Last week, my brother and I were in a ski town in southern Germany looking for something to do. So we rented the cheapest car we could get our hands on, which ended up being a Volkswagen Polo with a tiny 64-horsepower engine. Here’s what it was like driving that thing through the Alps.
To me, the Volkswagen Polo is the quintessential car of Germany. Like many cars there, it’s a hatchback, and for good reason. It’s small enough to snake through tight city streets and parking lots, but large enough inside to fit a typical 3.5-person family. And it’s powered by a hilariously small engine that makes spending $5 per gallon almost feasible.
You see the Polo pretty much everywhere in Germany, but usually right in front of me in the left lane of the Autobahn crawling along at about 70 MPH, trying desperately to overtake a tractor trailer as I—rapidly approaching—hold my foot hard against my brake pedal in an effort to avoid an inelastic collision.
So yes, I knew the Polo wasn’t going to be powerful well before the rental car agent handed over the keys. But when I got behind the wheel and actually asked the handsome little three-cylinder machine to do some work, I was still astounded by the Polo’s lack of desire to move forward at any velocity that wasn’t either the current velocity or slower. Admittedly, this sentiment may be shaped by the fact that I’m used to U.S.-market new cars.
Before we get into why driving a 64-horsepower car over alpine passes is a bad idea, let’s look at what this car is. It’s a rental-spec VW Polo with basically no options other than a touchscreen radio and air conditioning, which are bundled as a package. That’s pretty much the most important option to choose on this car anyway, if only to avoid having an interior with a giant useless black panel in the center of the dash. Seriously, this looks bad:
Ahead of the dashboard is a five-speed manual transmission mated to a 1.0-liter inline three making 64 horsepower at 5,100 RPM and 70 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 RPM. I’m pretty sure that’s less grunt than any mainstream car sold in the U.S. today. Even the sad Mitsubishi Mirage and Smart ForTwo make more power, and they’re both appreciably lighter than the roughly 2,450 pound Polo. Look at this absolute glory:
The VW’s interior is actually fairly decent, though. I do wish there were a bit more color to spice up the dreariness, but the cloth seats are comfortable, the electric front windows are automatic-down, the dash and gauge layout is fine. (I’d prefer a speedometer that didn’t start in increments of 10 and then transition to increments of 20, and finish up 60 MPH higher than the car’s possible top speed, but that’s nitpicking.)
One quirk I liked was the little parking garage card slot in front of the shifter—it’s small, but useful, especially in Europe, where free parking in city centers is often non-existent.
The back seat had enough room for our backpacks and snow gear, and probably would have fit two adults fine, and three for short distances. The windows in the back were manual roll-downers—a fine compromise, since most people drive alone usually—but oddly there was no dome lamp, so in a dark parking garage I couldn’t see things that I dropped into the the rear footwell. I’m not sure why a rear dome lamp isn’t standard.
The car actually looks good considering it probably costs around $17,500, if I had to guess based on the options. Like the inside, I think it tries too hard to be “grown up,” and forgoes any attempts to look fun, but some people—especially Germans—are into that more elegant, reserved thing, so I get it.
(Editor’s note: this is a lie. Germans love tchotchkes and flair, and forever live in shame of them, trying to emulate a more dour image of themselves that they made up. Only one country could give us Bauhaus and garden gnomes.)
If I were to buy a Polo, this is probably how I’d have mine optioned up, except with some alloys instead of steel wheels with hubcaps.
I haven’t driven a more powerful model of the one-step-down-from-a-Golf, but yes, I’d be fine picking up the baby 64 horsepower engine, but only because I’m a sick, sick man. Because somehow I enjoyed, but simultaneously detested, the way that motor motivated the car over the Alps last week. Which is to say, barely at all.
We left our hostel in far southern Garmisch, Germany at 8 a.m. so we could drive over the nearby border to Innsbruck, Austria, hang out for a couple of hours, return the car to the Garmisch rental agency by its 1 p.m. deadline and catch the train back up to my parents a couple hours north in Nürnberg. There was quite a bit of snow on the roads, which I thought would be fine, since German cars are required by law to be outfitted by snow tires in the winter.
It was not fine.
The traffic was bad, as little Ford C-Maxes and Mercedes A-Classes gently navigated up and down the ridiculously steep grades between Germany’s most famous ski town and the capital of the western Austrian state of Tirol. Long lines of these cars, and also some tour buses, dotted the windy, steep alpine roads, slowing our progress to an average of about 30 MPH, or half what we should have been driving.
But the traffic wasn’t the worst part. It’s when my brother Mike and I were on the open alpine roads that those 64 horses under the hood yelled for mercy. Both going uphill and downhill.
You’d think the downhill bit would be OK, but I have an aversion to riding my brakes for miles down a mountain, so downshifting is my go-to move. In most vehicles I’ve driven, downshifting does a great job at keeping the car at a moderate speed, while requiring little brake input.
But slapping this Polo into a low gear just resulted in the vehicle accelerating down the grade, and quickly spinning up that tiny 1.0-liter motor as if it were nothing more than a dreidel. I had to stay on the brakes most of the time. Luckily they were quite good, despite being low-cost drums out back.
Going uphill was also suboptimal. You’ll see my hand on the shifter in the image above, because changing gears often was a requirement. Sometimes I ran out of shifts to shift.
As soon as I’d hit a steep grade while cruising in fifth gear, the little supermini—called the SEAT Ibiza or VW Virtus in other markets, in case you were wondering—decelerated quickly. I pressed in the nicely-weighted clutch with my left foot, and shifted the unexpectedly satisfying crisp five-speed into fourth. The revs popped up, and the car’s negative rate of change of velocity dropped a bit. With my foot essentially welded to the floor, the vehicle barely maintained the current speed, so—Clutch In, Shift—I’m now in third.
There I was cruising for a bit in third gear on a grade, when it got steeper, and my foot attempted to push the pedal through the car’s body-in-white. The car clearly wasn’t going any faster, so I threw it into second and cruised along.
Then I glanced into my rearview mirror, and saw a line of cars directly on my ass. Fair enough, as I did feel like I was just driving too damn slowly. So I went to downshift to get the little Polo up the hill a bit more quickly, only to glance briefly at my revs to realize I was already spinning the motor at 5,000 RPM. There was really no room for another shift—I was in the lowest gear already, and yet, I could have play a game of chess behind the wheel with how slowly I was moving.
Eventually, and I do mean eventually, Mike and I made it to Innsbruck, stopped by the old town near a Habsburg palace (you can see it in white in the first of the two pictures above), and walked into the Hofkirche built by Emperor Ferdinand I in the 1500s. In case you’re curious to see how that looked, here’s a picture:
The two photos before the one above are the only ones we took of the car in Innsbruck, since our time there had been cut down by traffic and the VW’s lack of power, and we feared that traffic on the way back would be worse.
Our fears were confirmed later, as the pass between Innsbruck and Garmisch was a total shitshow.
The going was so slow, people actually got out of their cars to stretch. Needless to say, we missed our train, and brought our rental car back late. I was thrilled:
“It’s incredibly slow and unsatisfying as a car,” my brother told me when I asked him later what he thought of the Polo. It’s a fair assessment in some ways, but I thought the car’s power was fine on flat pavement in town, and I really liked shifting that five-speed. Plus, the ride quality was nice, and the 49 MPG combined rating on the newly troublesome European WLTP cycle seems decent. And while technically it was severely underpowered for the grades between Garmisch and Innsbruck, for some reason, I found that somewhat entertaining. Maybe if I had to deal with it on a daily basis, I’d find it less so.
In any case, I did learn something from all of this. That Polo driver who is always in the left lane of the Autobahn receiving my scorn as I stomp my brakes to slow down—he’s trying his best, and from now on, I’ll be a little more understanding.