The last test car I drove before the lockdown in March this year was the Hyundai Creta, powered by a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine. And then for the first time in my 13-year long automotive journalism career, I did not drive for nearly three months straight, let alone test new cars! The first car I’m testing post the lockdown is the updated Volkswagen Polo, also powered by a turbocharged petrol engine, which goes to show where the world is heading. Towards turbo-petrols I mean. The new motor under the Polo’s hood is the smallest in Volkswagen’s TSI family, a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine that replaces the 1.2-litre, four-cylinder TSI. A lot of us also yearned for the Polo GT TSI to be offered with a manual and prayers have been answered – in the form of a six-speed manual!
But what’s Volkswagen up to, offering a performance hatchback with an engine that has the same displacement as the can of fruit juice we open at home for breakfast? Has the German marque taken things a little too far? Or does its 1.0-litre, three-pot motor have enough juice to make for energetic outings every morning? I took the Polo to one of my favourite hill roads near Pune, one that I’ve been frequenting for well over a decade now, to find out. Before we get to the juicy bit, let’s take a look at the car. The updated, 2020 Volkswagen Polo isn’t very different looking from the BS4 version, but the design has a timeless charm that makes it worth a second glance, even a decade after it went on sale. It’s almost like the sharp lines and boxy shape refuse to age.
The headlamp and taillight design do look a little dated and I would have preferred LED headlights and some new elements in the tail lamp cluster. The GTI-inspired grille looks nice, though the older car’s ‘GT’ moniker is missing now. The slightly flared edges of the front bumper add a hint of sportiness as do the side skirtings, while the rear bumper gets a faux diffuser. A newer alloy wheel design would have been nice too, perhaps? The inside story is not very different. The interiors look familiar and if you’ve been driving a Polo, you’ll find it all too familiar. What I still like about the cabin is the feeling of solidity it offers and the high quality of plastics all around. Be it the precise clicks of each button or the way the rotary knob for the headlights works, it’s all very reassuring. The functional design also has a zing to it even today, despite remaining unchanged for years.
I also like the flat-bottomed steering wheel – it always looks nice. The clocks could do with a redesign and so could the air-conditioning vents. The 6.5-inch touchscreen isn’t the largest but its touch sensitivity is excellent and resolution crisp. That’s all that matters actually, besides which Apple CarPlay is available – something I’ve gotten a little too used to! The TSI edition does not get a reverse camera but you do have rear sensors. I’ve always liked the fact that the Polo gets one-touch up/down windows all round and that’s one likeable feature even today. I’ve never been too fond of the driver’s armrest in the Polo but from what I hear buyers like it – be it for the upmarket feel or the comfort. For me, it’s just something that gets in the way of yanking the hand brake to go sideways!
Rear legroom and knee room aren’t the most spacious, something we knew already. But fact is, the Polo’s seats have always been comfortable all round and offer good support, and despite not being as spacious as some of the newer cars the Polo is still pretty good in terms of overall comfort. Boot space is decent at 280 litres as well. Get into the driver’s seat though and you pretty much forget a lot of other things, given how good the experience behind the wheel is. It starts from how easy it is to find your sweet spot in terms of the seating. There’s no starter button and you twist the key but hey, I’m not complaining at all!
The 1.0 TSI starts off the way three-pot motors do and at idle it also has the inherent thrum you associate with them. But give the throttle a blip and it feels smooth and sounds nice, albeit slightly muted. Clutch pedal travel feels perfect and throws for the stubby gear lever are short, again something enthusiasts always like. Get going and you’re instantly wanting to accelerate hard and doing that didn’t make me feel like there’s a ‘downsized’ engine under the hood. Of course, numbers don’t lie and the 1.0 TSI offers 4bhp more than the older engine at 108bhp along with an identical 175Nm, so you’re actually getting more power now. Put pedal to metal and the 1.0 TSI engine is more than willing to chuck any notions you might have about its abilities straight out of the window.
The engine is best enjoyed when hammered hard – it is quick to build revs. Get past the 2,500rpm mark and it offers you the wealth of its performance and in fact, mid-revs to the top of the rev range is where all the fun can be had. Bottom end grunt isn’t as strong as a naturally aspirated engine and that’s where the engine clears the air about being a force-fed one. But build revs and the car accelerates in a manner that will have any enthusiast break into a smile. Accelerating hard in the new Polo is thus highly addictive, as I found out once I got out of town and into the twisties. The six-speed manual is a delight to use and enjoys being given a workout. There’s no ESP on offer which means the front tyres will start chirping a bit but this never gets in the way of you having fun around fast corners.
The engine also feels smooth through the rev range while responses are strong, almost all the way to the 6,000rpm mark. The fact that the roads I was on are familiar territory helped, as I knew the corners ahead well and was able to push the car. And the more I pushed, the more I got rewarded – it’s amazing how much performance a 1.0-litre, three-pot motor can offer! In fact, I dare say, the Polo TSI edition will be able to hold a candle to cars with larger engines around the same twisties. A lot of that ability though will also be courtesy the Polo’s handling prowess. We’ve never had any doubts about its confident and sporty handling and in fact, the kind of legacy the Polo has built for itself over the past decade is something none of its competitors can boast.
It is the very car that kickstarted Volkswagen’s motorsport journey in India via the Polo Cup, it is the very car that has enjoyed serious popularity with rally enthusiasts in the INRC. And even if you leave all that motorsport pedigree aside, there’s no arguing the fact that the Polo has been one of the best handling hatchbacks in the country. Its suspension offers that perfect blend between ride and handling – the setup is on the firmer side but the car soaks up ruts and potholes well. But more importantly, when pushing hard, the amount of confidence the Polo offers is unparalleled as the car stays planted around fast corners by sticking to its intended line and also when barrelling down open highways at triple-digit speeds. Cars that handle so well are hard to come by at its price point in fact, especially since the steering is very precise and offers a perfectly weighted feel too. All this, of course, is the result of Volkswagen’s engineering and despite being one of the oldest cars in the segment, the Polo is easily the most fun to drive.
So it may not be the most spacious hatchback or may not have the most elaborate feature list, but when it comes to the experience from behind the wheel, there’s no arguing the fact that the Volkswagen Polo still has a lot going for it. Its handling prowess is matched by a new motor that’s only as rewarding as the one it replaces, if not more. Some of the more discerning Polo GT TSI owners might just find the engine refinement to be half a notch below their larger, four-cylinder engine’s but that’s not to say the motor isn’t smooth. It is in fact perhaps one of the smoothest three-pot mills on offer in the country. Prices for the TSI edition begin from just above Rs 9 lakh which in our opinion is a good price if looking for a proper driver’s car. The GT TSI has traded its highly impressive DSG for a more cost-effective torque converter automatic and is priced at just over Rs 11 lakh, but in my opinion, it’s the six-speed manual that’s the one to look at if you really like driving. Overall, I think the Polo TSI edition was sure an interesting way for me to end my three-month-long abstinence from driving!
Engine: 999cc, TSI, 3-cylinder In-line
Torque: 175Nm@1,750 – 4,000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Price: ₹9.17 lakh onwards (ex-showroom)
Photography – Varun Kulkarni