New VW Polo 1.6 Leaves Opposition Standing

When we first tested Volkswagen's latest incarnation of the Polo, we were mightily impressed with it. But at the same time, we were far from sold on the largest engined version -- the 1.6. It didn't seem to offer much of a performance advantage over the sweet 1.3-liter, and, worse still, we found it coarse and unrefined, as well as reluctant to rev.

But Volkswagen has now replaced the 1.6 with another, very similar engine of the same capacity, boasting multi-point fuel injection that brings clear performance and economy advantages. There's a price penalty for these improvements though, in the form of a ?195 ($298) increase over the outgoing car, which takes the cost of the three-door GLX tested here to ?11,695 ($17,900).

We can't reproach the Polo its trendy lines, swept-up hips and "squashed Passat" nose styling. It is modern, pretty, has strong corporate identity and still retains that traditional Polo look around its chunky rear quarters. It is clearly designed to appeal to the female buyer since it's likely to be owned by women.

Inside it's as modern as out. Light, trendy-patterned upholstery and a neatly laid out two-tone dashboard give it plenty of appeal, while the bold switchgear, clear instruments and easy heating and vent controls are a pleasure to use. Big glass area heightens the impression of space and gives the driver great all-round vision.

Tilt-adjustment is provided for the steering wheel to give versatility to the Polo's driving position, and few drivers will have gripes with the alignment of major controls.

The Polo may be a little car, but its very abundant front headroom will accommodate near-giants. But while the front seats are well shaped, a couple of our testers found they needed more support in the small of the back, although that was only apparent on longer journeys.

Things squeeze down a little as you move to the back seat, headroom tapering to "good" rather than generous, and legroom being favorable for the overall size of car, but not remarkable. Although the doors are very long (which makes them heavy to pull shut), access to the back is a bit of a wriggle, especially as the front seats only tilt forward, rather than tilting and sliding. If the rear side-windows could open for summer ventilation, passenger comfort would be of a high order.

There's an odd imbalance of stowage space about the Polo cabin: Nothing's provided in the rear for stashing oddments, but up front you get a locking glove compartment, doorbins, a cubby ahead of the gear lever and a pull-down map tray under the steering wheel. There are larger trunks available in the Polo's diminutive class, but not many, and the VW's fully lined 245-liter luggage space is actually a lot larger than you'd guess from looking at the car's abruptly sawn-off rear. It's deep, capable of swallowing a couple of family-sized suitcases, and if need be the space can be more than doubled by dropping the single-piece seat backrest. One drawback is the space-saver type spare wheel, concealed beneath the trunk carpet.

Click the easy gearshift into first, let up the light clutch, and the Polo pulls forward eagerly. We're delighted to report that its new 1.6-liter engine has transformed it. Where the previous motor was rough, noisy and reluctant to rev, the newcomer is punchy, flexible and very free-revving, with brilliantly crisp response to the throttle and a useful spread of power right up to 5,000 rpm. You can even take it quite sweetly beyond this speed, although such practice doesn't benefit through-the-gears acceleration -- which is quite sparkling anyway. All of which makes the latest 1.6 Polo a real joy to drive, even though the middling noise levels and rather buzzy behavior of the engine mean that highway-speed cruising is the tiniest bit restless. Around town though, the point-and-squirt personality and crisp delivery of power underfoot are very rewarding.

The Polo's chassis behavior is excellent too, with great natural balance and plentiful grip -- with the one provision that hard acceleration in the low gears gives rise to some scrabble at the front wheels and consequent tugging at the steering. It's not problematic, though. Handling -- though marked by some bodyroll -- is nimble, and that bodyroll just goes to prove that the independently sprung Polo has lots of suspension travel, which is why it rides so very comfortably. The suspension is very absorbent over ridges and broken surfaces, and composed enough over large bumps. All in all, it does an excellent job of isolating the occupants, although at motorway speeds it can become a little jittery -- by no means unexpected with such a lightweight. Add to this formula easy, precise power steering, which has both great weighting and feel, light controls and powerful brakes, and you've really got a delightful drive.

Overall, it's a fine, solid little car available at a friendly price. With modernity, space-efficiency and robust build quality to its credit, along with a much improved engine, the Polo 1.6 stacks up well against its competition.

Further attractions include a superb level of standard equipment: Dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, central locking and a sunroof are all included, while new for '96 is the option of air conditioning.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed

this article to The Moscow Times.