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Used Volkswagen Polo review: 1996-2005

Mini cars are supposed to be cheap and cheerful, or at least they were when VW launched the Polo back in 1996. Back then you handed over $14,990 and drove away in a small car with no more to pay.

They came with few frills, their purpose in life was to provide bare bones transport that was a bit better than catching the bus. They weren’t supposed to be comfortable, fun to drive and have features, but than along came VW with the Polo and a new concept in small car motoring. On home turf the little VW competed at all levels of the small car segment, but when it arrived here it was loaded with features, which put it right at the top end of the class.

It was part of VW’s local market positioning policy that was designed to create a prestige image for the brand. No matter which segment you cared to look at the relevant VW model was positioned at the upper end of it. In short the VW Polo was a prestige mini car.

MODEL WATCH

When the first Polo arrived here in 1996 it was already an old model in Europe having been launched two years earlier when it was hailed as the European small car of the year.

With a price tag a tick under $20,000 it cost almost half as much again as the average mini car at the time. Not only did it put it in a sub-class of its own, it was competing price wise with models in the bigger small car class. VW reasoned that there were people out there who would spend more on a smaller well-equipped and built car than they would on a larger car with fewer frills.

Like most mini cars the five-door Polo hatch was a rather upright device with its alloy wheels placed at the corners to maximize the interior space available to accommodate four adults and their baggage. While its shape was functional it wasn’t at the expense of its looks. It remained a cute little car that had a personality of its own.

Inside it was light and airy with enough room to comfortably seat four adults, five at a pinch, although it was a tight squeeze. The seating position was upright and the seats were typically German, hard and a little like sitting on a board, but there was generous head and elbowroom, and ample legroom, for a car of its dimensions. The front seats could be adjusted for height and rake, and the rear seat could be split and folded flat for extra flexibility in carrying large of odd-shaped packages.

The dash was typical VW, functional rather than stylish, but all controls fell nicely to hand and were easy to use. Everything about the interior, from cloth trim to the plastics used, gave a sense of quality, which was reinforced by the fit and finish.

There was just the one engine offered at launch, a single overhead camshaft 1.6-litre four-cylinder unit, which made it the biggest engine in the class. With fuel injection, it put out 55 kW and 128 Nm, but needed premium unleaded to perform at its best. A makeover in 2000 saw the engine shrink to 1.4 litres. The new double overhead camshaft unit put out similar performance to the old 1.6-litre engine with 55 kW and 126 Nm. A major update in 2002 brought fresh styling and a three-door hatch for the first time, while 2003 saw a double overhead camshaft 1.6-litre engine added to the range.

The transmission choices were a five-speed manual and a four-speed auto.

On the road the Polo was a zippy little car with plenty of get up and go, no doubt due to the 1.6-litre engine. If you preferred to roll along comfortably with the traffic it would do it, but if you wanted some fun at the wheel it could be stirred along without losing its poise.

IN THE SHOP

The Polo has a quality feel about it, from the solid ‘thunk’ when the doors close to the fit and finish of the plastics inside. It all suggests a long life and little trouble, and that’s what owners report.

Make the usual checks for a service record. VW servicing tends to be expensive and many owners choose to take their cars elsewhere to have them serviced so check carefully to be confident that it has been well serviced by someone who knows what they’re doing. The engines have a belt turning the camshafts so make sure that’s been serviced at the appropriate time.

When driving listen carefully for any noises coming from the engine, and make sure the auto transmission engages gear smoothly and without hesitation. On a manual gearbox note when the clutch takes up and any reluctance to engage gears, which may indicate a clutch replacement is near.

Also inspect the body to signs of a bingle. All doors, and the hatch, should open and close smoothly, and any mismatching of the paint would suggest a repair has been made.

IN A CRASH

An agile chassis and responsive steering are a good start to getting out of trouble when faced with a crash, but with airbags for the driver and passenger the Polo is a sound safe bet.

AT THE PUMP

The Polo is a fuel-friendly little car that will return on average 7.5-8.5 L/100 km around town.

OWNERS SAY

Nadine McLean’s friends and family were shocked when she swapped her VS Holden Commodore for a six-month-old 2004 VW Polo Elite automatic in 2005, but she loves it. She says she had never considered buying a VW until she got into a friend’s Golf and loved the quality feel of the interior. She says the Polo runs like a dream, is great on fuel, and is easy to park, even in tight spaces. Her only complaints are a tight door handle that requires some force to operate, a skipping CD player, and the cost of servicing, which she says is “unbelievably expensive”.

Twenty-one-year-old Vanessa says the Polo is the perfect “chick’s” car. She owns a 2000 Polo hatch that has done 80,500 km and “absolutely loves” it. Vanessa says it's easy to drive and park, and has been reliable, economical, and looks new even though it’s now seven years old. The downside, she says, is that it’s a little underpowered with a full complement of passengers.


LOOK FOR
• Cute styling
• High level of equipment
• Reassuring handling
• modest performance from 1.4-litre engine
• good build quality
• generally robust and reliable

THE BOTTOM LINE
A light and responsive little car that’s ideal for those who want more in their small car motoring life.

RATING
80/100

Pricing

Year Price From Price To
2005 $2,000 $5,390
2004 $2,300 $4,620
2003 $2,100 $4,620
2002 $2,200 $4,510
2001 $2,400 $4,290
2000 $2,400 $4,290
1999 $2,400 $4,180
1998 $2,400 $4,180
1997 $2,400 $4,070
1996 $2,400 $4,070

View all Volkswagen Polo pricing and specifications

Pricing guides

$3,235
Based on third party pricing data
Lowest Price
$2,400
Highest Price
$4,070

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
(base) 1.6L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $2,400 – 4,070 1996 Volkswagen Polo 1996 (base) Pricing and Specs
Graham Smith
Contributing Journalist

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