The Volkswagen Polo was always the car you wanted if you found all the other superminis a bit too interesting. It was about the most coldly rational product out there. The Germans loved it. But in Britain we like a bit more fizz to our small cars, so we've been buying Fiestas and Clios and 207s. But even though the Polo is a bit of a stiff here, the Golf flies off the shelves. VW people have an interesting analysis of this. The way they see it, in the mid-size hatch market, rationality plays a bigger part: Golf buyers have families and mortgages. Supermini buyers haven't got to that stage, or they've passed it and want to forget its privations. A supermini is all about me.
The success of the Golf in Britain shows that the comparative failure of the old Polo is nothing to do with the dealers or the brand. It's about the car. So the car needed to change. But the success of the old Polo in Germany means they didn't want to change it too much for fear of causing a fright.
So while the Polo has a new look, it's hardly turned itself into an Extreme Makeover freakshow. You won't find the crazy-busy face of a 207, the cod-supercar noodlings of a MiTo, the wedginess and surface entertainment of a Fiesta or the armadillo profile of a Corsa. It looks more grown-up, though whether you think that's a good thing in a small car is up to you. Certainly the new Polo is a beautifully proportioned and detailed piece of work. The horizontal grille and mild shoulders have a faint echo of the Scirocco. This has the effect, once you've seen a few Polos go by, of making you think the Scirocco is a fabulously exaggerated piece of shaping.
Inside, VW plays to its strengths. There's nothing too elaborate, but the whole fascia is executed with lush materials and watchmaker's tolerances. There's some scratchy plastic on the doors, mind, and some of the nice brushed-alloy trim comes only if you shell out for the top spec.
But it's not all about design. VW's powertrains have been steadily climbing to the top of the heap these past few years. To prove the point, two extreme Polos are launched next year: at one end of the scale the GTI with the 1.4 twincharger (turbo- and super-) and an optional seven-speed DSG, and at the other end a brand-new 1.2 diesel in a Bluemotion. It'll have the eco-smarts to certify at just 87g/km. I drove a prototype and it's a surprisingly normal car, though as usual with these things I didn't get near the quoted economy number.
But for the mo, the most intriguing engine is the 105bhp petrol. This is a 1.2-litre TSi with a turbo. Given how successful VW's similar 1.4 has been - it's even capable of lugging the gigantic Skoda Superb - the omens are good. Sure enough, the 1.2 TSi is torquey and smooth if a bit buzzy, and just seems to be on your side. It replaces the old 1.6, and goes harder, but according to the EU lab figures, travels nearly a quarter further on a litre of fuel.
There's also a new diesel engine in three outputs, but Brits don't buy many diesel superminis, so we get only the lower-powered ones - 75 and 90bhp. It's a smooth and refined runner and the fuel needle seems magnetised to the F. But in tight corners the handling is soggy on account of the engine weighing more than the petrol by a bag-and-a-half of cement. Other petrol engines are revised versions of what came before, a pair of sweet but gutless 1.2 three-cylinders (60bhp, I ask you), and the familiar unblown 1.4.
Anyway, back to that 1.2 TSi. This gets a six-speed manual, a slightly notchy one, or a quick-acting seven-speed DSG. I tried it on the optional 17-inch wheels, which really do rather like corners. This isn't a Fiesta, but it isn't miles off. Get a move on and you sometimes want for firmer damping, but it isn't critical.
Meanwhile, if you want to go a long way in a small car without your arse aching, skeleton humming and ears zinging, the Polo is your car. There's remarkably little cruising noise, and the suspension swallows that tiring high-frequency patter of your average concrete motorway. The seats and driving position are the usual VW thing too: they seem to be made for you, whether you've the morphology of an athlete or an ape. At low speed the Polo's ride is nicely pliant in dealing with the craters that are standard on British streets.
So the Polo feels like a bigger car than ever, and it is. But at least it isn't any heavier than the previous version, which helps the economy. The wheelbase and track have been altered just as they were on the new Ibiza. More track means more stability, while a longer wheelbase keeps it competitive on back-seat room - better than average probably because the roof is high. The body uses more high-strength steel, and it feels very solid. All admirable, and helpful when there are new safety standards to meet. Euro NCAP just got tougher and VW can't be seen not to make a five-star car.
And so inevitably the conversation has turned to space and safety and economy. This Polo is a likeable car, but however much song-and-dance VW makes about the ‘emotional design', in the end it's still a car you'd buy for logic, and for the impression it'll look after you. It reminds me of the direction VW took with the Mk4 Golf, the one that really put VW on the map for cabin quality and low consumption and safety. But the Mk4 Golf was also the one that was famously overtaken by Ford in handling and fun.
You can have a good time in the 1.2 TSi. The rest of the range doesn't have the same spirit. Wearing the hard-hat of rational thought, they're ruddy difficult to argue against because they're so refined and well-made, and they guard your money with such tenacity (they resist depreciation, manage on a sip of fuel and VW promises the prices won't go up when the new range arrives in October). You could argue this is what matters in these hard times. But I'd say that in these hard times we need small cars to cheer us up, and most new Polos don't quite manage it.