When blue means green
Volkswagen’s thrifty Polo BlueMotion adds a new dimension to the debate over fuel economy and the environment.
In essence, this turbodiesel supermini is a powerful counter to the petrol/electric hybrids that are more costly to both make and, at life’s end, are inevitably dearer to dispose of. Not only is this special version of VW’s supermini the most economical car sold in New Zealand, it also produces the lowest emissions.
In a normal mixture of driving, the 45-litre tank is good for around 800 kilometres, and you could expect to top 1000km on an open road run. The official combined fuel test is a remarkable 3.8 litres/100km – that’s 74mpg – although that’s not a real world figure.
However, even with the standard climate control air conditioning switched on during a hot Auckland summer’s day, we achieved an impressive 4.0 litres/100km (70.6mpg) on an easy rural drive. And in a mixture of city and open road travel, the VW averaged 5.4 litres/100km (52.3mpg) while emitting lower CO2 emissions than a Toyota or Honda hybrid. The thing is you can drive a Polo BlueMotion hard, especially on the open road, and still achieve good fuel results whereas hybrids invite quiet, restrained motoring to produce good results.
Whether you’re into saving fuel or the atmosphere, this frugal Polo still represents cheap motoring. Yet do the sums before deciding if the 1.4-litre diesel BlueMotion is your cup of tea, or if this car is really being kind to your pocket. At $30,990, the BlueMotion is a not-so cool $7000 more expensive than a 1.4-litre petrol Polo, which produces the same 59kW of power. The diesel’s 195Nm of torque is 48 per cent higher than the petrol version’s, although that doesn’t necessarily translate into a better driving experience.
At 12.8 seconds, the diesel BlueMotion’s 0-100kph time is about half a second slower bjut the 176kph top speed is virtually identical.
But here’s the crunch. The difference in the retail prices of the two Polos will buy 73 tankfuls of petrol at today’s $2.12 a litre. Based on a fair average consumption of 7.2 litres/100km (39mpg) for the petrol car means you will have spent less money driving the petrol Polo for the first 57,000km. In typical small car terms, that’s equivalent to around four years of motoring and by that time you may have decided to move on to something else.
Unless annual operating distances are lengthy, the merits of running a BlueMotion are questionable, particularly as there are penalties associated with this economical car. The three-cylinder, 1422cc engine’s variable geometry turbo is set to provide maximum assistance at low speed. Lower emissions are, of course, a consequence of the more efficient diesel engine compression cycle but with more particulates in the exhaust emissions a particulate filter is now fitted.
VW has specified extremely tall gearing for the BlueMotion. At 100kph in fifth, the engine is pulling a mere 1800 revs, increasing to 2400rpm in fourth and 3500 in third gear. The 10.2 seconds needed to accelerate from 50 to 80kph in fourth gear is halved when third is used. A different driving style is required, holding on longer to the indirect gears and allowing for the fact that around town the car is slow off the mark. Use too many revs and there’s an abrupt transition in engine power delivery, meaning progress isn’t always smooth and progressive.
In town, the Polo BlueMotion is a three-speeder, with fourth or fifth gears too high for the modest speeds. At 50kph in third, the engine is spinning at less than 1800rpm. During heavy traffic, we encountered engine “shunting” on and off light throttle openings. The BlueMotion Polo is an obvious example of why motor manufacturers don’t fit high gearing across the board in the quest for lower fuel consumption. For many motorists the lack of urge and response is enough to turn them off high-geared fuel misers.
VW’s agricultural-sounding diesel rattles loudly at idle and is rather harsh under load. Noise levels are most pronounced at slower speeds. Conversely, it seemed much happier cruising at brisk open road speeds in relative mechanical silence. Peak torque is realised between 1800 and 2200rpm, and when the motor is kept around this rev range, the car is responsive and quite energetic.
Running on five-stud fixing, 14-inch, 165/70 low-resistance tyres and sports suspension, this car isn’t a great driving experience, with somewhat lifeless electromechanical steering, average handling and standard disc/drum brakes. Yet the ride is good, despite suspension set 10mm lower than standard.
Although the front seats are shapeless, we had no complaints about the generous interior space and rear seat legroom, the excellent finish and functional dashboard. Instead of a split folding rear seat, a one-piece backrest flips forward. An illuminated vanity mirror, relaxing blue dashboard lighting with red markers, electric windows front and rear and ABS with brake assist are standard. Spot the 3.9-metre long BlueMotion by the enclosed body-colour grille, discreet rear spoiler and careful reshaping of front and rear bumpers.
Silver door mirrors contain integral turn signals, and the side rubbing strips, door handles, bumpers, rear spoiler and grille insert are all colour-keyed. Pay an additional $500 for metallic paint, and $800 for curtain airbags.
Why BlueMotion? Blue is the Volkswagen colour, symbolising water and sky – both elements to be protected. Motion is forward-looking mobility. Price-wise, the Polo TDi diesel sits mid-way between the 1.4 petrol and BlueMotion versions, and it’s a model you’d have to consider when sizing up Polo options.
In Germany, VW offers a bewildering array of Polo models, with 14 choices of engines, including nine diesels. Understandably the array of models for the small New Zealand market is much more subdued.
Despite our reservations, European Motor Distributors is to be applauded for offering BlueMotion models – cars that clearly set a good example even if they fail to generate big sales.