Quite by chance, it is 20 years since I took part in an ‘economy run’ organised by my old friend ‘Mr Fiat’, the late Norman Potter. He was managing director of the Fiat/Lancia franchise in Aylsham Road, Norwich, and came up with the idea of showing the media just how economical the new Fiat Tempra could be.
He arranged for his mechanics to drain all the fuel from a couple of identical saloons and then poured a carefully-measured gallon into each car. He challenged me and a BBC Radio Norfolk journalist to see how far we could travel over a designated route before running out of gas. I seem to remember I covered about 38 miles before coming to a stop on the A47. I used every economy driving trick in the book to eke out the fuel, and was pleased with my efforts.
Twenty years on and I am conducting my own economy test – but this time driving quiet normally – in a bid to reconcile Volkswagen’s amazing figures that show the little diesel Polo Bluemotion can return 80.7mpg on the ‘official’ combined cycle. Of course, in real life, it is impossible to replicate these motor industry fuel test conditions. But it is a useful way for the consumer to compare ‘apples with apples’.
So, I never really expected to achieve 80mpg. I just drove the car as I always do: I covered nearly 400 miles including four or five stop-start journeys through the Norwich traffic, put my foot down a bit when I needed to on open roads, and covered about 100 miles at motorway speeds.
The result? An astonishing 69.3mpg, which in my book is an impressive result. It illustrates just how far cars have come with fuel efficiency since that fun exercise with the Fiat Tempra, which (if my memory serves me well) had one of the early stop-start systems, a key feature in the latest version of the Polo Bluemotion.
The Polo is a small car with a big reputation, and was voted by a panel of automotive experts as European Car of the Year. It’s hard to believe that it is 34 years since the original Polo was announced, and we are now enjoying the fifth reincarnation (a bit like Dr Who). With each change, the Polo has become larger and more technically advanced, and I reckon it is now bigger than the original Golf.
This second-generation Bluemotion betters the fuel consumption and undercuts the emissions of the previous model, itself already one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles available on the market.
So how has VW stretched a gallon of diesel even further? Under the bonnet is an all-new 1.2-litre turbo diesel, three-cylinder engine, and to complement this stop/start and battery regeneration is fitted to a Polo for the first time. In common with all VW Bluemotion models, it features lower aerodynamic drag than the standard model thanks to the addition of a new front grille, front spoiler and a small rear wing.
To be honest, I can’t say that I ever look forward to driving cars that bear ‘economy’ labels. I feel guilty if I occasionally rev to the max, and on the whole they offer rather dull progress towards saving the planet. The first Bluemotion Polo looked a bit odd and the engine was noisy. The new version is much better on that score but at low speed there is still a bit of mechanical noise, but it is not intrusive.
And this time the aesthetic changes to distance further the Bluemotion from a conventional Polo actually make it look more ‘sporting’, if that is not an oxymoron. It is fitted with a sports styling kit – sideskirts, sports bumpers and bigger roof spoiler – to improve aerodynamics and low rolling resistance tyres with 15in alloy wheels are matched to lowered suspension.
Despite its economy credentials, I did not find the Bluemotion as sluggish as I had anticipated. It will reach 62mph in a tad under 14 seconds and a top speed of 107mph, but you obviously won’t get nearly 70mpg if you drive it to the max. What surprised me was the pulling power of the little three-cylinder engine (especially as the gears of the standard five-speed Polo box have been lengthened in third, fourth and fifth to improve efficiency), but only when I ignored the urgings of the dashboard gearchange indicator.
These gearbox revisions work in conjunction with the multi-function computer which shows recommended gear changes for maximum economy. There were many times when the indicator was encouraging me to change up but when I did I found myself in the low end of the torque curve with the engine struggling to pull out of the ‘bog’. Before long I ignored the indicator and got on a lot better.
Although lighter than its predecessor, the Polo still feels as though it is hewn from granite, with the doors closing with the ‘thunk’ associated with bigger and more expensive cars. The interior design hits all the right buttons – clean and efficient, with switches and stalks all readily to hand. The Bluemotion has an exclusive mesh finish to the cloth upholstery and appropriate blue panels on the seats. The test car was a three-door, and although rear space is okay for a small car, if I was planning to put people in the back regularly, I would opt for the five-door. Boot space is also up to the mark, although the rear seat on the test car was one-piece.
Comfort levels are high with manual air-conditioning, cruise control and leather steering wheel fitted as standard. As with all Polo models a number of safety features are also fitted, including four airbags, ABS and ESP (electronic stability programme).
If there is a BUT with the Bluemotion, it is its price. The three-door is £14,445 on the road with a £600 premium for the five-door. Unless you plan to travel an awful lot of miles during ownership, I am not convinced the numbers stack up when you could buy a Polo S 1.2-litre petrol for £9,790 and get more than 50mpg. But saving the planet does cost money.
Volkswagen Polo Bluemotion
Price: three-door £14,445; five-door £15,045
Engine: 1.2-litre, 75PS three-cylinder turbo diesel
Performance: 0-62 mph 13.9 seconds; top speed 107mph
MPG: Urban 67.3; extra urban 91.1; combined 80.7
Benefit-in-kind tax rate: 13pc
Insurance Group: 9
Warranty: Three year/60,000 miles
Will it fit the garage? Length 3,970mm; width (including door mirrors) 1,901mm; height 1,462mm