Polo Formel E: 1981-1987


1982: entry-level economy
The Mk 2 Polo was unveiled in the autumn of 1981. Radically different in style to its predecessor with a mini-estate car appearance, the hatchback ditched the fastback styling of its forebear.

A saloon version also carried on the Derby nameplate – UK cars adopted the ‘Polo Classic’ badge – but was less graceful in its styling than the first version of the Polo notchback which appeared in 1978. Refined, spacious and well-built, the second generation of Volkswagen’s baby built on the successful foundations of the first.

In keeping with Volkswagen’s environmental ambitions, a Formel E version of the Mk 2 Polo was in the range from the start. Only available in entry-level ‘C’ trim this time from November 1981, the 1982 Polo Formel E was mechanically the same as the original 1981 model.

A 1093cc high compression engine and 3+E gearbox was mated to the new squareback body. The regular 1.1-litre Polo’s engine had a compression ratio of 8.0:1 – the new Formel E’s was 9.7:1. The Formel E boasted an extra 4lb ft of torque over the standard 1093cc Polo, too. But, as with the Mk 1, the engine needed four star petrol to power it due to its higher octane rating.

Polo Formel Es of the 1980s led the way for Volkswagen's future BlueMotion cars

Claimed economy was improved: at a steady 56mph, Volkswagen quoted 58.9mpg – truly outstanding in 1982, but in 2015, not all that surprising with most small-capacity turbocharged engines capable of similar figures.

A 1043cc engine replaced the previous Polo’s 895cc unit and was now the smallest in the new range – an official mpg figure of 47.0 at 56mph fell some way short of the Formel E’s super-economy. Even at a steady but slightly illegal-in-the-UK 75mph, the Polo Formel E achieved a useful 8mpg more than the non-economy version.

Once again, a fuel consumption indicator told of cruising mpg, while the gear shift light warned when was the ideal time to shift up or down to achieve maximum economy. The top speed of 91mph could be reached in third gear, with ‘fourth’ a cruising ratio as before.

The Polo Classic C Formel E was both identically trimmed and mechanically the same as its hatchback sister, but in keeping with its more traditional notchback styling and upmarket aspirations, featured the additional equipment highlight of an analogue clock. It was also capable of 1.3mpg more at a steady 75mph!

Formel E Volkswagens were also fitted with modified carburettors, camshafts, pistons, as well as electronic ignition systems. VW also claimed that the overdrive (top) gear ensured ‘quieter, more economical driving with reduced engine wear.’ Aerodynamic improvements played their part, too, and for 1983, additional addenda was finally fitted to the Polo models.

The Mk 2 Polo was designed with a lower spoiler lip as an integral part of the bodywork from the off, but the C Formel E hatchback sprouted a black plastic rear window surround from the 1983 model year, aiding air flow around the back of the car.

Polo C Formel E was also available as a two-door booted saloon

The Classic C Formel E was given a small bootlid spoiler similar in style to that already fitted to the Jetta, giving the same effect. Both hatchback and saloon models gained front quarterlight windows which were flush with the bodywork and seals surrounding them.

In its week ending 3 July 1982 issue, Autocar stated that the Polo Formel E hatchback enjoyed ‘useful gains’ in performance over its lesser-powered siblings and that ‘Formel E works’. Going on, the magazine said: ‘Owners can expect to be obtaining better than 40mpg most of the time without striving for economy.

‘It is significant that the car is still returning over 40mpg at a constant 70mph. In our economy tests, the Polo Formel E returned 55.6mpg on a varied course, driven gently,’ it continued. The only debit point was the fact that there was a £177 supplement over the standard £3,799 Polo C.

1984: ‘More economy, greater value’
For the 1984 model year, the Polo Classic was marketed as offering ‘More economy. Greater value.’ The Formel E model was now based on the mid-level CL version, and had no standard-engined compatriot.

One rung up the Polo ladder from the entry-level C, the Polo CL Formel E had such generous equipment as chrome bumper and grille strips, halogen headlamps, distinctive ‘star’-shaped wheel trim covers as well as the option of metallic paint.

Additional CL appointments included pile carpeting, checked cloth upholstery (available in four fetching shades) and a choice of two dashboard colours! (Who remembers the optional aubergine interior trim option with Blackberry metallic paint?)

The engine was the high-compression 50bhp 1,093cc unit fitted to the C Formel E the year before, and the car was similarly equipped with the fuel consumption indicator, gear shift light and boot spoiler.

Fuel economy and performance was identical to the 1983 Polo Classic Formel Es. As in 1983, the Formel E hatchback continued to be offered in lowlier C trim. In May 1984, the Polo hatchback C Formel E cost £4,437.65, while the Classic CL Formel E was priced at £4,744.13.

As with the Mk 1, Mk 2 Polo Formel E models featured an mpg indicator and fuel shift light

1985: 1.1 becomes 1.3
For 1985, the Polo Formel E saw its first major mechanical overhaul. The 1985 Polo Formel Es gained an economy version of the Polo’s larger 55bhp 1,272cc engine, versions of which had been powering Volkswagen’s small cars since the late 1970s.

At 9.5:1, the compression ratio was the same as the non-Formel E cars. However, with the 3+E gearbox, economy was improved to 57.6mpg compared with the standard car’s 52.3. Top speed was 1mph higher at 96mph, while the 0-62mph time was cut by 0.4 seconds.

It was at this time that a system was introduced which in 2015 is commonplace and most drivers take for granted. The Formel E package now included a stop-start system. Automatically switching off the engine when the car rolled to a halt or was briefly idle. It only required a shift into first gear to restart the engine, much like systems of today.

Volkswagen had in fact first introduced stop-start on the first Passat Formel E as a switchable system – a button was positioned on the end of one of the steering column stalks – and refined it further on the 1994 Golf Ecomatic. The ‘SSA’ system on the Polo was activated by a rocker switch on the dashboard but worked automatically.

Formel E cars also received a more powerful 65 amp alternator to cope with the constant engine on/off operation. The Polo Formel E was available in both entry-level C and mid-range CL specifications.

Volkswagen's stop-start 'SSA' system pioneered today's similar technology

1986: 4+E gearbox
In terms of trim specifications, 1986 Polo Formel Es were similar to models two years before. The fuel-saving hatchback was once more offered in C trim, gaining trimmed door pillars, a Blaupunkt push-button MW/LW radio and unique interior upholstery and steering wheel.

The Classic Formel E was demoted to C trim, too, but was now the range-topping model in the notchback Polo family. All Polos were now fitted with side repeaters and rubbing protection strips on the body sides.

Mechanical developments gathered pace on all Formel Es for the 1986 model year. While the same 1.3-litre powered the super economy Polos, the gearbox gained an extra ratio. Now a 4+E ‘box, mpg values were the same. The idea was the same as the previous 3+E incarnation – top gear was designed to return better economy, partly through bringing the engine speed down.

The automatic stop-start system was further refined, too, no longer activating when the car rolled to a halt – only when the car was completely at rest and had been stationery for 2 seconds would it kick in. The shift into first gear reactivation was the same as before.

1981 Volkswagen Polo C Formel E featured a rear window spoiler to improve aerodynamics

1987: a quiet death
The Polo Formel E died a quiet death in 1987, disappearing from August 1986-dated brochures. The 4+E economy ratio gearbox lived on, though, appearing on top-spec Ranger versions of the hatchback and CL variations of the Classic (now called simply ‘Saloon’).

A quoted fuel economy figure of 57.6mpg at 56mph was identical as the previous Formel E cars when so-equipped, so Volkswagen obviously saw little point with continuing with the economy-branded models.

There was never a Coupé version of the Polo Formel E, presumably because Volkswagen saw the same reasoning as with the earlier non-Formel E Scirocco – that ‘sports’ models sat uncomfortably with economical branding. Maybe it would have confused the message a little too much.

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