Polo vs Golf
* VW Polo or VW Golf? All you need to know * Should you buy family hatch or supermini? * Best versions named and the ones to avoid...
The Volkswagen Golf and Volkswagen Polo are two of the best selling cars in Britain. For more than 30 years they've been popular choices with thousands of customers attracted by quality cabins, decent driving dynamics and carry-all practicality.
These days, though, which should you choose? If you're in the market for a VW family car, do you really need the larger Golf or is its baby brother an effective (and cheaper) solution?
What are the Polo and Golf like to drive?
The Polo has been around for four years now, but its driving experience has aged reasonably well. It does suffer from body lean in bends and the steering is inconsistently weighted, but the trade-off for this is that it remains comfortable on all but the roughest surfaces.
The Polo's basic engines include ageing 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol units, but the 84bhp 1.4 is a better bet. There's also a 1.4-litre turbocharged unit that turns off cylinders to save fuel when they're not required; it's probably the most advanced engine available in a car of this size, and is impressive to use, but it carries a hefty price premium. The diesels are 1.2- and 1.6-litre units, but their emphasis is clearly more on economy than it is on performance.
Should you choose any of the four-cylinder petrol engines, you're unlikely to complain about their refinement. The diesels are disappointingly clattery; in this respect at least, the Polo does feel like the older car.
The Golf also offers cylinder deactivation on one of its petrol engines, a 1.4 with 138bhp (look out for ACT in the name; that's what VW calls the technology). It's part of an engine line-up that's entirely turbocharged, regardless of whether the fuel is petrol or diesel. The range starts with a 1.2 petrol developing either 84bhp or 103bhp, and there's also a strong 1.4 petrol with 120bhp.
The Golf's diesel options are a 1.6 with 103bhp, which will be enough for most buyers, and a 148bhp unit that feels appropriately punchy.
VW has clearly set the Golf up with comfort in mind, but that doesn't mean it feels sloppy in corners, and the steering feels well weighted and accurate. Cheaper versions of the car (1.2 petrols and the 1.6 diesel) get less sophisticated rear suspension, but even that can't spoil the package; these models don't ride quite so serenely, true, but they're still more than comfortable enough.
The Golf also offers refinement that's better than anything else in its class, let alone superminis like the Polo. There's very little noise from the suspension, road or wind, and the petrol engines are exceptionally smooth and quiet. The Golf's 2.0- and 1.6-litre diesel engines are both refined too; the smaller unit has a little more noise, but it's still hushed in comparison with the class average, and much quieter than any of the diesels in the Polo.
On the road, then, there's no escaping the fact that the Golf is the larger, more accomplished car - and is a brand new model instead of a four-year-old design. The 84bhp 1.4 Polo should suffice as an all-rounder, but even it won't have the refinement or the driving enjoyment of even the most basic Golf.
Can I get the Polo and Golf as an automatic?
The Polo's 1.4-litre petrol engines (turbocharged and non-turbocharged) are available with a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox (called DSG) that operates like an automatic. The Golf offers DSG on every engine (six-speed on the 2.0-litre TDI diesel, seven-speed on all other motors).
What are the Polo and Golf like inside?
The Golf is a class act when it comes to quality; its dashboard is made of dense, soft-touch materials, and most of the controls and switches are nicely damped. The Golf's cabin can seat four six-footers in comfort and five in emergencies, and its boot features an adjustable floor, which lets you divide the luggage space in two and reduces the load lip when it's in its higher position. All cars get Bluetooth, air-conditioning and a DAB radio as standard.
The Polo's fascia is as good as you can get in a supermini, with an impressively upmarket feel for such a small car (albeit a clear notch or two behind the Golf's classy finish). There are dense, soft-touch fabrics covering the dashboard, and the switchgear feels solid. The entry-level trim (S) is pretty basic, but move up to Match and you'll get remote central locking, split-folding rear seats, DAB, air-con, alloy wheels, a variable-height boot floor and electric rear windows (on five-door models).
The Polo can cope with taller rear occupants for short journeys, but they're likely to complain if they're there for an extended stay - and if you're planning to squeeze three adults into the back for any time at all, they'll need to be happy in each other's company.
Both cars can cope with a decent-sized family shop with capacities of 280 litres (Polo) and 380 litres (Golf) with the rear seats in place. However, if you're having to factor in child-related clutter (in particular the modern pram), then those extra 100 litres are likely to prove crucial.
The Polo is some way off the outright capacity of its bigger brother, too; while both cars offer a 60/40 split rear seat, the Polo's space expands to 952 litres. The Golf's load bay can be extended to a cavernous 1270 litres.
What will the Polo and Golf cost to run?
Neither of these cars looks cheap within its class, but it's worth remembering that residual values on the Polo and Golf are pretty strong too - so when you come to sell on your car, you should get a bit more for it.
The Polo's age also helps when it comes to negotiating a few pounds off the list price; you'll find dealers much keener to haggle towards (and beyonds) our Target Price on this car than the still-new Golf.
The fuel economy on both cars is decent too - although it's worth pointing out that the Golf's more contemporary engines mean that in many cases it's actually more efficient than its smaller brother. Its CO2 figures are particularly impressive, potentially narrowing the gap in running costs between the two cars, and making it a strong option as a company car choice.
Which one should I buy?
The VW Golf we'd opt for is the 1.4 TSI 122 SE 5dr. Its turbocharged petrol engine has punchy performance, doesn't use much fuel and is pretty refined, and while all Golfs get DAB radio, Bluetooth and some form of air-conditioning, SE spec adds alloy wheels, adaptive cruise control, City Emergency Braking, and automatic lights and wipers.
Our favourite VW Polo is the 1.4 85 Match 5dr, which is (just about) quick enough, yet sufficiently cheap to make the benefits of the premium-feel cabin and strong resale values look good value.
There's a fairly hefty price gap between those two models, and if the Polo's budget is your limit then you'll still end up with one of the best superminis in the class (although you should also weigh up its qualities against those of the Ford Fiesta).
However, many of the Golf's core strengths are still present in its more basic models, and for anything other than a small family, the larger car's extra boot and cabin room have real appeal. The same goes for your expected mileage; good though the Polo is around town, it's no match for the Golf over longer journeys.
If your lifestyle includes either of those elements, then you may want to consider weighing up the cost difference (around 3k in price, or 50pcm in contract hire) between our favourite Polo and even the most basic 1.2 Golf five-door.
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By John McIlroy