Appealing pair are cruelly hard to choose between
I would argue that the Volkswagen Polo is a highly under-rated car. It's VW's entry-level model here and often is overshadowed by the Golf, but it's actually a fantastic little machine: slick, well-built, fun-to-drive.
The Polo lends its underpinnings to the posh Audi A1, so we're talking about a very well sorted super-mini, especially in 1.2-litre TSI form, with a big-performing little turbo engine.
All the Polo needs to be a real attention-grabber is extra sex appeal. The new R-line dress-up package may take care of that. It's a factory kit of new-design bumpers, sill extensions and spoiler, 17-inch alloys, different interior trims, a nicely shaped sports steering wheel and touch-screen audio. All things considered, it adds crucial desirability to the Polo. As it should, for the $3750 R-Line package takes the Polo TSI to $33,500.
That's climbing towards Mini Cooper-money. Mini: the car that put "desirable" and "super-mini" in the same sentence in the first place.
The Cooper is always a great benchmark for small-car personality and fun, so how does the Polo compare?
The R-Line makes Polo that little bit special but, of course, the Mini is a master of accessorisation. The brand rolls out many special-edition models. The car here is the latest: to a standard $36,200 Mini Cooper, the Baker Street adds a comprehensive package of special colour and trim, leather/cloth upholstery, satellite navigation and 16-inch alloy wheels. Closing price: $39,900.
Interesting, although that extra spend puts the Mini in Polo GTI price territory, so let's not get too caught up in the extra toys. Because neither the Cooper nor Polo TSI are about high performance: they're about small-capacity engines with character, city driving with chic.
The two engines demonstrate different approaches. The Mini's 1.6-litre powerplant delivers 90kW/160Nm, with a six-speed manual gearbox. The Polo's 1.2-litre turbo produces much less power but exactly the same torque: 66kW/160Nm. The VW's gearbox is an energetic, robotised, seven-speed, dual-clutch unit with normal and sport modes, plus a manual-hold shift gate.
Naturally, the Mini is quicker to 100km/h: 9.1 seconds versus 10.9 for the Polo. But if you make the Mini an automatic there's only half a second between them and the Polo's torque delivery and slick transmission give it just as much get-up-and-go - if not more. The Polo's powertrain is perfect. Lots of verve and so much fun: in sport mode the DSG even blips the throttle on downchanges.
The Mini's reputation for entertaining handling is well-deserved. By comparison, the Polo feels a little vacant in the steering and soft in the suspension. But Polo has superior ride and while it rolls around more in fast cornering, it telegraphs each change in attitude clearly to the driver. The Mini's chassis is very sporty, but the Polo's is still very sophisticated.
Inside, the Mini is a riot of colour and shape - what you expect. The Polo is predictable, too - corporate-VW and dark tones, with deeply impressive quality and attention to detail. The Mini is an entertaining place to be; with the Polo, you feel more a sense of appreciation.
You expect a Mini to provoke an emotional response and the Baker Street does that. But, surprisingly, the Polo R-Line does the same - in its own way. Trust us, these are two swingin' German small cars.
The bottom line
If you want the ultimate super-mini fashion statement or to do some fast cornering, it's the Mini. But Polo R-Line has a more entertaining powertrain, a more subtle kind of chic and superb build quality. It wins.