Driven: VW Polo BlueMotion

We at VWvortex have long been enamored of the Polo, so when we heard one of the superefficient BlueMotion variety would be making a special visit to the US, we knew we had to get acquainted with the best of both worlds — the forbidden hot hatch and its game-changing, Stateside-bound engineering.

The term “BlueMotion” has been tossed around a lot recently, since VW is heavily promoting clean diesel technology (“Blue” jointly symbolizing Volkswagen and the earth’s elements, “Motion” representing forward mobility). The Polo BlueMotion and Passat BlueMotion were brought to American soil as a part of Volkswagen’s Dieselution Tour, traveling cross-country alongside several upcoming US-market TDI cars. (The tour concluded in February, but more information can be found here.)

The Polo is noteworthy because it exemplifies the BlueMotion initiative; not only is it the flagship BlueMotion vehicle, it’s recognized in Europe as one of the most efficient and economical cars available, capable of achieving 75 mpg highway and an average of 60 mpg. A diesel particulate filter and re-engineered catalytic converter also contribute to the BlueMotions’ eco-friendly objective. And the most impressive — and influential — part? Mileage gains are achieved through traditional means instead of expensive hybrids, fuel cells, and other experimental technology. VW says the magic combination is the 3-cylinder direct injection 80 hp turbodiesel engine, the tall-geared five-speed manual transmission, and optimized aerodynamics.

As of this publication, the BlueMotions are en route back to Germany, but we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to spend time with this 2398-pound wonder. After a bit of sweet-talking (okay, nagging) VW invited us to Auburn Hills to give the BlueMotions a proper farewell.

The fourth generation Polo is dated by European standards — the platform hit the market in 2002 — but it still looks minty fresh on American soil. The Ice Age finish, a pale metallic aqua, is a clean backdrop to showcase the aerodynamic-focused aesthetics. A 2005 facelift by famed designer Walter de’Silva (of the second-gen Audi TT and the New Scirocco) incorporated sharp yet functional touches such as Passat-style headlights and a new hatch. The square rear end is balanced by rounded taillamps; the only unfortunate element is the chunky grab handle on the hatch, which predated the MKV Golf’s emblem hatch release by several years. BlueMotion-specific elements include a front spoiler, rounded block-off grille insert, and angular hatch spoiler, all designed and engineered to improve airflow based on calculations from wind tunnel tests. Overall, it’s quite a charming little package, purposeful yet earnest — imagine a Honda Fit Sport with slightly milder lines and a generous splash of VW’s je ne sais quois.

Although the interior is another tribute to economy’s charm, the cockpit betrays the car’s size. The cabin feels nearly as roomy and solid as a MKV Rabbit, and just as comfortable. Backseat space is tight, but there is plenty of headroom. Three-tone seats add a playful yet strangely sterile feel, thanks to the incorporation of bright aqua waffle-weave material that vaguely recalls a hospital gown (VW calls this Polo-exclusive interior trim package “Popcorn”). Controls, instruments and accoutrements are similar to North American-market cars, including the familiar blue and red gauge cluster lighting. The cluster includes a fuel consumption readout, enabling BlueMotion drivers to indulge in a bit of self-congratulatory celebration. Safety was not compromised for the purposes of weight reduction; standard features include front and side airbags and ABS with braking assist.

The front brake rotors are aided by a set of rear drums that stand out like a sore thumb; after all, rotors just seem more clean, modern, economical and efficient. But drum brakes weigh less than the rotor and caliper combo, and the Polo does not suffer for this sacrifice; the pedals give firm feedback as the car comes quickly to a stop. The BlueMotion features exclusive 14” Jerez alloy wheels, fitted with Dunlop tires engineered for low rolling resistance.

The economy-minded transmission results in noticeably long throws, especially between first and second gears. Shifter action was a bit loose (but we hear the Polo was a favorite amongst VW staffers throughout its US visit, and we can’t hold that against them). The constant shifting is laborious, but rewarding. The low displacement makes for slow going until the boost kicks in, but upon reaching 2200 rpm, the Polo becomes a little beast with the TDI’s distinctive growl. It accelerates quickly and moves seamlessly amongst traffic; the firm, responsive clutch pedal is a pleasure. A few laps around Auburn Hills demonstrated that constant shifting is essential to stay within peak power, as boost (and therefore momentum) plummets as a consequence of even a minor drop in engine speed. Our romp was entertaining, but regular driving in dense traffic, and the resulting nonstop shifts, could erode the novelty. This is not a lazy man’s car; no automatic option is available. As VW spokesman Keith Price explained, “It’s fun, but Americans are not ready for a car you have to drive with your foot on the floor.”

In need of a few minutes’ easy driving, we hit the highway. Even amongst semis and SUVs, the Polo feels confident and secure. Top speed is a modest 109 mph, but arriving there is a blast. We clocked a 0-60 time of 12.6 seconds (which is nearly identical to VW’s official figure of 12.8 seconds from 0-100 km/h). We’d love to provide a 0-100 time, but we ran out of open road (and it would have killed our fuel economy, anyway).

Parked alongside the Polo, the Passat Variant is particularly unassuming; it looks like a US-spec B6 wagon, only the subtle BlueMotion emblem on the tailgate sets it apart. The Passat version of the BlueMotion drivetrain produces 105 hp, a considerable yet honorable cut in power from the US-market 200 and 280 hp gassers.

The hefty wagon delivered a respectable 0-60 time of 13.6 seconds, but back-to-back with the sprightly Polo, the sacrifices for fuel economy are much more obvious. While the Polo compensates for modest power through playful banter with the driver, the Passat offers little of that interaction. It wasn’t nearly as peppy, though we’d hesitate to slap it with a harsher descriptor. After all, the Passat Variant BlueMotion achieves its objectives — every element of its design is for fuel economy, not performance. Its benefits are found not only in the economically- and environmentally-friendly innovation, but that it achieves those ends while remaining a familiar family car with the level of comfort to which US car buyers are accustomed.

By the time you’re reading this, there are no BlueMotions in the country; the Polo and Passat we drove are back home in Germany, but the 2009 Jetta TDIs will be available late this summer. The new US-spec TDIs will use particulate filters and special catalysts to scrub pollutants from their exhaust, and the system works so well that the new TDIs will be available in every state — even those with more stringent regulations like California. They’ll do this, we’d like to add, without the use of special additives or treatments like other companies’ “clean” diesels require.

In the Jetta, the new engine is rated at 140 hp and 235 lb.-ft. of torque — nearly as much power as the first 1.8Ts — and while the mileage numbers aren’t in yet, VW says we should expect a 30-percent increase in fuel economy over existing gas-powered models. We’ll have a chance to drive them later this summer, and you’ll be the first to read about it at VWvortex.

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