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First drive: VW's dinky new diesel

Derv whirl: VW Polo TDI uses a turbocharger to out-torque its GTI sister.

Australia's cheapest turbo-diesel starts right here: with VW's Polo 1.9 TDI hatch

9 Dec 2005

VOLKWAGEN’S Polo diesel, available from this month as a single-specification five-door door hatchback dubbed TDI, achieves a number of firsts for Australia.

At $22,990 it is our cheapest diesel-powered passenger car, undercutting the Golf TDI by $5000 and the Peugeot’s 307 1.6 HDI by $6500.

The Polo TDI is also the first light-car diesel ever sold here – even though it is actually slightly larger than the technically small-car classed Golf GLD diesel VW marketed in Australia from 1978 to 1982.

VW is also touting the TDI as the most affordable ‘alternative fuel’ vehicle, citing the Polo’s 5.0 litre per 100km combined fuel-consumption figure against the $29,990 Honda Civic Hybrid’s 5.2L/100km and $36,500 Toyota Prius’ 4.4L/100km ratings.

Driving the front wheels via a five-speed manual-only gearbox is a 74kW 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine producing its maximum power at 4000rpm.

A slightly different engine to the identically sized 77kW 1.9 TDI unit found in the Golf, the Polo TDI’s torque output of 240Nm at 1800rpm is double that of its hybrid-engined rivals.

It also outguns the newly released Polo GTI’s 220Nm torque top, which helps the TDI hit the zero to 100km/h mark in 10.7 seconds on the way to its 188km/h top speed, and achieves an exhaust emission rating of EU3.

In comparison the Prius takes 10.9 seconds to 100km/h from standstill.

The 1896cc engine – dating back to the late 1980s when Audi introduced one of the world’s first production turbo-diesel units in the European 100 series – has two valves per cylinder and a compression ratio of 19.0:1.

Based on the newly released Series Two version of the three-year old fourth-generation Polo, the TDI is outwardly identical to its cheaper petrol-powered non-GTI siblings save for the small TDI badge in the back.

Over these is also incorporates anti-lock brakes with Electronic Brake Force Distribution.

Standard features include dual front airbags, climate control air-conditioning, cruise control, an alarm, remote central locking, power windows and CD audio.

Volkswagen is reluctant to reveal how many Polo TDIs it expects to sell per month, but there are about 200 being brought in this year.

Its lack of an automatic gearbox hinders the VW’s chances of achieving Golf TDI-style market penetration, whereby in some months the diesels matched the petrol models in sales.

But the Germans are still confident that the Polo TDI will establish a niche within the premium light-car segment.

VW also says that it completes the company’s diesel ambitions for Australia, where every passenger car model now offers the choice of diesel as well as petrol motivation.


TRUE pioneers don’t happen very often in the Australian motor industry.

But VW’s Polo, in 1.9 TDI hatch guise, is one such example.

As a light-car contender, it’s the smallest – and cheapest – diesel ever sold here.

Ironically the only other model to come close was also roughly the same size as well as from the same stable – VW’s original Golf GLD, a 37kW/82Nm 1.5-litre slug that sold here from 1978 to 1982.

But in those days the Golf was considered Toyota Corolla sized and ended up costing Holden Calais money. Still, since there was a fuel crisis in full swing back in the late ‘70s, the VW found some takers.

Hmm, no similarities with today then... not! With fuel-price uncertainty increasingly influencing buyers, it was just a matter of time before the light-car segment saw its first diesel.

VW hopes to emulate the success it has had with the Golf diesels – which currently account for around half of all that model’s sales locally.

The TDI, available only in five-door hatchback mode, is spacious for a small car, and features a well-made and pleasantly ambient cabin with air-con, power windows, a CD player, remote central locking and many other niceties except for a driver’s seat-height adjuster.

So inside and out the TDI is as per your run-of-the-mill Polo 1.4... except that it drives a whole lot better.

With 74kW of power and a sizeable 240Nm of torque to draw upon, the 1.9-litre turbo-charged four-cylinder engine accelerates with absolute vigour, tearing through the rev ranges as it quickly approaches 100km/h.

At that velocity the engine is spinning at about 2000rpm so there’s plenty of mile munching touring ability on offer in this big little-car. VW says 188km/h is its top speed.

Equally impressive is the acceleration at around 80km/h thanks to a turbo engine that responds to your accelerator’s commands forcefully if a little noisily.

This TDI isn’t the quietest we’ve ever driven, especially at idle, but it isn’t intrusive or annoying – just audible as a diesel.

However we think its crushing performance advantage over the 1.4 petrol models, let alone the claimed 5.0L/100km fuel economy benefits, more than makes up for any occasional diesel chatter.

Anyway, thinking of rear-engine Beetles, aren’t Volkswagens – even front engined front-wheel drive ones – meant to make such chaff-cutter noises anyway?

3 center imageThe list of Polo TDI virtues continues... like the nicely weighty five-speed manual gearshift (sadly for VW no auto is available – let alone a trick DSG gearbox like in the Golf), clutch and brake interfaces.

The power steering is firm, responsive and linear, the ride is cushioned enough to quell most road irregularities without the Polo’s occupants knowing, and the handling and roadholding are set on the sporty side so keen drivers can enjoy while they save.

Disappointingly there is the usual German-car road noise intrusion into the cabin, while the wind whistled a familiar shrill tune around the driver’s window edge.

And the Joseph’s Technicolour Dream Coat-cribbed seat trim pattern is simply Euro trash – even if the TDI, like the Polo 1.4s, sires from VW’s South African plant.

The Polo TDI has the urban performance to make it an excellent little runabout – it feels like it would be fantastically nippy around town – yet will also happily cruise at the national speed limit without raising a sweat... all while delivering exemplary fuel economy.

If you don’t need the extra space of a larger model and don’t mind changing your own gears, then the diesel Polo might just be the sort of car you’ll love and keep for many years.

And as an eco statement against the Toyota Prius – which costs almost $14,000 more, doesn’t perform as strongly and uses only 0.6L/100km less fuel – the Polo TDI makes another compelling argument. It’s a similar story against the $29,990 Honda Civic Hybrid.

We admit – we like the Polo TDI a lot.

VW admits it doesn’t really know how many it can sell in Australia. And no auto option frankly frightens it.

But in this moment in history there’s probably never been a better time for the Germans in Australia to find out.

2006 Polo TDI pricing:

Polo TDI 5-dr hatch: $22,990 (manual only)

GoAuto can help you buy a new Polo

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