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A spotter's guide to the Volkswagen Polo

The Volkswagen Polo has been the model that has given several generations a way of getting into the VW fold. Ruggedly dependable, fun to drive and immensely practical, they do everything a small car should and they do it very well indeed.

Not only that, the humble small Veedub has dominated in motorsport, too. So you can’t say it doesn’t pack a punch. 

As of 2018, there have been six generations of Polo, but how do you start to work out which one is which? With this spotter’s guide, of course! 

The Mk1

The Mk1 

Built from 1975 to 1981

It’s hard to believe, but the Polo has indeed been with us since the 1970s. Though the first-generation car didn’t start life as a Volkswagen, it was actually an Audi. Namely the Audi 50. The Polo was a much more basic vehicle, and had the goal of getting a generation motoring firmly in mind. And it worked.

Despite being nothing more than four wheels, an engine and some seats, the fist Polo sold incredibly well. How well? How does 500,000 by 1979 grab you? It was only available with three petrol engines (895cc, 1,093cc and 1,272cc) but that was more than enough for the masses. 

You’ll have a job spotting one, as there are not many left thanks to rust and old age. But if you do, the round single headlights are a giveaway, as are the thin front and rear bumpers with inbuilt indicators. Also, the rear side windows have a small kick up at the rear. Also, they only ever had three doors. 

Polo fact: The Mk1 Polo was also available as a two-door saloon, known as a Derby.

The Mk2

The Mk2

Built from 1981 to 1994

With sales booming, Volkswagen had to get the second Polo right, so when it unveiled the odd-looking ‘bread van’ version in 1981, we were a little confused. However, we needn’t have been. Volkswagen knew what it was doing, because the square oddity was a brilliantly practical little car.

Though it could still be had as a two-door saloon, or a more traditional three-door hatch for those who weren’t brave enough for the small estate-esque version. VW also added more engines to the line-up, including two naturally-aspirated diesels.  

To spot one, you’re looking for those round headlights again, and in the case of the most common Mk2, a very sudden, flat rear end.

The rear arches trail off into the line of the rear bumper, while the front bumpers went to black, again with in-built indicators. Though you can change that for deep plastic bumpers and square lights in the case of the 1990 facelift. 

Polo fact: VW made a hot version of the Mk2 hatch – the supercharged G40

Get our VW Polo Mk2 Manual

The Mk3

The Mk3 

Built from 1994 to 2002

The Mk3 was a solid little thing. It was also the first time the Polo was available with five doors, as well as a four-door saloon and also an estate. As such it satisfied the needs of many a buyer. It was built on an all-new chassis, which was shared with the Seat Ibiza.

And all-new 1.0 engine was added to the line-up, along with a 1.4 16v engine and 1.9 diesel with or without a turbo. The build quality improved massively, too, with the Polo feeling very solid and very stout, despite being the baby of the Volkswagen range. 

To spot one, look for deep, body-coloured bumpers, a tall profile with a window line that rises toward the rear of the car, a flat rear end and a clean front, on which the leading edge of the bonnet caps the grille with body-coloured surround along with the rectangular headlights. 

Polo fact: This model brought with it a GTi version, which packed 125bhp and a six-speed gearbox. 

Get our VW Polo Mk3 Manual

The MkIV

The Mk4

Built from 2002 to 2009

Things went a bit downhill for the Polo with the Mk4. Given the impressive history of the car, it should have been a world beater, but in reality, it was plagued with reliability issues and many a report of an unhelpful dealer.

Based around the same platform as the Skoda Fabia of the time, the Polo found itself losing sales to the Skoda. Good for the VW group as a whole, but bad for VW individually. Happily, VW got it together in the end, but it was touch and go for a while. 

To spot a Mk4, you need to look for twin front headlights, with the inner lights smaller than the outer. The rear was still flat, though the rear winder did lean into the car slightly.

Also, the rear lights are easily identifiable by the inner circles within the design. In the case of the 2005 facelift, look for Golf-like single unit headlights. 

Polo fact: This model was available in BlueMotion trim, which thanks to the economical engine and aerodynamic aids, could achieve 74.3mpg.

Get our VW Polo Mk4 Manual

The MkV

The Mk5

Built from 2009 to 2017

The Mk5 saw the Polo getting itself together, so much so that it was declared the European Car of the Year in 2010. And why wouldn’t it be? It was built with class-leading quality, it had adopted a look and feel of the more premium Golf and thanks to a range of engines including frugal three-cylinder diesel options, it was a belter.

Sadly though, the reputation of Volkswagen was dragged through the mud, taking all models with it, thanks to the global scandal of ‘dieselgate’ in which cars were reported to have been doctored to give different economy figures. 

To spot a Mk5, you’re looking for a sharp, sleek, miniature Golf. The arches are more sculpted, the bumpers are blended into the bodywork better and the rear windows feature a little kick right at the back. The headlights are single, rectangular units that pull back slightly into the wings. 

Polo fact: The Mk5 Polo was the car that, in rally guise, made Sebastien Ogier the World Rally champion.

Get our VW Polo Mk5 Manual

The Mk6

Built from 2017 to present 

The sixth-generation Polo was released last summer and has been a popular seller for the big German brand. More refined still, and with a far more evident ‘big car’ feel, the current Polo is popular with a huge cross-section of motorists.

As you would expect give the diesel scandal, VW is keen to put emphasis on the frugal petrol engines such as the three-cylinder 1.0 options, and even the 1.0 natural gas version.

Though there are still diesel options, should you want one. Inside, it’s tech-aplenty thanks to the VW Active Info Digital Display, Bluetooth connectivity and digital climate control. 

To spot on, look for a window line that cuts under the wing mirrors and dips lower then the windscreen’s lower edge. Also, the headlight and grille have a unified look, with the VW badge proudly positioned in the middle.

Also, there is a swage line that runs the length of the car, just above the door handles. 

Polo fact: Volkswagen is rumoured to be working on a saloon version of the MkVI known as the Virtus.