DAVE MOORE: Buying a used VW Polo

Buying a used VW Polo: pocket-change hatchback

This big-hearted German is a durable character and a nice drive and it’s well worth looking for one, says DAVE MOORE.

Despite the fact that the Polo is a fairly recent addition to the New Zealand fleet - the importers didn't really get serious about them until the late 90s - they've long been held in high esteem among those who want a reliable small car, and don't want a Starlet or the like.

Polo Mark IIIs are in good supply, most of them go on the smell of an oily rag and look cute even though the design is more than 20 years old. The original Polo came out in 1975 and was effectively snatched from the Audi range and given a VW disc on the nose and the Polo name on the hatchlid.

The former Audi 50 was an immediate success and has gone on through five model changes and several serious facelifts in between.

We're dealing with the Mark III version here, as it covers the student/third car slot admirably and while it lacks some of the active safety gear of newer cars, its crash performance is one of the best in its size and price range largely as the result of using much of the then current Golf III's underpinnings.


Nicely proportioned styling with a neatly-crafted cabin, the Polo Mk III showed up all of its Japanese competitors at the time in terms of design and execution and offered room for four adults, adequate boot space and good road manners and ride quality. The majority of them were steel-wheeled, but look pretty good anyway.

Best to buy

During the Mk III's life cycle, the car had one-litre to 1.6-litre engines, with the best two choices being the 1.4-litre 44kW and 1.6-litre 55kW single cam engines, being the most durable in the range, with the latter still being used in some models in the greater VW empire. The larger engine is the better choice if you're opting for automatic and it's also better at coping with the power drain of air conditioning, which is more common on used imports than early New Zealand new versions.

The 1.6 is also far more relaxed if you do long drives, and you will, as the Polo feels so solid and strong for its size.

If the car has a good service history, there should be little to worry about, the Polo is well put together and its mechanicals are pretty robust and show up very well in Euro dependability studies. Some even say the MkIII is more dependable than the model that followed it.

Watch for

Ex-UK models with normally- aspirated 1.0-litre engines, they can hardly get out of their own way. They also work so hard that they use as much gas as the bigger engines anyway. Later models do offer one or two airbags, but ABS was rare.

Te Atatu house

Weak points

The Polo is quite a tyre-sensitive car, it rides better and offers more grip with higher quality tyres - as you'd expect - but does get a bit understeery when they're old and worn.

There are lots of switch-blanks in base Polos, which makes the dash look a little empty, but heck, this is a cheap car, folks.

Some gasket problems are known to occur so check for pale sludging under the oil filler cap as a common sign. In European warranty claims we note that suspension and axles feature a little, so get someone under the car before you buy one. Electrical systems are the most common areas for claims to Warranty Direct by Polo owners. Air-con, where fitted, should be fully checked, too.

You'll have to live with

Dull colour choices, unless you manage to get a limited edition model with used import history, but we like its restraint, frankly, it's in keeping with its quiet, reliable nature.

What to pay

We've seen a 1998 1.6 auto for $1500 with 135,000km, and a really slick and well looked after example from 1999 at $3000, but the best over all is a 90,000km 1.6 automatic for $3000 with just 38,000km on the clock.

What do they cost to run

It has reasonable insurance costs is simple enough for you to do your own preventative maintenance and they shouldn't lose much value from our figures above - most of the depreciation has already occurred.

Economy ratings from 6L/100km to 6.5L/100km for the 1.4 and 1.6 are about average in the class.

But wait

While some 1600S sporty models came in and we've seen some about, as well as a 1.4-litre three-cylinder diesel, stick with the simpler 1.4 and 1.6 petrol models and a $2000-$2500 budget and you won't regret it.