Volkswagen Polo TSI | Ten years young

Does a new engine in a decade-old car justify the level of interest the new(ish) Polo has been receiving?
It doesn't do anything funny unless you yank the handbrake
It doesn't do anything funny unless you yank the handbrakeVolkswagen Polo TSI

What you are looking at is a ten-year-old car. That’s the brutal truth and you are fully justified in griping about being saddled with a car first seen in 2010, while the rest of the world got a completely new Polo two years ago. And to continue with the real talk, we are unlikely to get a new Polo for at least another two years. This is it. Like it or lump it. I like it!

Oh no, not the fact that we have an old car. There’s nothing anybody can say to sugarcoat that fact. But I do have a soft corner for the Polo, particularly since the editors of this magazine were the first to build and rally it in India, and I took the small VW to its first INRC victory. We’ve raced it, rallied it, lived with it, taken it on some crazy adventures, and it has always put a big smile on my face.

That smiley theme continues with this new engine. To meet the new BS6 engine norms, the old 1.2-litre TSI engine has been laid to rest and in comes a new 1-litre unit that continues to get direct petrol-injection and turbocharging. This is an all-new engine, now with three cylinders, displacing exactly 999cc, and is from the same family that won the International Engine of the Year award in 2018. Going forward it will be the mainstay of the Skoda-VW Group in India and will be fully localised by the time the SUVs on the MQB-A0-IN platform (VW’s Taigun and Skoda’s Vision IN) are ready to roll out. In fact, the first time I experienced this motor was in the lovely little Up GTI, and that means the bar is already raised rather high for this (kinda) new Polo.

Power sticker on the rear door and a honeycomb sticker above it
Power sticker on the rear door and a honeycomb sticker above it Volkswagen Polo TSI

In what is fast becoming the new normal, we present ourselves at the dealership at the crack of dawn to take possession of our test car. First impressions from the crew are quizzical looks and, “this is new?” questions. Visually there really isn’t anything that you haven’t seen before. The nose is very mildly tweaked with the GTI-effect black honeycomb grille with a chrome strip at the bottom, there are new side skirts and a mock diffuser effect on the rear bumper. In fact the most obvious visual cue is the TSI Power sticker on the rear door and a honeycomb sticker above it — which brings to mind the good old Hero Honda days when a new sticker on a Splendor would make it allnew. That said, it’s a testament to the inherent rightness of the Polo’s design that 10 years later it still looks handsome. Clean, uncluttered, unfussy and elegant lines mean you slap on a new colour on the Polo and photographers insist on positioning it in the centre of a group shot because it enhances the picture.

Planted around corners
Planted around cornersVolkswagen Polo TSI

What you see here is the TSI Edition, priced at 7.89 lakh rupees. That’s very good pricing! To put that into perspective the Nios Turbo (with less power) is `7.7 lakh while the top-end Swift (with much less power!) is `7.58 lakh. It is only the Skoda Rapid TSI that undercuts the Polo TSI on price, and that is the Rider variant with considerably less equipment. Makes you wonder, had VW got the pricing right from day one, we’d have a new Polo already… but the past is the past. This is the new VW and they’ve realised pricing is mega-important, and on that front this new Polo is sorted.

The stickers I mentioned are unique to the TSI Edition (if I were you I’d rip it out forthwith) along with a blackedout roof, spoiler, and wing mirrors. On the inside it gets allblack interiors that are as familiar as the heat in summer but, and again a testament to the inherent rightness of this car, aren’t an eyesore. In fact, the flat-bottom steering wheel is the nicest you will find on any car at this price, both a tactile and visual delight. Of course it gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and though the 6.5-inch screen is small by today’s standards, it does do its job rather well.

It gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integrated into a 6.5-inch screen
It gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integrated into a 6.5-inch screenVolkswagen Polo TSI

The seat is height adjustable, the steering adjusts for reach and rake (which, surprisingly, most cars in this segment do not offer!), the ergonomics are spot on and there’s no sunroof — VW’s chassis engineers refusing to compromise torsional rigidity and safety to pander to this sunroof obsession that we have. And, oh, I’d forgotten how horribly cramped the back seat is! Basically, on the outside and inside nothing has changed. But get going and this (sorta) new Polo moves!

Now the Polo GT TSI was no slow-poke, not by a long shot. The new 1.0 TSI engine makes 5bhp more to put out 108.5bhp and the torque remains the same at 175Nm. The main difference, with this manual gearbox, is that you can launch it properly. To ensure longevity, the electronics on the GT’s DSG gearbox didn’t let you make full-bore standing starts, taking off lazily till the turbo spooled up at 2000rpm and got a proper move on. With the manual you can rev it to 4000rpm, slip the clutch, spin up the front tyres and launch it with full energy — and that is what cuts nearly a second off the 0-100kmph time, to now dip just under 10 seconds. The engine revs happily to 6700rpm but it does its best work in the mid-range and it’s best to shift around 5500rpm. As for the crucial low- and mid-range, this new engine is on par with the old 1.2, which is a good thing indeed. With the engine on the boil above 2000rpm there is a strong rush of turbo-torque, and mashing the throttle tips your head back into the headrest (eliciting grumbles from your passengers). Below that? Well, turbo lag is not massive but you don’t really have much on offer and won’t be making swift progress. In terms of the fun to- drive factor, if the GT TSI was an 8 on 10, this new TSI is a 9 on 10.

The engine makes 5bhp more to put out 108.5bhp
The engine makes 5bhp more to put out 108.5bhpVolkswagen Polo TSI

This new engine is an exemplar of downsizing. You don’t lose out on power, you get better efficiency (claimed 18.24kmpl), power delivery remains as strong, and it delivers more smiles. What it doesn’t improve upon is refinement. The 1.2 4-cylinder motor was smooth and lovely. This 3-cylinder is, how do I put this, 3-cylinder-y. There is that typical irregular idle that you can feel through the seat of your pants and the motor is no paragon of silence. Unlike Japanese engines that are so silent while idling that you think they’re switched off, this motor is audible and gets progressively more vocal as you go up the revs. There’s only a hint of turbo whistle and barely any blow-off noise but overall I like the engine noise. In normal course I’d slam it as being gruff but the crucial difference here is that the increase in noise is accompanied by a proportional increase in speed — which means your brain equates it to a sporty noise. This is unlike, say, the Polo’s naturally aspirated 3-cylinder that is similarly noisy when revved hard but hardly moves and thus gets grating. So all of your wondering about the refinement, don’t worry, more than anything you will enjoy the noise.

Ride and handling is still the same
Ride and handling is still the sameVolkswagen Polo TSI

You will also enjoy using the manual gearbox. This, too, is no exemplar of slickness and has a typical Volkswagen shift action in that it is a bit beefy, and takes a little more effort than the (cliche alert!) hot-knife-through-butter Japanese ’boxes. But it is precise, direct and encourages you to row through the gears. Is it better than the DSG? Are apples better than oranges? If you want an automatic you will definitely miss the DSG since the new GT will now get a 6-speed torque converter and I cannot imagine it coming close to the DSG’s benchmarks. On the other hand, enthusiasts have always cried about the omission of a manual gearbox in the TSI Polo — and this now answers their prayers. I asked Alameen, our filmmaker, for his opinion as a keen driver and owner of a GT TSI, and he says this new Polo with the manual is 15 per cent more fun to drive (he’s a very precise chap, our Alameen). And going forward you will have plenty of go-faster parts to play with as the Polo TSI will be rallied, the engine will find its way into race cars, tuners in India will go to work extracting more horses from the engine, and in any case there’s no dearth of parts in the global tuner market.

In terms of the ride and handling, again nothing has changed. The ride remains planted and rock steady, capable of maxxing out the speedo on the expressway and not turning your hair or knuckles white. It is the most planted and stable hatchback on sale today and that’s thanks to the very high torsional rigidity of the body shell. It is the reason why it is so heavy (190kg more than the Swift for perspective) but also feels (and is!) so safe. It delivers surefooted handling with plenty of front-end bite, and an absolute refusal to do anything funny unless you yank the handbrake (no traction control or ESP any more). The steering remains lifeless and there is body roll but the chassis grips tenaciously, there’s a determined resistance to understeer and aided by the Goodyear tyres on our test car (195/65 R 16), the Polo can be flung into corners at surprisingly high velocities. It makes you smile, like no tenyear- old car should.

Fun to drive and playful
Fun to drive and playfulVolkswagen Polo TSI

Truth be told, a ten-year-old car has no business getting me out of bed at 4 in the morning, particularly in these times when bleary-eyed, you have to rustle up breakfast and lunch, head to the dealership, worry about whether the car has been properly sanitised, douse it in your own sanitiser, breathe through a mask, and all that rigmarole. A ten-year-old car should not take more than a page of this magazine. But this is a magazine dedicated to The Thrill of Driving, and the Polo, ten years on, is still the best driver’s car in this segment.

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