By Jonathan Crouch
Cleverer, cleaner and classier, this improved fifth generation Volkswagen Polo supermini remains a quality used car choice. This revised model introduced in 2014 may look little different from the original MK5 design we first saw in 2009 but it featured important changes beneath the bonnet - and on the equipment list. Some fresh engines and a bit of extra hi-tech in the Golf-style cabin both aimed to please loyal buyers, while keeping this car class-competitive against more recent rivals. As a result, this model remained very viable as a carefully conservative choice in its class and will appeal on the used car market where it's low key, but likeable.
Supermini fashions can come and go but one model seems to remain impervious to fickle fancy. A Volkswagen Polo is somehow above all of that. And if you buy one, you'll probably think yourself to be so too.
We're looking here at a significantly revised version of the MK5 model that was first introduced in 2009, then upgraded the Spring of 2014 with the improvements we're going to be discussing. And you might need our help here because you won't appreciate many of the updates from a casual glance. In fact, there's not a single sheet metal difference over the original model, all part of that subtlety we mentioned earlier.
Don't be misled though. Instead of pointlessly wasting money on widespread changes to the front end as most manufacturers would with a mid-term update, Volkswagen instead blew its 2014 model year facelift budget on things of more importance, with a thorough engine update, extra high technology and reassuring safety. Plus buyers got a cabin properly reminiscent of the only slightly larger seventh generation Golf.
Could they have done more? Of course. Any brand capable of democratising new technology as it dd in this era in futuristic models like e-Up!, the hybrid Golf GTE and the extreme XL1 could certainly have brought us a Polo that would have raised a few more eyebrows. But then part of the appeal of this car lies precisely in the fact that it doesn't do that. It doesn't draw attention to itself in any way other than to subtly suggest a conservative cleverness on the part of its owner. This car sold until late 2017 when it was replaced by an all-new sixth generation Polo.
What You Get
Aesthetic updates made to this improved post-2014 fifth generation Polo model are limited to tweaks like the extra chrome trim connecting the front foglights which attempts to make the car look wider - though in fact it isn't. It is a couple of mm longer than the original MK5 model was though, thanks to revised bumpers, below which at the front there's a larger lower air intake. We should also talk about lights, which on plusher versions of the improved fifth generation design could be LED-lit, at the time a rare feature in this class.
At the rear, the changes made were equally subtle, whether original buyers opted for three or five doors. Changes to the rear reflectors saw them embedded into the bumper, another attempt to offer up an impression of extra width. And nice touches like the LED number plate lighting added a bit more class. It all meant that as before, the Polo felt smarter and more mature than the average supermini, though from a casual glance, you might struggle to define exactly why that is.
When all's said and done, a lot of the aesthetic tricks were really targeted at making this car feel as much like its larger Golf stablemate as possible - and if you didn't know that already, then you'll certainly be made more aware of the fact once inside. Dominating the dash is the same modular infotainment touchscreen you'd find on a Golf from this era, 5.0 or 6.5-inches in size, depending on the spec you've chosen. It's one of those that reacts to the kind of swiping movements with your fingers that you'd use on a smart 'phone and many models were specified with a clever MirrorLink feature that allows you to display and control certain approved Android apps on a screen you'll also use to control Bluetooth connectivity and the decent six-speaker stereo that even budget versions get.
Otherwise, the look, feel and functionality of the controls, the clearly designated instruments and the neat switchgear should all be pretty familiar to Polo people familiar with the original version of this MK5 model, even though Volkswagen insisted back in 2014 that all of it had been re-designed. As ever, it's easy to find a perfect driving position thanks to a height-adjustable seat and a reach as well as a height-adjustable steering wheel. And, as expected, there remains a reassuring solidity to everything you touch - and plenty of soft touch plastic to remind you just how far small cars have come in recent years, though unfortunately, this doesn't extend into the doors. Gloss black highlights added in around the dash try to lift the Bulgarian thrift store experience previously provided by baseline models, while slightly plusher versions get a few welcome splashes of chrome.
And in the back? This revised post-2014 Polo model featured a small 9mm drop in roof height, but this doesn't really compromise things here. As with all superminis, the provision of three seatbelts is a little ambitious if you're talking about carrying adults. And ultimate comfort will depend upon the legroom you can persuade your front seat fellow passengers to free up. Having said that, there's significantly more space back here than you'd get in, say, a Ford Fiesta - which isn't surprising when you consider that this MK5 Polo is as big as a supposedly much larger Golf-sized family hatchback was back in the '90s. As a result, two adults should be quite happy on short-to-medium-length trips and a trio of kids will be fine.
And out back? Well, the 280-litre boot might be fractionally smaller than the trunk you'd get in rival Fiesta, Peugeot 208 or Renault Clio models but we prefer it because the figure quoted doesn't force you to put up with one of those nasty little puncture repair kits: good luck with one of those of you ever get stranded on a dark, wet and rainy hard shoulder. Here, you get a proper full-sized spare wheel, a very rare feature in this class. There's a false floor concealing a small area for hiding valuables and even base variants get a split-folding rear seat that folds to reveal a 952-litre total capacity. That's one of the smaller spaces in this class but it should be more than sufficient for most owners.
What to Look For
Most Polo MK5 owners we surveyed were very happy with their cars, but inevitably, there have been those who have had problems you'll want to look out for. One buyer reported clunky gear changes with his DSG auto model. Another found he was having to have several goes at getting the vehicle to start. We came across some reported issues with the manual gear change and the brakes, plus also the headlamps and wipers, so check those on your test drive.
Keep a look out for cars that have been flogged by corporate users and ensure that servicing has been attended to diligently. Check the car's specification carefully, as some of the more desirable features, like air conditioning, weren't standard on lower spec cars. Check the servicing has been done on the button, especially for BlueMotion and GTI models. The GTI's wheels are hugely prone to kerbing damage, so if you see scuffs, factor those into the negotiation. And check the interior at the back for signs of unruly children. Otherwise, there's not a lot to look out for.
(approx based on a 2015 Polo 1.0 MPI ex Vat) An air filter will be priced in the £10 to £13 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £7 to £10 bracket and a fuel filter is in the £16 to £22 bracket. The cheapest brake discs we came across sat in the £19 to £33 bracket, but we also found pricier-branded discs costing anything between £45 and £65. Brake pads are in the £10 to £27 bracket for a set but for pricier brands, you could pay up to nearly £45. A timing belt is around £11 to £22, though go for a pricier brand and you could pay as much as £87 for one. A water pump can cost as much as £196. The cheapest shock absorbers we came across sat in the £14 to £20 bracket, but we also found pricier-branded discs costing anything between £38 and £118. A radiator costs around £52, but for pricier brands, you could pay up to nearly £103.
On the Road
There was once a time - and it wasn't very long ago - when there was usually a penalty to pay if you wanted the slight but significant extra class of having a Polo on your driveway rather than a more mundane mainstream rival - say a Vauxhall Corsa, a Ford Fiesta or a Peugeot 208. You felt it beneath the bonnet with the old nail of an engine Volkswagen forced you into having if budgeting limits were not to be exceeded. And you felt it around the bends, with driving dynamics that distinctly discouraged any kind of enthusiastic progress.
Is this facelifted fifth generation model different? Well it depends upon your expectations. You feel that it's different because in most models, there's more of a willing engine beneath the bonnet - we'll get to that in a minute. And the response also seems improved because, via a smarter three-spoke wheel, you control a more efficient fully-electric steering set-up, rather than the old electro-hydraulic system. The manual gearchange is also slick (five-speeds on the feebler entry-level models but six ratios on the more powerful ones) and the brakes deliver exactly the kind of strong retardation you'd want.
Those are the positives, off-setting the reality that for the 2014 model year updates to his fifth generation model, the Wolfsburg engineers didn't actually do anything at all to improve the way this car handles. So it still isn't as fun to drive as a Fiesta, a Peugeot 208 or a Renault Clio from this era. For most Polo people, that won't matter one jot. The original version of this fifth generation model considerably narrowed the previously yawning dynamic gap between this car and the class-leading Ford and many potential owners will quite happily trade the remaining differences that do exist for this Volkswagen model's superior long distance refinement and more impressive ride. If we had a three hour drive to do and a choice of small cars to do it in, these are certainly the keys we'd pick up every time.
Which is all very well and good but most superminis don't tend to spend their lives pounding the motorways. To Ford fans incidentally, we'd also point out that they're even less likely to be habitually thrown round country roads. No, it's on the dull day-to-day journeys woven into the fabric of our everyday lives that cars of this kind must really perform. How does this Polo stack up here? Well here's a few things we've noticed in using this improved MK5 model. The ride in town is as good as it is on the open road, easily shrugging off pock-marked urban surfaces. That steering system we just mentioned is nice to twirl around on city streets too, lacking the remote PlayStation feel of some rival electric set-ups and combining with the large glass area to make parking a doddle. Oh and the seats are some of the most supportive we've tried in a small car at this price point, an important point for supermini buyers. After all, it isn't only long distance journeys that can take up to 2-3 hours.
We mentioned that there were changes beneath the bonnet made to this revised MK5 model. Quite a few in fact in the Euro6-compliant engine range. These included a revised diesel of 1.4-litres in capacity, clever ACT cylinder deactivation technology at the top of the line-up and the adoption - at last - of the efficient 90PS 16v 1.2-litre TSI petrol unit we'd previously seen in rival SEATs and Skodas, in place of the wheezy old petrol 1.4. This TSI powerplant came with the option of a seven-speed DSG twin clutch automatic gearbox that'll better suit urban-bound folk. As before, buyers could have a pokier version of this same engine with 105PS if they were prepared to stretch to top-spec trim. Go for that pokier motor and 0-62mph occupies 9.3s on the way to 122mph, as opposed to 10.8s and 114mph in the 90PS version. Either way, this is the engine to choose if you want petrol power and need your supermini to be able to attempt longer trips as well as shorter ones.
But not everyone needs that capability of course - and for those that don't, the chirpy three cylinder 1.0-litre petrol unit borrowed from Volkswagen's little up! citycar could be all that's necessary. It's offered with either 60 or 75PS and providing an eager feel that's a big step forward from the feeble 1.2-litre units this MK5 Polo was originally launched with. Choose the lower-powered version and on paper, its figure don't seem to bode well, 62mph from rest quoted at a leisurely 15.5s and the top speed just scraping to 100mph. On the road though, reasonably rapid progress is nonetheless possible if you're prepared to drop a gear or two and put up with a bit of extra three cylinder thrum in the cabin. Better though perhaps to stretch to the 75PS unit, which improves those figures to 14.3s and 108mph.
We should also mention that Volkswagen offered another 1.0-litre petrol variant of this car, this one using the company's more sophisticated TSI technology and developing 95PS - the brand's first petrol-powered fully-fledged BlueMotion model. Unless you really do clock up the motorway miles, it is for us a better alternative to the three cylinder TDI diesels, all 1.4-litres in size and available with either 75 or 90PS. Of course, there'll be some for whom nothing but the torquey pulling power of a diesel will do. You will, after all, get more than twice the torque in a TDI that you would in an entry-level 1.0-litre petrol Polo. These people might possibly want to know that the 75PS TDI makes 62mph from rest in 12.9s en route to 108mph, while the 90PS version improves that to 10.9s and 114mph. But they'll probably be more interested to know that this engine forms the basis for a frugally-tweaked diesel BlueMotion variant that can better 90mpg in regular motoring.
That leaves only the sporty models in the line-up, both of which are really rather clever. First up is the BlueGT, a warm hatch introduced towards the end of the original fifth generation model's lifecycle to showcase Volkswagen's clever ACT Active Cylinder Technology. The 1.4-litre engine used in the revised post-2014 model puts out a useful 150PS and during light to medium throttle loads is able to imperceptibly shut down two of the four cylinders for greater efficiency, though can open these up again in milliseconds should you need to put your foot down. The result of all this cleverness is rather impressive, delivering a Polo that can sprint to 62mph in just 7.8s on the way to 137mph, yet also one that with restraint, can theoretically return exactly the same real world 60mpg economy as the entry-level 1.0-litre 60PS version. Have cake: eat it. It's as simple as that.
Almost as clever - but nothing like as frugal - is the flagship hot hatch GTI model, which in post-2014-era form was offered for the first time with manual transmission as well as a paddleshift DSG auto. You'll find a 1.4-litre TSI engine beneath the bonnet, but this one uses both supercharging and turbocharging to achieve the 180PS needed for active participation in the supermini hot hatch segment. The supercharger helps fire you off the line to a 0-62mph time of under 7s before the turbo cuts in at around 3,000rpm and helps push the car on towards its 142mph top speed.
Overall, it's true that there are certainly trendier choices you could make in this segment. And cars that offer up a more dynamic drive. But if you're a typical Polo person, we reckon you might quickly tire of their charms. At the end of the day, there's much to be said for an extra touch of quality and class. Seek those as your priorities and you'll find the improved MK5 version of this little supermini more than happy to oblige.