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What's a 30 year old supermini like to drive?
Is a 1990 VW Polo just a practical runabout or a car for people that like driving?
Setting the stage - it’s no sports car
In recent years I’ve become used to owning a reasonably powerful car to drive: Sometimes used for practical reasons, sometimes to take to shows and sometimes just for pleasure. That changed recently when I decided to swap my usual choice of coupe or convertible for something that might be considered by many as humdrum. Enter the little Polo which I am enjoying still, since picking it up early this year.
Adapting to a car with less power, as well as a less ‘refined chassis’, has been no problem really. In part this is because the opportunity to make full use of such things is not often available and increasingly my desire to seek out such thrills is diminishing. But swapping a sporty car for a more ‘pedestrian’ one doesn’t have to mean losing all enjoyment of driving, including the fun parts.
Aside from it’s quirky retro looks and nostalgia factor, the dynamics of the car also lend themselves to enjoyable driving, just not in the same way as a sports car.
Let’s go for a drive and see shall we?
The first thing to notice is the peppy nature of the 1043cc engine. It accelerates briskly enough from rest. You have to give it plenty of revs like many low powered cars of the era to avoid risk of stalling when pulling away, or a less than graceful jerky start. But once you’re off it certainly has enough ‘go’ to get you moving quickly in traffic.
Secondly the gear change is reassuringly positive and swift when you’re on the move. There’s a fair amount of ‘throw’ in the mechanism but it slots in securely and you’re never left “stirring porridge” and guessing what gear you’re in. On that note you can be sure you’re never in fifth gear, because there isn’t one! Four does just fine most of the time.
The pedals each have their own distinct mechanical feel which doesn’t take long to get used to. This coupled with the heavily padded seats and overall position of the controls make for a surprisingly ‘ergonomic’ environment given the age and simplicity of the vehicle.
The little Polo predictably shines being driven in the manner it was intended: nipping in and out of traffic across town or out in the suburbs. Those environments best suit its characteristics and there’s fun to be had hopping lanes and darting down side roads. The fantastic visibility through the large windows unencumbered by chunky pillars helps you safely take advantage of gaps in traffic.
The handling at low speeds is more than adequate and stable enough to turn into junctions briskly and accelerate off swiftly. Country roads are fine but faster winding roads are probably the least enjoyable ones to tackle in the Polo. This is only really due to the amount of body roll and the steering not being as precise at higher speeds. It’s safe and usable as long as you’re not going too fast and you do get some feel for the limitations of the car through the steering wheel. While the brakes aren’t anywhere near as sharp as a modern car, as long as they are well maintained they’re good enough to scrub off speed when you need to.
I feel this is a motor best enjoyed up to about 50 mph. Not that there is anything stopping you driving a car like this across the country at higher speeds and indeed I have done on occasion. Motorway and fast dual carriageway driving is not any more of a chore than it would be in a more powerful car and it will sit at 70 quite happily. You just need to be aware you might not be able to merge with the traffic when coming off a slip road quite as quickly as you’re used to.
How does it compare to a modern equivalent?
Despite the many similarities of this 30 year old supermini to modern small hatchbacks, it is a notably different experience. Most of the underpinnings of a practical vehicle that can get you where you need to be with a minimum of fuss are there. Where it differs is the overall sensation that you are more directly connected to the MK2 Polo than you would be in any modern car. This is neither a better or worse experience, it is simply different. You are much more physically engaged, but you do not quite have the reassurance that more modern cars can give that it is going to be completely predictable and reliable in all conditions. That said as long as you’re paying attention to the road and what the car is telling you, it likely will be. Volkswagens of this era are well made cars after all.
How does the Polo suit me?
To me a car of this age is different enough from most others on the road to enjoy the contrasting experience of driving one. In that sense it is very much a classic car. The clean functional design, the simple mechanisms and the precise but basic engineering I find appealing. Coupled with the practical benefits a hatchback has over sporty body styles it makes for a simple classic that can be enjoyed for what it is.
It’s actually quite nice to have a car that flies under the radar and does not fit a particular stereotype or lend itself to clichéd remarks. To some people it’s a basic old supermarket shopping car. To others it’s a young driver’s runabout (and perhaps something to modify). And to a few it is a bona fide classic that invokes rose tinted memories of the 80s or 90s. But on the whole you don’t get treated much differently from any other driver on the road, and that suits me just fine.
Of course another, more celebrated, classic VW offers both practicality and sporty driving: the Golf GTI. Having never owned or driven one I can’t say how the Polo compares. With it being a vehicle of legendary status I would like to drive one eventually. But I’m not convinced the performance of an early GTI would be enough to tempt me to part with the additional money required to own one (if I had it to spare!). Also the low cost of ownership of the Polo appeals to my frugal side and rather than a few ‘extra horses’, I can’t help but think that money would be better spent elsewhere! Perhaps I’m not too far away from the Volkswagen Polo’s original target market after all...
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