The Polo R-Line is the latest in a string of models to tempt the sports-focused driver, but with no direct link to the Polo R WRC rally car and a small displacement engine, does it deserve its performance-orientated badge?
The Volkswagen Polo R WRC is the most successful rally car in the history of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) when it comes to win ratios (40 wins from 49 events), but there has never been a mainstream production model to capitalise on its success. Yes, the Polo R WRC Street of 2013 celebrated its motorsport relative’s first year of success, but a very limited continental market-only production run of just 2500 left-hand drive examples meant it was never going to be widely seen.
And while Audi produces a four-wheel drive version of its Polo-based small car, the S1 slots nearly into the Ingolstadt company’s Quattro range of cars. Four-wheel drive Polo prototypes have been built – and driven – but they remain just that: prototypes. A high-specification, high-power Polo R is seen as expensive to produce and therefore expensive to sell, and like the the R WRC Street before it, would be produced in such small numbers to make it unfeasible.
With road-going versions of current World Rally cars no longer needed to be produced to satisfy homologation requirements, a Polo R will most likely never materialise. That’s a shame, as with no correlation between its rally (and rallycross) counterparts, the Polo road car will never be seen as enthusiasts’ machine.
The 189bhp GTI currently sits at the top of the Polo tree and even with that there’s the debate about whether it is reined in to not clash with arguably one of Volkswagen’s crown jewels, the Golf GTI, which itself celebrates four decades of success in 2016.
So where does that leave the Polo driver who admires the motorsport style of the WRC car but also, like many traditional buyers, has one eye on economy and comfort? Enter the Polo R-Line. With a sporty external appearance, a high specification and a choice of economical petrol and diesel engines, the R-Line might not be the mythical full fat R, but is arguably the nearest buyers of the current car will get.
Prices start at £16,455 for the 89bhp 1.2-litre TSI three-door, and rise to £19,190 for the five-door 108bhp 1.0 TSI DSG. Our test car, a five-door six-speed manual fitted with the smaller capacity turbocharged petrol engine weighed in at £17,815, although a handful of extras (more of which later) nudged that price to a near-GTI £19,440.
‘R-Line’ styling pack
It may not enjoy the outlandish wide-arched looks of the Polo R WRC – set to get more outrageous with the introduction of new regulations for 2017 – but the R-Line does a passable attempt at appealing to the more enthusiastically-mixed driver. An ‘R-Line’ styling pack makes up the bulk of the external changes over the standard Polo silhouette.
The unique front and rear bumpers, gloss black grille, front fog lights, ‘R-Line’ badging, LED headlamps and daytime running lights, rear privacy glass and 7J x 16″ ‘Salvador’ alloy wheels with 215/45 tyres add up to a more ‘motorsport’-themed look, even if the signature created by the LED headlamps differs to the rally Polo’s due to that car using the older, pre-facelift model’s LED units.
The current, fifth-generation ‘6R’ Polo was revised with new engines and technology in 2014 to become the ‘6C’, and if there is a criticism, it is that the 2016 R-Line appears a little too similar its immediate predecessor: for example, the front and rear bumpers appear the same as the R-Line model we tested back in 2013. Overall, though, the 2016 Polo R-Line is a classy, smart-looking hatchback, made all the more upmarket by the test car’s £545 ‘Blue Silk’ metallic paint finish.
Inside, the sports-oriented styling continue. Front sports seats trimmed in ‘Race’ upholstery with ‘San Remo’ microfibre bolsters and an embossed ‘R-Line’ logo look the part, while black headlining creates a darker cabin ambience, so familiar to drivers of performance-focused Volkswagens.
Aluminium sports pedals, ‘R-Line’ sill protectors, and a leather-trimmed multifunction steering wheel signal further sporting intent. As is true of all Polos, the cabin is beautifully built, and all the controls are perfectly weighted and fall intuitively to hand. Volkswagen says the Polo is ‘reassuringly built’, and we have to agree – it still possesses one of the best small car cabins.
Our test car was fitted with the optional £700 ‘Discover Navigation’ 6.5-inch colour multimedia system – which replaces the standard ‘Composition Media’ unit of the same size – and we found the navigation to be both helpful and accurate. A three-year subscription to VW’s Car-Net online functionality comes as part of the upgrade cost, with access to traffic notifications, fuel prices, parking space availability, weather and news feeds.
Again, it’s a very informative and helpful thing to have, but just be careful with the extra outlay if you already own or use another, possibly mobile-based, satellite navigation system. The standard ‘Composition Media’ system the R-Line arrives with enjoys the same size screen as this high-specification alternative and the same multimedia connectivity options. KX65 LLC also featured the £380 optional electronic climate control: the standard car comes with manual air conditioning.
When it comes to the Polo R-Line being at all like the unicorn that is the Polo R, the elephant in the room is undoubtedly the 108bhp 1.0-litre TSI engine, which this particular R-Line is powered by. But before it is dismissed entirely as merely a ‘1.0-litre engine’, it needs to be more closely examined. The most powerful unit available with R-Line trim, it comfortably beats the 88bhp 1.2 TSI and 1.4 TDI versions on output, even if the diesel has a little more torque (169lb ft/230Nm at 1500-2500rpm vs 147lb ft/200Nm at 2000-3500rpm). But figures don’t tell the whole story.
The newly-developed three-cylinder unit is punchy and pulls well, even in the higher ratios of its six-speed ‘box. Volkswagen quotes a believable 0-62mph time of 9.3 seconds, and the car feels at least that quick, if not faster. It’s worth noting, too, that those kind of figures eclipse the Golf GTI of 40 years ago with the same power, and only fall 0.8 seconds short of the turn-of-the-millennium ‘6N2’ Polo GTI with its normally-aspirated 1.6-litre 125bhp engine.
As with most three-cylinder units, the Polo’s 999cc engine only makes itself known on really accelerative bursts and even then, the offbeat ‘warble’ is enjoyable. Peak power is produced at 5000-5500rpm, and it’s fun getting there, the manual gearbox feeling wonderfully mechanical and short in throw in much the same way as the shift in the smaller Up city car does. While the Polo R-Line is in no way an out and out performance car (and neither does it pretend to be), its performance is neatly positioned to offer the more enthusiastic driver a modicum of fun.
Well-weighted, variably-assisted steering may not offer the last word in feedback, but does allow the car to be at least positioned accurately on the road. Contrary to what its specification might make you believe, the Polo R-Line does without lowered sports suspension and sits at the same height as its standard family members. While that may not do much for the looks, it ensures the sports-orientated Polo rides well and is comfortable.
Nimble handling and the slightly larger footprint offered by the bigger wheels makes the Polo R-Line feel sporty enough through the corners, but it’s still no Fiesta ST challenger – but then neither, sadly, is the GTI – but offers a fine balance of qualities which will appeal to most of its target audience.
Stylish and economic
So, while it’s not a performance car as its looks may suggest, correspondingly, the Polo R-Line has none of the high running costs associated with cars of that type. Using a version of the same engine found in the 94bhp Polo BlueMotion, the Polo R-Line 1.0 TSI marries the best of both the stylish in looks and high economy worlds.
VW quotes combined fuel consumption of 65.7mpg – only marginally short of the BlueMotion’s 68.9mpg – while the 1.0 TSI R-Line is almost as clean as its eco-minded stablemate, too, recording CO2 emissions only 5g/km higher. Therefore, both sit in the same tax bracket, but – as you would hope – the R-Line offers more pep (and kit) for the extra £2180 outlay. That sounds a lot, but it’s worth remembering that the petrol-only Polo BlueMotion is based on the more spartan S model, whereas the R-Line builds on the mid-range and more luxurious SEL.
While it’s true the Polo R-Line can’t hold a candle to either the GTI or the R WRC rally car when it comes to performance, it does offer a more accessible entry point to sports-orientated Polo ownership as well as economy and CO2 emissions which almost match the BlueMotion. For some, that may be an irresistible combination.
As it stands, the performance and parsimonious blend works for us, but be careful when specifying any extra kit: the higher price could put it close to a genuine spirited and sports-focused Polo: at just £315 less than the £19,755 Polo GTI five-door, our R-Line test car was perilously near to the closest wannabe Polo R WRC model there may ever be.
VOLKSWAGEN POLO R-LINE 1.0 TSI
Engine: 1.0-litre three-cylinder, turbocharged
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Power/torque: 108bhp/147lb ft @ 2000-3500rpm
0-62mph: 9.3 seconds
Top speed: 122mph
Economy (combined cycle), CO2: 65.7mpg, 103g/km
Equipment: 16” ‘Salvador’ alloy wheels, R-Line styling kit, front fog lights, privacy rear windows
On sale: Now