Series 3 Polo: 1994-2001

The Series 3 Polo was presented to the European press in Paris in August 1994 and launched in the UK after the British Motor Show at the NEC, Birmingham, the following November.

Completely new range
A completely new range from the ground-up, the Series 3 Polo owed nothing to the Series 1, or 2 cars that preceded it. Initially in hatchback from only, it was available in four trim levels: L, CL, GL and GLX. Engine options consisted of three variants; 1043cc 45bhp, 1272cc 55bhp and 1598cc 75bhp units. For the first time in the Polo’s history, three and five-door models were now available.

1994 Volkswagen Polo GLX
Class-leading: the Series 3 Polo arrived in 1994, and with it banished memories of the older and cruder Series 2 cars. Five doors, power steering and ABS were all Polo firsts

The underpinnings of the new Polo had been widely reported as being those of the just-lauched 1993 SEAT Ibiza. This was certainly true, with both cars sharing many common components, including such major items as interior dashboards and minor switchgear. Trim materials differed though, with the Polo being the more sobre of the two cars.

1994 Volkswagen Polo Interior
Shared: Series 3 Polo dashboard was also fitted to the 1993 SEAT Ibiza, from which the Polo borrowed chassis components. Platform-sharing endures in VW Group cars today

The engine bay of the new Polo was also smaller and could not accept anything larger than a 1.6-litre unit, while the SEAT was later launched in fire-breathing 2.0-litre, 150bhp Cupra Sport guise. The Volkswagen’s smallest new model was well-received by the motoring press, winning almost every group test or award it participated in. Autocar and What Car? magazines both awarded Car of the Year 1995 awards to the impressive newcomer, stating that it set new standards for small cars, particularly in the areas of ride, handling and refinement.

Waiting lists
The UK range of eighteen models for the beginning of 1995 was the same as the continental launch at the tail end of 1994. The 1.3 and 1.6-litre models came first, followed by the base 1.0-litre engined cars. Waiting lists were inevitable.

1994 Volkswagen Polo engine
Weakest links: Series 3 Polo’s engines were based on its predecessor’s and were the only chinks in the new model’s armoury. Mid-range 1.3-litre unit soon replaced by 60bhp 1.4

The L was available in 1.0 45bhp, 1.3 55bhp and 1.6 75bhp guises. The CL was available with the 1.3 and 1.6 engines, while the GL and GLX were only available with the top-spec 1.6 75bhp engine option. Cars were well-equipped, with all having electrically-heated and adjustable mirrors, while all except the 1.0 and 1.3 L had power-steering. A 1.9 64bhp diesel unit arrived in spring 1996 and was available in L and CL models.

The new Polo was comprehensively well-equipped. The L model boasted a height-adjustable steering column, a Sony radio/cassette with four speakers, rev counter, digital clock, colour-coded bumpers, heated and electrically-adjustable mirrors and a dust and pollen filter.

1994 Volkswagen Polo CL
Mid-range: CL was the big-seller of the Series 3 Polo range, and was suitably well-equipped with central locking, front electric windows, power steering and rear head restraints

The CL added front seat height adjusters, rear head restraints, split-folding rear seats, power steering, central locking, and front electric windows (the latter three all Polo firsts). The GL built on the additional features of the CL and gained ABS, a manual glass tilt/slide sunroof and 13″ eight-spoke ‘Interlagos’ alloy wheels.

Finally, the range-topping GLX was distinguished from the Polo GL by way of its deeper ‘sports’ bumpers, front fog lamps, white front indicators, darkened rear light clusters and the addition of heated windscreen washer jets. The GLX also boasted many interior refinements which included front sports seats, driver and passenger airbags and black ‘Speed’ upholstery.

1994 Volkswagen Polo GLX
Range-topper: GLX was top of the Series 3 Polo tree, and looked both upmarket and sporty. Alloy wheels, front foglights, ‘sports’ bumpers and white front indicators marked it out

Prices for the new range began at £6,950 for the 1.0 L three door, rising to £11,750 for the 1.6 five door GLX model.

New model package
At the 1995 London Motor Show, Volkswagen announced the first range revisions and a possible new model package which was being shown as a ‘concept’. The Polo Open Air featured a full-length, electrically-operated folding roof, similar to those fitted on VW Beetles or Citroën 2CVs many decades earlier. The 1.3-litre engine in the Polo was also to be replaced with a more efficient 1.4-litre 60bhp unit that delivered its power at a much lower engine speed with 16 per cent more torque.

1996 Volkswagen Polo Open Air
Open for business: Polo Open Air had a full-length electrically-operated canvas sunroof and proved popular. Introduced as a special model, it soon became a permanent model option

The GLX also now had new 14-inch ‘Indianapolis’ alloy wheels fitted, replacing the previous 13″ versions. All models had a revised tailgate too, with a tiny lip ‘spoiler’ shaped out of the metal at the top of the rear window.

Modern-day Derby
A few weeks later, another flavour of new Polo was announced. Now available as a four-speed automatic, the car was fitted with the 1.4 or 1.6-litre engines and spanned all four mainstream trim levels. But the big news of 1996 was the launch of the modern-day Derby.

The Polo Saloon (‘Classic’ in Germany, resurrecting the name last seen in 1987) was released in April 1996. Basically a re-engineered SEAT Cordoba, the car was built on the same lines as the SEAT, but had different front and rear styling. The rear resembled a truncated Audi A4, while the front was similar in style to the new Polo it was to complement.

1996 Volkswagen Polo Saloon
Notchback: Series 3 Polo Saloon arrived four years after the Series 2 car disappeared from showrooms. Based on the SEAT Cordoba (itself a SEAT Ibiza saloon) it was  slow-seller

Other styling flourishes on the Polo Saloon included colour-coded door handles and rubbing strips. The car was 423mm longer than the hatchback and had a 40mm longer wheelbase. Launched in five four-door versions, there were 1.6 75bhp, 1.6 100bhp and new 1.9 64bhp SDI diesel engine options. The diesel unit was claimed to be the most economical Volkswagen to date, while the 1.6 featured new variable intake manifold technology.

L and CL specifications made up the saloon range with the L being made available with the 1.6 petrol or 1.9 SDI engines. The CL was fitted with a choice of both 1.6s or SDI units. Optional extras were priced the same as the Polo hatchback range and in many cases, the actual cost of the cars was the same, too.

All-aluminium engine
More Polo range alterations were made in 1997. The 1.0 L now had a new 999cc, all-aluminium engine, developing 50bhp. An increase of 5bhp over the old unit wasn’t the only benefit – torque figures rose and the car accelerated faster and was also more economical. The engine also boasted multi-point fuel injection, rather than the single-point system used on the earlier models.

The whole Polo range was also rationalised to make way for the most powerful new Polo – the 16V. The Polo GL three-door was discontinued, the GL five-door lost its anti-lock brakes and the GLX trim level was dropped.

The Polo 16V appeared identical in outward appearance to the deleted GLX, with the exception of the ’16V’ badge on the tailgate. Specifications and the interior was as the GLX, too, but the one thing the car didn’t share with its previous range-topping sister was its engine. A new 1.4-litre, 100bhp 16V unit with the same variable intake manifold geometry as the 1.6 100bhp engine in the Polo Saloon had been reserved for the new sports Polo, and sprinted the 16V to 60mph in 10.5 seconds and onto a top speed of 117mph.

1996 Volkswagen Polo 16V
Hot: 1996 Polo 16V was the most powerful Polo since the G40 of 1991. Outwardly identical to the discontinued GLX, new features included ‘Indianapolis’ alloys and rear spoiler

Costing £12,095 for the three-door model, once again the options list was extensive and included air-conditioning, passenger airbag and anti-lock brakes. In other 1997 model year revisions, the ‘Open Air’ sunroof was made a UK optional fitment on every model for £565. Worldwide celebrations heralded the arrival of the 5,000,000th Polo to roll off the production lines.

More secure
In 1998, the Polo was made more secure with the fitting of new locks on the doors and steering column, without affecting prices. The new locks were free-wheeling and were also fitted to the recently-introduced Passat, which also donated its steering lock. Other changes also saw the introduction of a new instrument panel with the speedometer and rev counter flanking an inner warning light display, new dashboard outer air vents and an electrically-adjustable headlight beam. The colour range was updated, too, while some Polo models gained better-spec radio/cassette units.

1998 also saw the UK launch of yet another Polo variant; the Polo Estate. Like the saloon, the new load-lugger was based on a SEAT (the Cordoba Vario) and was built alongside this car and the regular versions of the SEAT Cordoba and the Polo Saloon at SEAT’s modern Spanish Martorell plant. Released in ten versions, the engines options and trim levels were the same as the Polo Saloon, with the addition of a new GL specification. The car was the same length as the notchback, too, but offered more loadspace because of the deliberately ‘squarebacked’ tailgate.

1998 Volkswagen Polo Estate
Squareback: 1998 SEAT Cordoba Vario-based Polo Estate was aimed at the lifestyle set, even though it had utilitarian looks. Useful extra space attracted a select band of buyers

The 1.6-litre 75bhp L started the range at £11,205 and included height-adjustable front seats and buyers could also choose a 1.9 64 bhp SDI diesel engine. The CL was released with the two 1.6s (75 and 100 bhp) and the SDI diesel. The range-topping GL was fitted with the larger 1.6 litre unit only.

Shortly after the car’s introduction, Volkswagen announced that both this and the saloon would be available with a 1.9-litre, 90bhp TDI engine. Available in newly-introduced GL trim, the Polo Estate range now topped off at £13,550, while both of the GL-specced SEAT-based Polos were also available with the 1.6 100bhp engine. The new GL specification included 14″ ‘Solitude’ alloy wheels, Polo 16V interior trim with front sports seats. One advantage the estate had over the saloon was that the new TDI engine was fitted to the car in more lowly L and CL trim, too.

All this model diversication added to the Polo’s total production figures; the 6,000,000th example was produced since Volkswagen’s second most popular modern-day model line was introduced in 1975.

Spiritual successor
With all this activity, buyers would have thought that things would quieten down, but Volkswagen had one more card up its sleeve. The Polo GTI was launched on mainland Europe in the autumn of 1998, 23 years after the Polo’s introduction. Appearing at the Paris AutoSalon, it was launched in Germany not long after in a limited run of 3,000 cars. Seen as a spiritual successor to the Series 1 Golf GTI (their dimensions were almost identical), Volkswagen UK delayed plans to introduce the car into Britain until the range was revamped (Series 3F Polo) in mid-1999.

1998 Volkswagen Polo GTI
Racing ahead: leap-frogging the 16V and overtaking it as the fastest-ever Polo, the GTI was sold in limited numbers in mainland Europe for around 11,000. It soon sold out

Special offers
The range remained much the same for the last year of pre-facelift Series 3 production. Volkswagen offered its ‘1999 Polo Summer Campaign’, which was a range of special offers to heighten the Polo’s appeal. The 16V and GL were offered with manual air-conditioning in lieu of the sunroof that came as standard, while the ‘Open Air’ electrically-operated sunroof module was offered to L and CL hatchback drivers for £160 (usually £565). Any customer that ordered a Polo L or CL hatchback, saloon or estate had a manual glass tilt/slide sunroof fitted free.

The first spy photographs of the facelifted Series 3F model started to appear in the motoring press in early autumn 1999 and the new car was launched to the world’s motoring press in Vienna in October. Arriving in time for the Polo’s 25th birthday, the launch of this new model was available on the continent soon after the first reviews arrived from Vienna, with the UK having to wait until 5 February 2000.

1999 Volkswagen Polo in Vienna
Wheely great: although a heavy facelift of the 1994 model, the new Series 3F Polo set new benchmarks for small car refinement and quality, along with a new smoother look

The new model was effectively a facelift of the 1994 car, suitably freshened up for the new Millennium. The hatchback model was the most revised, and grew to a thirty-two-model range. Starting with the 1.0 50bhp, the hatchback’s engines rose through 1.4 60bhp, 1.4 75bhp (16V), 1.4 100bhp (I6V), 1.9 SDI 64bhp, and topped out with the 1.6 GTI, now a full production model.

Expanded range
Within this expanded range was a choice of seven engines, with new three-cylinder 1.4 TDI and 1.6 GTI units being available for the first time. The new model boasted a galvanised and stiffer body and sixty per cent of the car’s components were revised to improve the handling, ride and refinement that had been the weapons in the previous model’s armoury.

The appearance of the revised models was much as before, but as the factory’s body-pressing dies were wearing out, the opportunity was taken to make the body’s shutlines smaller and the looks a little sharper. Clear-lensed lights and a revised bumper and grille were the most prominent changes at the front of the car, while the rear saw red light clusters and a new bumper with a licence plate recess.

1999 Volkswagen Polo
Revised: new Polo 3F featured new galvanised body panels and minor styling changes over its predecessor including a smooth tailgate with bumper-mounted licence plate

The new interior saw a Lupo-style dashboard fitted with more comfortable seats and the then-new trademark blue backlighting. The interior quality was as good as the larger Volkswagen models such as the Golf (itself a benchmark). The changes to both the saloon and estate were much less far-reaching, both gaining revised interior trim and the new dashboard from the hatchback. The only external changes for the SEAT-based pair were the fitment of different wheels and white front indicator units.

1999 Volkswagen Polo 1999 dashboard
Something borrowed, something blue: new 3F dashboard lifted from the smaller Lupo and much more characterful than what had gone before, giving the interior a personality

The three and five-door hatchbacks were available in five trim levels, while the saloon and estate ranges were expanded to three-model ranges with five engine options and continued to be specified with the larger 1.6 100bhp and 1.9 TDI 90bhp engines not available in the hatchback.

All models included ABS and all-disc braking as standard, in addition to two front airbags.The E was the base-model and was available with 1.0 50bhp, 1.4 60bhp, and 1.9 SDI 64bhp engines in the hatchback, with 1.4 75bhp, 1.9 SDI 68bhp and 1.9 TDI 90bhp units for the saloon and estate.

Equipment included power steering, tinted glass, split-folding rear seat, electrically heated and adjustable door mirrors, and rear head restraints. The base-model hatchback cost £8,290, the same price as the outgoing 1.0 L. Saloons started at £10,735 for the 1.4, while the cheapest 1.4 estate was £11,135.

1999 Volkswagen Polo range
Family: Polo 3F range offered a model for everyone; the SEAT-based estate and saloon were fitted with 100bhp 1.6-litre and 90bhp 1.9-litre engines not available in the hatchback

The S trim level was the next rung up the new Polo ladder. The hatchback was available with 1.4 60bhp, 1.4 75bhp and 1.9 SDI 64bhp units, while the higher-output 1.4, 1.9 SDI, 1.6 100bhp and 1.9 TDI 90bhp engines were fitted to the saloon and estate only. Extra equipment over the E included anti-hijack central locking, cup-holder and electric front windows.

The SE was the plushest ‘non-sporting’ Polo. Again, available in all three Polo variants, the engine choice was as wide as the E and S, with 1.4 60bhp, 1.4 75bhp units being fitted to the hatchback, while saloon and estate buyers could choose between 1.6 100bhp, 1.9 TDI 90bhp and larger 1.9 TDI 110bhp engines. The SE trim level was the highest specification available for the saloon and estate ranges, with topping-out at £14,315 for the notchback and £14,715 for the square-backed car.

The SE hatchback was also available with a new three-cylinder 1.4 litre TDI unit, developing 75bhp. With a giant-killing 144lb ft of torque (surpassing even that of the GTI), it featured unit-injector technology, which provided class-leading fuel efficiency and very low emissions. An engine balancer shaft added to the smooth and quiet driving experience. Diesel Car magazine awarded this critically-acclaimed new model their Car of the Year 2000 award.

1999 Volkswagen Polo TDI engine
Lusty performer: Series 3F Polo’s new 1.4-litre three-cylinder TDI engine was a revelation. Its 144lb ft of torque eclipsed even that of the GTI. It was the surprise of the range

SE hatchback trim differences over the S included the addition of an electric sunroof, front fog lamps and 14” ‘Kyalami’ alloy wheels. Saloon and estate models were fitted with 14” ‘Solitude’ alloys, front foglights, and an electric glass sunroof.

The hatchback was available in two further trim levels. The 16V was the first ‘sporting’ model. Better value against the outgoing model, it featured a 1.4 16v 100bhp engine with such luxuries as manual air-conditioning, interwoven upholstery, and 15” ‘Spa’ alloys, and was better value against the outgoing model.

Most powerful production Polo
Fitted with a new 1.6 16V, 125bhp engine, the new Polo GTI eclipsed the previous 1998 version as the most powerful production Polo to date. It looked the part too with its unique body styling, consisting of deeper bumpers with mesh inserts, mesh grille, tailgate spoiler, deeper sills and 15” BBS ‘Split Rim’ alloys, wearing 195/45 15 tyres.

1999 Volkswagen Polo GTI
Legendary? Using the GTI badge as a selling point and continuing the Volkswagen GTI family, the hot Polo was praised by some and derided in others. It looked the part, though

Extra equipment over the 16V included a 6-disc CD autochanger, Xenon gas-discharge headlights and electronic air-conditioning. In homage to the first Golf GTI of 1975, the new model was also available in just three colours – Diamond Black Pearl Effect, Flash Red and Satin Silver Metallic. Prices for the three-door model started at £13,995, rising to £14,460 for the five-door version.

1999 Volkswagen Polo GTI 1999 interior
Top-of-the-line: not only was the Polo GTI the most powerful production Polo, it was also the plushest, too, with air-conditioning, chrome-ringed dials and optional leather trim

car magazine said of the GTI: ‘It is a VW GTI with proper credibility, so is not to be dismissed.’ But, as with most press reports at the time, the TDI impressed the magazine just as much: ‘The GTI is fun, but what you see is what you get. Try the 1.4 TDI, and be amazed.’

Optional equipment levels for the new Polo were truly gargantuan, the revised range being available with rain-sensitive wipers, in-car satellite-navigation system, and leather upholstery. The owners of Polo SE models could also upgrade their cars to include air-conditioning in lieu of the electric sunroof, while all models were also available with the option of side-mounted seat airbags.

1999 Volkswagen Polo acessories
No bit-parts: range of accessories and optional equipment on the Series 3F Polo was vast and included body styling kits and alloy wheels. Big-car options saw the Polo come of age

May 2000 saw the S hatchback also available with the revolutionary new 1.4 75bhp TDI unit that had only previously seen service in the SE. Celebrations marked the production of the 6,480,000th Polo, since the model’s introduction 25 years earlier. Things were relatively quiet in 2001 with only the introduction of the Colour Concept and Match special editions (see the Series 3 Polo specials page).

The Series 3 and 3F Polos had been an overwhelming success story for Volkswagen, adding over 3 million vehicles to the model’s overall production tally and winning many new buyers. However, the 3F was always intended to be a stopgap until the advent of the next all-new model, and fast advances in the small car class meant that it was starting to fall behind the competition.

Volkswagen had this covered, though. The all-new Series 4 Polo was announced at the Frankfurt Motor Show in October 2001 and went on sale in continental Europe shortly afterwards.

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