When you think about small hatchbacks, the Volkswagen Polo is one of the first cars that comes to mind. Currying favour with a mixture of style, quality and practicality, it has become a firm favourite. But the competition is tough, and the Polo has been revamped in a bid to keep it up with the best. Styling and tech improvements are the highlights, but is that enough to keep the Polo relevant?
In the metal
The majority of changes to the Polo can be found on the surface, where Volkswagen has gone to great lengths to modernise the design. There are new bumpers and a new front end, as well as fresh LED headlights and, for the first time on the Polo, there's the option of a light strip across the front grille. At the back, there are new-look taillights, and the Polo lettering is centred beneath the badge that doubles as a tailgate release latch.
The overall look brings the new car more in line with the Golf, and most of the upgrades have been successful. We aren't sure about the LED lights in the grille - that looks a bit too aftermarket in what's supposed to be a classy small car - but otherwise it looks great. Even in the new Vibrant Violet paint colour.
But while the exterior look has changed, the cabin remains more or less the same. There's a new steering wheel and a new gear lever, and the digital instrument display is now standard across the range.
That's a positive step, because the so-called Digital Cockpit system is very good, albeit not quite as clever as the Virtual Cockpit found in the closely related Audi A1. Nevertheless, it's sharp and sensibly organised, which makes it relatively easy to use. However some functions, such as the control to switch off the intrusive lane departure warning tech, are quite well hidden in some long-lost sub-menu accessed through the buttons on the steering wheel.
It also comes with touch-sensitive controls for the climate control system - a feature inherited from the larger Golf. The theory is fairly sound, but in the real world they're clunky, inaccurate and generally a retrograde step compared with the old Polo.
But despite the technology, perhaps the biggest problem is that the Polo's cabin isn't quite as premium as the exterior might suggest. There are some nice, squidgy plastics on the dashboard and touch points such as the steering wheel feel great in your hands, but there are some disappointingly cheap plastics in the doors and centre console. Cost-cutting is rife in this market, where profit margins are tight, but the VW's interior still isn't quite as plush as you might hope.
That said, the way in which all those materials have been bolted together is still impressive. There's a pleasant level of soft resistance to the switchgear and the door catches feel really robust. It's just some of the materials that feel a bit 'last-decade' and let the side down.
Fortunately, the Polo remains as capacious as ever, with a 351-litre boot that wipes the floor with most of its rivals and a sensible amount of interior space. It isn't Croke Park, but it's acceptable for four adults on medium-length journeys, and the rear seats will easily cope with kids.
Just one engine is available to Polo customers, and it's the 1.0-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged petrol unit used in almost all the VW Group's small cars. Offered with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard and a seven-speed automatic as an option, it provides adequate power and makes a relatively pleasant thrum.
Despite that, it isn't especially free-revving, and its performance is best described as unremarkable. The 95hp output allows a 0-100km/h time of just under 11 seconds, which is enough to keep up with traffic, but it's hardly rapid.
But while the little VW isn't especially exciting in terms of outright speed, it is wholly competent on the road. The steering is light, but not overly assisted and it gets heavier as you go faster or turn harder. So when you're parking, it's light and easy to use, but it becomes weightier on a good back road.
Visibility is also a strong suit, with plenty of glass along the flanks and a big rear window allowing you to see what's behind. Add in the light controls and it becomes an extremely easy car to manoeuvre in town or in car parks, even without the parking sensors or the reversing camera.
And the Polo performs well on the motorway, too. It takes a bit of time to get up to speed, but that isn't a problem, and once it's there it does a passable impression of a Golf. Like most small cars, the ride isn't perfect, but it's stable and composed, and on a smooth motorway it's wonderfully comfortable. It isn't even especially noisy.
It isn't quite so good on country roads, however, where the ride becomes a little choppier and the car doesn't feel as agile as, say, an Ibiza or a Fiesta. But it's only very slightly worse, with fluid steering and a good amount of grip, as well as reasonable body control. But VW is trying to position this car as a more sensible, grown-up alternative to the slightly sportier Ibiza, and in that regard it's perfectly judged.
What you get for your money
The Polo starts at €22,770, and that money pays for the basic Life model. For an entry-level small car it's quite well equipped, with 15-inch alloy wheels, a 6.5-inch touchscreen and manual air conditioning, as well as the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration technology.
The Y-shaped range hierarchy means the Style and R-Line trims sit side-by-side, with little difference in price. The R-Line is the cheaper of the two, at €25,700, and that pays for sportier styling, 16-inch alloy wheels and sportier seats, plus parking sensors, a bigger touchscreen with navigation and a rear-view camera. Meanwhile the Style trim tested here gets you much the same equipment but comes with 15-inch alloys and raises the price tag to €25,700.
The Polo certainly feels more modern after its update, and it's still a very mature hatchback that beats many of its key rivals for space and build quality. But it still isn't trouble-free, with some disappointing cabin plastics and some distinctly un-German ergonomics on show. It still does the 'big car feel' thing quite well, but the Polo is not the go-to option in this competitive market. It just loses out to the cheaper and more visually exciting sibling, the SEAT Ibiza, which offers identical space, similar quality and more interesting styling for less money.