiter.
Our test unit also came equipped with blind-spot assist, parallel-park assist, a rear-view camera, park assist with PDC, and Climatronic air-con – all options adding round R25 000 to the sticker price – as well as the metallic Energetic Orange paint (R950).
Finally, then, to the drivetrain and essentially the crux of this test … and the little surprise alluded to earlier.
Any three-cylinder engine is going to draw immediate comparisons to Ford’s benchmark 1,0 EcoBoost. A multiple World Engine of the Year winner, the Ford’s punchy little unit has set the standards for refinement and efficiency. As noted in our test of the Polo 1,0 TSI Comfortline’s 70 kW version, VW’s unit isn’t quite as smooth and, now mated to the DSG ‘box, this characteristic has only been amplified.
At a normal application of throttle input, the transmission selects the next ratio at between 1 500 and 1 800 r/min. For this three-cylinder unit, those are revs that, to the ear, instinctively sound too low and the engine appears to labour. It gives the drivetrain a rough quality and is likely a calibration chosen for better fuel consumption, but unfortunately at the expense of driveability. Regardless, it was an attribute immediately picked by all in the CAR team and highlighted on our test-feedback sheets. All preferred the previous, smoother 1,2-litre turbopetrol.
The Highline does come with a sport drive mode you can access via a button next to the gear selector offering eco, normal, sport and individual modes; these alter steering weighting (marginally) and throttle/transmission mapping. Sport mode for the throttle/transmission can also be accessed by pulling the selector itself down one notch further. Sport mode does allow the DSG ‘box to hold onto a ratio for a little longer and it was the preferred setting for all who tested the car.
However, plant your foot and our performance testing indicated it makes no difference what mode you’re in; in-gear acceleration times to 140 km/h in sport and normal were identical. To put it into context, this 85 kW 1,0-litre Polo was just under a second quicker to 100 km/h than its 70 kW manual sibling (11,05 versus 11,88 seconds), and 2,5 seconds brisker to 140 km/h (22,06 versus 24,56 seconds).
Helped by its rear disc brakes, the Highline’s 100-0 km/h time is an impressive 2,79 seconds, taking an average distance of just 37,44 metres to come to a halt. However, there were a few testers’ notes that highlighted the brakes as being overly sensitive.
This test of the top-spec Highline Polo has shown our new Top 12 Best Buys winner is not quite perfect. Whereas its supple and refined ride, excellent damping and balanced, neutral handling keep it a step ahead of the competition, as does both the excellent fit, finish and contemporary ergonomic design of its interior, the drivetrain does let it down. Simply put, the DSG transmission doesn’t feel properly calibrated to the engine and tends to highlight the VW 1,0-litre’s weaknesses. And this does leave the current king-of-the-hill Polo vulnerable to what, by all accounts, is an excellent seventh-generation Ford Fiesta...
*From the April 2018 issue of CAR magazine