Though certainly not the first driven, the Polo's my first owned car.. considering some of the dogs I could have had, it's very good, but still some complaints!
An explanation for it all, I think it may have taken a dip at some point. Algae all down one side and some bits have got surprising rust damage for a Polo.. but, the bodyframe is still sound.
Very comfortable interior (nice soft back bench and driver's seat is arguably the best I've used) and, though dark (REALLY needs a sunroof), nicely designed. Good looking fabric, (fake?) leather side trims on the seats, and very ergonomic layout of all the controls, even down to the radio.. which would have to be a jet fighter's headup display to be any better located. Lots of cubbyholes too, for a turn-of-the-90s car anyway. Cupholders in the glovebox even! Only thing that spoils this smart design is the lack of a fuel gauge warning light, so far I've run out twice (as an empty tank still shows a slight movement of the needle) and now carry a spare gallon in the boot.
LOTS of space. It doesn't look immediately spacious from most angles, and with four large guys inside it suddenly feels a big claustrophobic and low to the ground, though not quite cramped. Unlike some shorter wheelbase, but "large"-wheeled machine, eg fiat panda, the arches don't intrude uncomfortably into the passenger cabin. Plus, drop the rear seats, take out the parcel shelf, and you can get all the earthly possessions of an average student inside (including a dismantled bike), with a bit of ingenuity. Just leave out the large furniture... and strap 100kg of it to an easily fitted roofrack.
This carrying capacity is both the cause of and a slight consolation for the less than stylish looks, but that's no matter for me. It looks OK to me - I like to think of it as a boil-washed Passat estate, the front certainly has the resemblance. The estate-like shape can be a bit jarring, but does the trick. If only they'd thought to divide the rear windows like on the Golf so that the back seat passengers could control their own ventilation (they don't open. at all.), but, the full length ones make for -great- visibility. When they're not horrendously misted!
Unfortunately when fully loaded up and with a roofrack you can forget about fast progress, you'll get about 70mph tops, reach 60 in approx 1 minute, and people in 2CVs and DAF vans will be overtaking and giving you rude gestures. The 1043cc engine (45hp / 55lbft over a surprisingly wide and low range) looks TINY in the engine bay (you can easily stand -inside- the bonnet) and often feels mousepower rather than horse, even though it looks to have gained a good 10% after bedding in compared to official figures.
The 70s vintage 4-speed doesn't help too much. It covers the twin demands of being able to grab gaps in city traffic without changing gear, and getting maximum power matched close to max speed, but at the same time these are bad ideas. It can take a fair bit of coaxing to 25mph on uphill starts because of the high 1st, and dashing on the motorway can be noisy as you hit 5000rpm at about 90mph. 3rd gear hits the limiter at 81mph, however the way the power curve goes it's quicker to change around 65-70... so anything beyond the legal limit is all in top gear and therefore "extra". You don't so much accelerate to such speeds, as mash the pedal into the carpet and wait. Or, some days, pray.
So.. it's officially "slow", though I prefer to quote it as being "enough, but no more". All in all it actually appears to be similar to a lower-spec Transit or other van. It's brilliant at relaxed cruising, if you accelerate gently, keep out of the way, and below 65mph in top it's smooth and almost silent, but for road noise. Higher speeds and more competitive driving, such as punching it down the m-way to get places on time through moderate traffic, require a lot more 'work' - just like driving a van for business. You can still be the fastest thing on the road, on aggregate, just about, but be prepared to turn the stereo right up (it gets LOUD - half the power above 4000rpm must go to noise) and languish in the middle lane from time to time building up a head of steam. Still, it can be an entertaining drive, particularly on back roads, if you lower your standards a bit - and drive it like a techno-sadist nutter.
It's the ability of this car to take such punishment that's so impressive. If the Fiat Punto I used to borrow was driven in the same manner I do the Polo, with the same regularity, it would be in pieces within weeks and 1500 miles tops (doing it just once smoked the brakes, damaged the clutch and caused the engine to pop and miss). The Volkswagen however just -takes it- like it was the most natural thing in the world. Incredible bit of over-engineering. You can run for 200 miles down the motorway in 3rd & 4th, or across country through 2nd-3rd and occasionally 4th, with the throttles locked wide open apart from braking, and quickchanging, and it won't complain... well... not yet it hasn't... after 8000 miles of such treatment without even an oil change yet ("next week, I promise"). And that's just the drivetrain and brakes (weak, but resilient), the rest of the frame and other parts are just as hardwearing.
What does suffer from such treatment is the economy, though it never becomes chronic. If you can keep a lid on it, or are having a relaxed day, a 60-65 cruise journey can turn in a very good 50-55mpg economy (possibly reaching 60 with a constant 50-55?). However the usual state of affairs any time I've checked it though has been around 35mpg with a mix of treatment, with the occasional run of 40, which for a 1-litre isn't so good. However on the full-on motorway runs the consumption doesn't seem to dip below 30mpg with only moderate loading, which is good :)
Handling isn't the best in the world, eg not as sticky and sharp as a Punto, but it does the trick. Very "safe" understeer type setup and somewhat soft suspension; however the engine doesn't seem to have enough juice to be able to push the car beyond what can be dealt with, and you can happily fling it down twisting, bouncy country roads as fast as you feel safe, or chirp the tyres around roundabouts on full lock (understeering like crazy - but predicatably) with a fair bit of confidence. The only time it feels a bit unsettled or near the limit is flying through some twisting motorway/dual carriageway downhills at 90+...
Helping this is the steering, which is almost uniformly light, despite being a totally unassisted bog-standard rack and pinion with all the weight of the engine between the wheels. Perhaps it's low displacement helps.. rarely a parking problem, and once you're moving in 2nd gear a single palm is sufficient to steer much like you had a forklift knob fitted.
Brakes. Less said the better. They have servo assistance at least, which is a blessing, but the rear setup is either rubbish - bearing in mind it was effectively brand new a couple miles after the car was bought - or mine is chronically out of adjustment. Little wonder the front pads and even the discs have worn so fast. Handbrake has trouble keeping it in place on steep slopes. It may be a problem of the tyres though, or even it's lack of weight, as it's possible to lock up accidentally when pegging the pedal in a non-emergency situation.. Definately a car that teaches you to brake early, leave distance, and gear down if needed.
What else can be said.. maintainance is a total pig. Simple things like changing a tyre, checking and topping up the fluids are no bother at all. Anything more complex than that usually requires taking the day off. Even removing the air filter and intake can be longwinded and painful if you don't have gloves - and this (and consequent total removal of the air intake manifold) is usually the first step in any topside procedures.. including the otherwise simple process of changing spark plugs! (The oil breather had better not prove to be essential, as the complexity and expense of sorting it out has prevented me getting it fixed since it was picked up at the last MOT/Service - 8 months and 8000 miles ago). Getting it jacked up is horrendously difficult as well. If you're aiming to put it up on a pair of axle stands, you may find that it keeps toppling off of one stand while you try to raise the other side, because of the tiny and oddly shaped jack points, whilst you simultaneously bend the underbody seams into odd and easily rusting shapes by having to jack it in a different place to where the stand will go. Oddest of all, replacing the clutch cable looked to be really complex - but turned out to be insanely simple.
The only good thing in this regard is that VW have gone to the thoughtful length of providing a -full size- spare wheel instead of one of those pitiful max-50mph excuses for a replacement. Which also means a usable jack and some kind of tyre iron can be stowed in the same place.
Safety and security features are pretty much non existant. Protecting you from death and injury are, in order: Seat belts. Safety glass.. probably. And the inherent strength of the body frame, which is probably quite considerable (most panels and pieces appear a lot thicker than on rivals) but doesn't seem to be reinforced at all e.g. by side impact bars or well designed crumple zones.
Protecting the car from people who think it's or the contents belong to them and they've lost the key are.. Glass. Metal. And simple, fairly screwdriverable locks. Plus in my personal case, the 10-year vintage stoplock (half the paint missing) and a semi-deactivated Moss alarm. The little LED on the dash still works, if I connect a battery to it. The alarm itself is still present, but long broken. If you're concerned about safety and security on a stock Mk3 Polo, either buy something different, or budget for buying some large soft pillows to tie to the bumper and fill the cabin, and a large length of chain, much clingfilm (to make the windows unbreakable and the doors unopenable) and a really big padlock.
Lights are pretty good. No 3rd brake light or wraparound style rear clusters as seen these days, but rear lamps are large and bright (only one reverser and one fog though). Headlamps are excellent, I've heard people complain about VW heads before; they can't have driven Fiats, Citroens or Renaults before then :) No troubles about the strength of either dips or full beams, though I occasionally take advantage of a little trick with the wiring and lock the two on together. Driving lamps would be nice but totally unneccessary. What I have added though are cheap aftermarket fog lamps as the dipped lights are horrible in fog. It appears small ones like Microlines go well in the inner air inlets of the bumper - of course, they turned out to be very difficult to fit! (more fool me, I decided to be law abiding and only set them to come on with the dipped headlamps.. and so they're not very much use other than for appearance until I can figure out what connection to short.
A last set of niggles.. it steams up far too easily. The screens can be cleared without much bother, and the front windows can be wound down (in winter..!) but the rear windows, front quarterlights, and all three mirrors suddenly go from being clear or reflective to totally opaque for upto 30 minutes from setting off. The mirrors themselves are a bit hard to adjust, and the steering wheel can't be adjusted at all ;) The rear seat only folding rather than splitting is a bit of a pain. And the VW-supplied stereo and speakers, if you're "lucky" enough to find one with one, are simply rubbish. Budget for getting a replacement head unit at least, and if you can afford it a cheap set of new speakers (to go in the rear - the fronts are an odd size that cost at least £60 to replace) with some bass-cut capacitors for the fronts. Installation can be easily DIY'd unless you're really bad with electronics, thanks to the high up position and simple construction of the dash, the only problem may be easily finding ways to invisibly route the wires to the rear shelves.
Oh. And the insurance is just a little high. Nothing dreadful, but something like this really should be in group 2 or 3 rather than 4, for a good £50-100 saving on the policy of many who'll be driving them. (Personal - 21yo male, suburban NW wales address in a low crime town, clean record and 3 years onroad - £550 3rdparty fire & theft. not bad.. but almost the purchase price again)
In summary... it's not an easy fix, but it's a very easy drive. Maybe not always rapid to pull from a standstill, but goes well enough after that, keeping up with traffic 98% of the time. Easy gearshifting (for all it's wear and other faults, the actual gear action feels *absolutely perfect*), easy braking, easy steering, comfortable seat and driving position, soft, but not stodgy suspension, good visibility and mirrors, easy operation of all other controls... etc... it's rarely much effort except when you need to get the damn thing moving at high speed :)
In fact, with a few tweaks and polishes to iron out all the tiny little troubles, a doubling of power (the latest 1.4 VW engine should easily suffice!), a sunroof and/or AC, better safety, security and a decent 5-speed or automatic gearbox, and either easier fixing or a dealer repair plan this could be pretty much the ideal hassle-free small car. :D Hmm, I wonder what the modern Polos are like in that respect, they haven't bloated anything like the Golfs.