Family-friendly VW Polo defies trend towards SUVs

While many small family hatchbacks have become behemoths, this model has not

Volkswagen Polo
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Year: 2022
Fuel: Petrol

The Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan may be seeking to tax SUVs, but his team of civil servants are going to have a headache trying to define them. We've come a long way from the days when SUVs and off-roaders were easily recognisable as roadgoing upmarket pieces of farm machinery.

There are some cars billing themselves as crossover SUVs yet barely taller and boasting the same footprint on the road as a city runabout.

In the meantime, many of the supposedly small family hatchbacks have become behemoths. I am old enough to remember my aunt's green Polo, a boxy biscuit tin on wheels that served her well for years travelling throughout the west of Ireland and on regular runs to Tyrone. I had the chance to drive one a few years ago on the German autobahn and it felt tiddly in today's terms.

This facelifted mid-life Polo is larger than many early generations of the Golf. Yet it's still classified as a so-called "B segment" car, the second smallest format of European passenger cars. Given that it shares the same underpinnings as the newly launched VW Taigo, the T-Cross, Seat Arona and Skoda Kamiq, how can you really define those as SUVs? It's like defining the 50-year-old overweight gamer wearing combats as special forces.


It’s hard to identify a single feature that defines an SUV over other cars. Plastic moulding on the wheel arches? Four-wheel drive? Both of these feature on so-called “regular cars” as well and car companies can easily remove these features from large SUVs to reclassify them.

Perhaps we’ll end up in the same situation as US legislators when defining obscenity. Justice Potter Stewart delivered the line “I know it when I see it”. Or perhaps they’ll turn to the earlier US ruling that defined it as something “utterly without redeeming social importance”. There are many who would concur with that view of SUVs.

In reality, the only viable way to instigate an SUV tax would seem to be to base it on weight. Such a regime already exists in France, where drivers have to pay an additional levy for every kilogram over 1,400kg that their car weighs. It's based on the principle that weight can become a vicious circle for a car. Heavier vehicles need bigger, more powerful engines (or electric motor). More power requires more cooling (for the engine, or for a big battery) and the cooling system itself adds weight. Then you need bigger brakes to slow all of that extra weight down, and guess what? Bigger brakes are heavier too . . . And so it goes on.

Light weight, by contrast, is the beginning of a virtuous circle. A lighter car can use a smaller, more efficient engine, which needs less cooling, which requires smaller brakes, which also brings aerodynamic benefits, which makes it more efficient.

Not to mention the fact that lighter cars are more fun to drive, a message the Motors team has been banging on about for years now, with no one caring to listen.

Price difference

Take this VW Polo as an example. The new Taigo is listed by Volkswagen as an SUV. It starts at €28,735 for the 95bhp version of the 1-litre three-cylinder petrol engine and five-speed manual transmission. VW claims CO2 emissions of 124g/km. For the Polo with the same powertrain set-up the emissions are 118g/km.

Not a whole mountain of carbon between the two, you might argue, but over 50,000kms that is still 300kg of CO2.

Then there’s the price difference: the equivalent Polo is listed at €23,620 – a saving of €5,115.

We can think of dozens of better ways to spend that money in the current climate than opting for a forgettable crossover instead of a smart, functional family-friendly Polo. And forgive us for repeating it, but the Polo is a better car to drive.

Yes, you're sitting lower to the ground than a Range Rover, but that's a benefit when it comes to corners. And in case you haven't noticed, our regular roads feature quite a few of those.

The five-speed manual transmission is smooth and this 1-litre 95bhp three-cylinder petrol engine is a proven winner. It might offer up a noisy refrain if you hit the high notes, but settle in mid-range revs in third or fourth gear and you can wind your way along any back road in Ireland without ever resorting to the clutch. And that’s the measure of this car. It’s not really about tearing up the tarmac, but comfortably weaving your way through traffic – and life.

The steering is nicely engaging, but it’s not as eager or sprightly as the Ford Fiesta, for example. Instead it’s tuned for stable, comfortable motoring. It’s nimble, if not agile.

Of the other gadgetry fitted to our R-Line specification test car, the reversing camera may prove useful for tight car park spaces, while the adaptive cruise control makes motorway driving even more effortless.

Inside and the tech that faces you is arguably better than that in the current Golf, courtesy of a large volume control knob instead of the silly sliding volume strip fitted below the touchscreen of its larger siblings. And compared to the sometimes-clunky software on the high-tech electric cars from Volkswagen, the Polos touchscreen controls are reactive. There was even an old-school manual air-con system in our test car.

You can opt for the larger “digital cockpit” set-up that’s in the latest Golf for an extra €381, but why bother. There are other items on the options list that are a better use of your money.

Ultimately, this latest Polo is a solid all-round five-door family hatch, boasting high levels of useable tech and safety equipment. It’s arguably a Golf in everything but name, and certainly follows the template that made that VW model such a hit for several decades.

There was a time as a child, when an order from an adult to travel across Ireland in a VW Polo would have been worthy of a call to Childline. These days you could easily consider a continental trek in this car. To refer to it as a supermini is perhaps a misnomer. Just like the plethora of SUVs and crossovers that crowd our roads, these definitions have become so fluid as to be irrelevant.

The simplest way to consider it is this: if you want a five-door family car with the traits and characteristics that made Golf the go-to choice for millions since 1974, then this Polo is the sensible choice.

Lowdown: Volkswagen Polo 1.0 TSI R-Line

Power: 999cc three-cylinder petrol engine putting out 95hp with a six-speed manual transmission
Emissions: 119g/km
0-100km/h: 11.3 seconds
L/100km: 5.7 l/100km (49.6 mpg)
Price: €25,450
Our rating: 4/5
Verdict: For a supposed small runaround, this offers all the practicality of a full-sized family hatchback

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer is Motoring Editor, Innovation Editor and an Assistant Business Editor at The Irish Times