The 1981 Volkswagen Polo Mk2 hatchback was more French than Germanic in character with its functionality-led design.
The original 1974 Polo was not a Volkswagen at all, but a repurposed Audi 50. Designed in Ingolstadt with some input from Bertone, the 50 was a pert and pretty supermini, intended as the ideal second car for an Audi-driving household. Volkswagen upended Audi’s plans by requisitioning the design for itself as a junior sibling to the Golf.
This was an expedient move for Volkswagen, but it stymied any prospect the 50 had of establishing itself as the first premium supermini, selling on style and badge-appeal rather than practicality. The Polo was obviously identical to the 50 and undercut it on price, hence the baby Audi remained in production for only four years.
When Volkswagen set about designing a replacement Polo in 1977, it decided to prioritise space and practicality. The new model would retain the 2,335mm (92”) wheelbase of its predecessor, but the overall length of the hatchback version would grow by 145mm (5¾”) to 3,655mm (144”). Moreover, the new model’s most distinctive feature would be its almost vertical tailgate. This, and the long rear side window behind a broad B-pillar, gave the new Polo quite unusual proportions and would earn it the nickname, breadvan. Despite its boxy shape, the Cd was better than the superseded model, 0.39(1) vs 0.41.
Another distinctive aspect of the in-house styling was the treatment of the rear wheel arches: instead of the usual semi-circular design, the flattened top of the wheel arch was stretched rearward to the tail above the rear bumper, where it formed the base for the rear light cluster. This detail was more French than Germanic in character and would not be reprised on any other Volkswagen. Overall, the Polo Mk2 hatchback could more easily have passed as a new Citroën or Renault design.
A saloon version, which debuted in the autumn of 1982, had a more traditional profile with a sloping rear window and round rear wheel arches. It also had rectangular rather than the Polo’s round headlamps. The Derby name used on the saloon version of the Polo Mk1 was discarded in favour of Polo Classic(2).
Inside, the trim was neatly finished, although the dashboard was a hard and hollow one-piece black plastic moulding. The door and rear side trim panels were neatly sculpted to liberate additional elbow room. The folding rear seat backrest could be fixed in two positions, the normal one and a more upright setting, which increased boot space marginally(3). Although legroom was still not generous in the rear, the extended roof and long rear side windows gave a greatly increased sense of space and airiness over the superseded model. The Polo was initially offered in three trim levels, C, CL and GL.
The new Polo was based on the superseded model’s floorpan and shared its wholly conventional mechanical layout: transverse engine and end-on four-speed gearbox, front-wheel-drive, MacPherson strut front and rear trailing arm and torsion beam rear suspension, with front disc and rear drum brakes.
There were three engine options for the new model: a 1,043cc 40bhp (29kW) unit, a 1,093cc 50bhp (37kW) unit and a 1,272cc unit developing 55bhp (41kW). There was also a high-compression version of the 1,093cc engine, which developed the same power but greater torque, both achieved at lower revs than the standard unit. This was fitted to the Formel E model and allowed higher gearing for improved fuel economy.
Volkswagen claimed a 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of 21.2 seconds and a maximum speed of 135km/h (84mph) for the smallest engined version. UK prices started at around £3,500 for the 1,043cc hatchback in C trim. The Formel E model added another £300 to the list price, while the Polo Classic saloon was priced at about £500 over the equivalent hatchback model.
Car magazine reviewed the new Polo hatchback in December 1981. The reviewer felt it necessary to remark that “…it looks a lot better in the metal than most photographs suggest.” He praised the car’s “…sweet-running refinement and excellent road manners”. While the mechanical package was evolutionary, the improvement in refinement was such that the Polo was adjudged to be class-leading and “emphasises just how much many rivals, notably BL’s Metro, are lagging in this respect”.
The Polo was a delight to drive, “…with a gearchange that’s quick and precise, steering that’s sharp and accurate [and] pedals that work easily and fluidly.” Handling was described as “not just safe and predictable, it’s also great fun.” The reviewer’s only significant criticism was reserved for the Formel E model, where the widely spaced ratios in the 3+E gearbox were far from ideal on the twisty, hilly test route.
While the Polo hatchback was undoubtedly practical, its looks were too utilitarian for some tastes, so Volkswagen hedged its bets by launching a coupé version in 1983. This was still a hatchback, but it had a more typical sloping tailgate, semi-circular rear wheel arches and narrower B-pillars similar to those on the saloon. This gave it an altogether more conventional side profile. Initially, the coupé was marketed as a sporting derivative, with black plastic wheel arch extensions, a thicker rimmed steering wheel, rev counter, and red and black striped seat upholstery reminiscent of that in the contemporary Golf GTI.
In 1984 the Formel E models were given the larger 1,272cc engine and an automated stop-start system. The Classic suffix was dropped from the saloon in 1985, when it received the circular headlamps from the hatchback in place of the rectangular originals. There were some further mechanical upgrades, notably new engines with a five-bearing crankshaft, hydraulic tappets and, on the largest engined models, optional fuel injection and a catalytic converter.
The Polo Mk2 received its only significant facelift in October 1990, when all models received a new front end with flush rectangular headlamps and outboard front indicators, wider tail lights on the hatchback and coupé, and full-depth semi-integrated bumper shields front and rear.
A subtle change to improve airflow was made to the trailing edge of the bonnet, which was no longer flush with the base of the windscreen but sat slightly higher, partly concealing the windscreen wipers. This change also necessitated a revision to the base of the A-pillars, which were now concealed by the revised front wings. The windscreen and rear window were bonded in place, rather than fixed with rubber seals. Together, these measures reduced the Cd of the facelifted model by about 10%.
Inside, the Polo was given a new and much improved dashboard, which was more solid and substantial both in look and feel compared to the original. New trim and upholstery fabrics and full-depth(4) door cards completed the cosmetic makeover. Servo assisted brakes became a standard fit across the range as did catalytic converters. Most models were now fuel injected, although a carburettor fed model remained for some export markets. The range now comprised Fox, CL and GT.
One curio in the Polo Mk2 range was the supercharged G40 version. This featured the 1,272cc engine with a G-Lader supercharger, which produced 111bhp (83kW). This gave the G40 a 0 to 100km/h (62km/h) time of 8.1 seconds and a top speed of 196km/h (122mph). The G40 was originally introduced as a limited edition of 500 cars in 1987 but became a regular production model following the 1990 facelift.
The Mk2 Polo then continued largely unchanged apart from some special edition models to stimulate sales in its twilight years. Production of the saloon was discontinued in 1992, with the hatchback and coupé bowing out two years later.
A 1982 Mk2 Polo breadvan was my first new car. It was the basic C version, in white with blue and white cloth upholstery, and cost £4,200(5). It was a pleasant car to drive, and the vertical tailgate made it quite capacious. Mechanically, it was completely reliable, but the rear side window rubbers allowed water by in heavy rain. The dealer fix for this was to squeeze something like black gutter sealant in under the rubbers!
I had an aftermarket pop-up glass sunroof fitted to it, which was a bit of an extravagance. It was fine when closed or with the rear edge popped up, but the wind noise was intolerable with the glass removed. I also fitted a nice Pioneer radio-cassette player, which was stolen within weeks. The attempted theft of a (cheaper) replacement was frustrated by the alarm I had fitted, but the car required a second replacement front quarter window. The Polo was sold when I moved to the UK and was given a company car in 1984.
(1) The Formel E variant improved this to 0.37 with the addition of a spoiler surrounding the rear window.
(2) The Derby name would remain in use in some markets for a further two years.
(3) The more upright position moved the top (only) of the backrest forward by about 50mm (2”).
(4) The new door cards concealed the previously exposed painted metal along the top and bottom of the doors.
(5) Price in Ireland.