The Volkswagen Polo is a car that we have been looking forward to drive ever since Volkswagen Group Malaysia announced back in August that it will be priced below RM110K, which makes it a “possible dream” for many. The reigning 2010 European and World Car of the Year at the price of a Jazz? Tempting!

For that money, we’re offered the latest tech – a 1.2-litre TSI engine and a 7-speed DSG gearbox wrapped in the smart looks of the fifth-generation Polo. Adding to the appeal is that it’s a Volkswagen, which counts good quality, high tech and “premiumness” (in Malaysia) as brand attributes.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

Yours truly only got to drive the Polo for about 50 plus km, so this isn’t the full experience I was hoping for. We still managed to drive it over a variety of speeds and roads though, enough for the Polo to make a first impression.

Like you, I’ve seen VGM’s ads of the Polo featuring a chilli red model with nice big wheels, and that image was what created the desire in me. Seeing the Malaysian spec Polo for the first time in the metal was slightly underwhelming as a result – while the Polo is a smart looking “Mini Golf” of sorts with crisp lines, clean surfaces and that new family face, the wheels were 15-inch items (with a dull design too) and there are no fog lamps and chrome outline for the air intake.

It was sort of like meeting someone who looks smashing on Facebook but not quite as spectacular in the flesh. A bit of a downer initially, but the Polo is still a classy looking hatch and there’s nothing a wheel upsize or some aftermarket enhancements can’t fix. But unlike the gorgeous people on FB, there’s no bad intention on VGM’s part – disclaimer aside, Wolfsburg only allows official press photos in communication materials, and these images typically feature the high spec range toppers.

The impression of a basic model continues inside. There’s a lot that’s good about the Polo’s cabin. Good quality materials (soft upper dash moulding, door caps are of the harder variety), good fit and finish, simple but classy dials that are a VW hallmark (now with digital fuel gauge) and decent fabric seats are appreciated (decent thigh support and base not too short), but some aspects remind you that this is a basic spec car.

The factory RCD210 system looks basic compared to the usual fare in local VWs and it doesn’t take up the full slot reserved for the stereo, leaving a letterbox shaped cubby. More stark is the row of buttons above it with only two occupants out of seven. The steering is leather wrapped and has some nice metallic accents, but the right spoke is empty – the Polo doesn’t come with cruise control. The air con system is a simple three-dial “Climatic” unit so there’s no dual-zone or digital display. VW rarely makes ergonomic mistakes, but the placement and orientation of the wing mirror controls are really inconvenient for something that should be straightforward.

To be fair, we’re used to VW’s playing in the premium segment in Malaysia and the fact that VGM managed to bring in the Polo CBU from South Africa at this price is already impressive. What we noticed above aren’t deal breakers by any means, and this equipment list probably won’t get much complain from customers in Berlin or Paris; Malaysians are a tougher bunch to convince when it comes to cars!

Not much frills perhaps, but the vitals are there. The 5-star Euro NCAP rated Polo comes with ABS plus front, curtain and side airbags (UPDATE: Airbag count is now 4, instead of 6 during our test drive). The drivetrain is very advanced for the money. This is one of the best examples of the current Euro-led downsizing trend, using technology to “get away with just a 1.2”, improving emissions and economy without harming performance. The Polo’s 1.2 is a SOHC 8-valve engine with direct injection and a turbocharger. It makes 105 PS at 5,000 rpm and 175 Nm or torque from 1,550 to 4,100 rpm.

If that sounds impressive by itself, you need some markers. The Honda Civic 1.8 makes 1 Nm less than the Polo, and that’s achieved at 4,300 rpm, mind you. The Toyota Vios’ 1.5-litre unit may make 4 PS more, but that’s done 1,000 rpm higher than the Polo. What have we learned here? Turbo is the way to go :)

Perhaps dual-clutch gearboxes are, too. But there are the merely OK ones and there are the really good ones. Both the Ford Fiesta and the Polo come with dry versions of the dual clutch ‘box, but DSG is the better of the two. Not just because it has one extra forward ratio (7 versus 6 of the Powershift), but because it’s much better in operation. DSG shifts faster, is smoother and has better logic, although this dry clutch unit is slightly less seamless and quiet as the 6-speed wet clutch unit (Golf GTI, Scirocco 2.0) at low speeds. This is because there’s no oil here to “lubricate” and “absorb” the workings of the clutches.

No paddle shifters, but there is manual override for the DSG, which is a great partner to the engine. Acceleration is unbelievable for a 1.2; VW quotes 0-100 km/h in 9.7 seconds, which is impressive, but it feels faster than that. There’s no build up period when you floor it, as the Polo surges ahead with urgency thanks to the turbo. The urge slows down at higher revs, but there’s no need to wring out every last rpm – it’s not that sort of engine – although it’s smooth if you do so. There’s a deep slight growl to the engine note, too. And no engineered pop on upshifts, that’s reserved for sporty cars.

TSI plus DSG is a great drivetrain that beats the Fiesta’s anyday, but when it comes to ride, handling and communication, the Ford does better, which isn’t a big surprise. The Polo rides comfortably in town and smothers out rough surfaces pretty well, but the suspension is softer than expected. The DUKE highway is quite wavy and it was here (at high speeds) that the Polo was quite bouncy on the crests.

Elsewhere, the little VW is a good cruiser – it’s quiet and 110 km/h is done at about 2,200 rpm. However, the brakes and steering don’t feel as natural as the Fiesta’s and the latter is light and very low on feedback. I’ll need a longer B-road session, but for now, the Fiesta remains the better car to drive.

The Volkswagen Polo is a great little hatchback that’s safe, classy and high quality. The highlight here is the great combo of TSI and DSG, and that the whole package is priced at RM109,593 (OTR without insurance).

Yes, it lacks the bells and whistles and isn’t the most fun to drive, but the Polo is a good introduction to what a VW is all about. But if you can afford another RM40K, the Golf 1.4 TSI is something else altogether!