As I was emptying a spare backpack last week, out fell my misplaced notebook from our trip to Iceland last February. Thus, I can finally share my experience with one of the highlights of any of my travels, the rental car!
As you may know from my previous musings, when we travel, my wife happily plans the itinerary and I seemingly spend just as much time trying to find an interesting (to me) rental car.
Iceland is different in that they have a very short summer season (circa two months) and when traveling within that season rental cars are almost prohibitively expensive as we found the last time we were there. This time we’d be there in the middle of winter so affordable choices were much more widely available.
Since it would just be the two of us, we didn’t need a large car, and being a fan of VW products I thought the Polo would be a good fit. Not sold in the US or Canada, this had the bonus of me being able to write about some “forbidden fruit” and pondering if perhaps VW was leaving money on the table by not offering it stateside.
So after exhaustively weighing all of the options I reserved one with Budget Rent-A-Car of Iceland after making sure it would be a stick shift and equipped with winter tires.
We arrived in Iceland at Keflavik Int’l Airport in Iceland at around 7:00am. After getting our bags we made our way to the rental car counter where (inevitably) the upsell began.
Wouldn’t we perhaps be more comfortable in something larger? Perhaps a 4WD for the winter conditions? Navigation System? I skipped all the offers and stuck to the plan with the Polo.
We received our keys and exited the terminal to find the car which was easier said than done as it was A) pitch black outside and B) there were many white Polos in the lot which was covered with snow (so no marked spots) and C) rental cars in foreign countries often don’t have keyfobs with powerlocks and alarms to trigger when searching.
We spent about ten minutes trudging around in the cold looking for a Polo with the correct license plate. Eventually we found it, opened the hatch, dropped our bags in, looked for prior damage (none), got in, started it up, and cranked the heater.
Upon leaving the airport we started to follow the directions to Reykjavik. The roads were mostly dry and plowed so we had no issues beyond the fact that it was still pitch black outside and we didn’t really have a good map that showed our route.
However we somehow remembered the way to the city center from the summer before last (it’s not that big of a city once you’re in it) and found our hotel, parked the car and checked in. Curiously (8:30am) it was still dark, upon inquiring, we realized that we were so far north that it would not get light until after 10am in the morning at that time of year.
So, the VW Polo. Back when I was a kid in Germany the Polo started out as being a badge-engineered version of the Audi 50; most people assume the opposite.
Over the last forty years and now well into its fifth generation, the Polo was traditionally VW’s smallest water-cooled model, but in more recent years first the Lupo and currently the Up (stylized as ” up!”) have supplanted it in that role.
As with many car models, the Polo has grown over the years, the current model is now almost exactly the same size as a Mk2 VW Golf (the one we received in the US between 1985 and 1992).
Ours was of course the base model, in white, equipped with a 1-liter three-cylinder engine and a 5-speed manual transmission. Thus equipped, the engine puts out a not quite thunderous 60HP @ 5000rpm and 70 lb-ft of torque at 3000rpm.
Thankfully it only weighs 2320 pounds but still, this is not a large amount of power. And it is not turbocharged, this is a naturally aspirated engine. As with most cars in developed nations nowadays, stability control and a plethora of airbags are standard. A nice bonus is a “hill-holder” feature, wherein if you are starting on a slope, upon releasing the brake the car remains motionless until you feed the clutch in, eliminating roll-back.
The Polo is of course available with much higher levels of power if so desired. However, equipped the way we had it, it didn’t feel fast, but it felt fast enough if that makes sense. The engine was eager, rev-happy, and torquey in that way familiar to anyone who has owned an 80’s watercooled VW. While there were times we perhaps briefly wished for more power, it just gave us a bit more time to enjoy our surroundings.
The car did have enough power to spin the tires from a stop. To be honest, the roads were extremely cold and the winter tires (175/70-14) were from some Chinese off-brand I had never heard of, but still. Officially, the performance figures for this version are 0-62mph in 15.5 seconds with a top speed of 100mph. (0-50mph takes just over ten seconds, suggesting that as speeds rise, power wanes considerably, that extra 12mph takes an extra five seconds! But for in-town usage, that level of acceleration is fine.)
Inside, the layout was typically VW functional. The seat backs were marvelously bolstered (like an old GTI) but lacking in lumbar support. While I was snugly comfortable side to side, it felt like my lower back was riding in the backseat and no, there was no adjustment for it.
The dash was laid out in a no-nonsense way and the radio had a small touchscreen with knobs and buttons underneath it and to our surprise and delight it was Bluetooth capable so our phones hooked up easily and thus we had our own music.
Being the bottom of the line, the inside of the window frames were painted metal visible from inside and the plastics were mostly hard. Then again, it all seemed extremely durable and not as cheap as it could have been, certainly better than that Mk2 Golf it emulated size-wise as well as the current competition, especially as regards fabric selection for the seats. One advantage of visiting Iceland in the winter is that there is very little motivation to lower the windows, hence the manual winders were of no consequence.
The cargo area had one of those hard luggage covers that hatchback VW’s tend to favor with the shoelace-like strings attached to the hatch so that it lifted and lowered in unison. We each had a large roller bag and while the rear seats folded flat to accommodate them both, the trunk is lower than the seats which presented about a 3” lip.
This did make it difficult to load the (heavy) suitcases without removing the luggage cover as you had to heft it down into the trunk and then forward over that lip. Thankfully it was just the two of us this time, I tend to be guilty of overestimating the size of rental cars and underestimating the size of my family and luggage. If, however, one were going to the grocery store or elsewhere, the car can easily accommodate four people in the seats and a multitude of bags in the cargo area.
While we spent a fair amount of our time in Reykjavik and walked around (Curbside Classics chronicled here), we also drove the Polo all over the western side of Iceland, retracing a lot of our steps from the last time we visited in summer (Here you go) and marveling at how different (but still or perhaps even more beautiful) it all looked with snow and ice.
There were a lot fewer tourists (obviously) but while cold, it was not really any worse than at home in Colorado; we were pleasantly surprised that we coped just fine in our regular winter gear.
The Polo was great, the engine made a little grumbling noise that was welcome, and it returned just over 40mpg in our fairly aggressive driving. The suspension was stiff but forgiving, rounding corners it would take a set and hold its position and big bumps were dispatched with a single thump and no wallow.
All the while, the heater pumped heat like a little wood-burning stove, the defroster melted the ice on the windows quickly, and the car didn’t miss a beat.
Do I think it could sell over here? Perhaps, after all there are a number of other similarly sized cars on the market. Price would be a potential issue, I suppose if they built it in Mexico it could become competitive, it is already currently built in seven different plants worldwide.
There actually is a Polo sedan sold in Mexico that is produced in India of all places, but other plants are located in Spain and South Africa among others. My understanding is that last year total sales of the various Polo lines was well over 700,000 worldwide.
However I don’t think the 1.0 liter engine would work for the power-hungry American market. Iceland’s highest national speed limit is about 55mph (which many people exceed) but imagining myself driving to Denver on I-25 with an 80mph average flow would make me nervous. Then again, back in 1998 I rented an Opel Corsa 3-cylinder in Belgium and for a week drove that all over Germany’s Autobahns at top speed (again, 100mph) and generally just required a bit more planning and situational awareness if one wanted to pass.
As a primarily in-city car it’s fine as is, but otherwise likely would need one of the larger and/or turbocharged optional engines to have a realistic chance of success over here. Still, there are models such as the Polo GTI and the CrossPolo (picture a Polo Outback) that could have a following, with price being a large factor, of course.
Pretty much any of the existing VW 4-cylinder turbo engines would fit (and most are already used in various other markets) so a perceived lack of power would not necessarily be an issue at all.
We enjoyed the Polo, it got us around reliably, safely, and very efficiently. Our total cost of $146 for a five day rental was a bargain for Iceland and not terrible for other places either. We’d happily rent one again and encourage anyone else traveling outside of North America to try one as well – as long as you have no more than two people and their luggage and perhaps a small lumbar pillow.