SMALL FOR­WARDS

TO VOLK­SWA­GEN’S ALL-NEW POLO, MAIN­STREAM AND LEFT-FIELD RI­VALS ARE JUST A LIGHT BREAK­FAST, RIGHT?

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

Citroen C3 v Mazda 2 v Skoda Fabia v Suzuki Swift v Volk­swa­gen Polo

T’S SAID that the key to happiness is the abil­ity to find joy in or­di­nary things. All too of­ten we feel pressured to be bet­ter, to go big­ger, to spend more, to ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery­thing and we end up over­look­ing what was in front of us all the time. We for­get how to love what we have. On the face of it, the five cars as­sem­bled here are steeped in or­di­nary. You’ll see them or their ilk ev­ery day, of­ten bought for the prac­ti­cal rea­sons of re­sale, war­ranty, re­li­a­bil­ity and the doughty met­rics of cents per kilo­me­tre. Yet scratch be­neath the ve­neer of fis­cal ex­pe­di­ency and these ve­hi­cles do so much with so lit­tle that they are, in ef­fect, ev­ery­day su­per­cars. Mini de­cath­letes that are all about man­ag­ing com­pro­mise. And we can as­sess how ef­fec­tive those very hu­man de­ci­sions have been.

The Volk­swa­gen Polo is the rea­son we’ve as­sem­bled these five cars. This is the box-fresh Polo Mk6, now sit­ting on the MQB mod­u­lar ar­chi­tec­ture and the first thing you need to know about it is that it’s big. Phys­i­cally, its ex­te­rior di­men­sions are al­most as large as a Golf Mk4, but lessons learned in how to pack­age cars over the last cou­ple of decades means that there’s con­sid­er­ably more le­groom, head­room and lug­gage space than in the mil­len­nial Golf.

This is the $22,990 Launch Edi­tion with the 85TSI three-pot en­gine and DSG gear­box and, like the rest of the cars here, it’s pitched at the up­per end of the range, tuck­ing in be­neath the sports flag­ship vari­ants. This Polo is big news for Volk­swa­gen too. The com­pany has now sold over 150 mil­lion ve­hi­cles, and with more than 14 mil­lion sales since it was launched 43 years ago, the Polo, which be­gan life as an Audi 50, now rep­re­sents al­most 10 per­cent of all the cars Volk­swa­gen has ever sold. Here in Australia, a mar­ket that’s tra­di­tion­ally been leery about small cars, the Polo now ac­counts for around 20 per­cent of all Volk­swa­gens sold.

This is also our first op­por­tu­nity to sam­ple Citroen’s bold third-gen­er­a­tion C3 on Aus­tralian roads. It’s been on sale in Europe for a cou­ple of years and the han­dover of the French mar­que’s im­por­ta­tion fran­chise from Sime Darby to Inch­cape has seen the C3 get a be­lated green light for our con­sump­tion. It’s been a sales suc­cess in Europe, shift­ing 100,000 units in its first six months on sale, which com­pares with 300,000 per an­num for the top-sell­ing Polo, but it’s more than 10 per­cent cheaper than the Volk­swa­gen over there. Here it doesn’t en­joy such a pric­ing priv­i­lege, so it’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see if it can level with the Polo on its own met­tle. As it stands, the C3 is only of­fered in 81kw Shine trim, priced at $23,490.

Suzuki’s Swift made it into the pointy end of Wheels’ 2018 Car of the Year she­bang, its chances of a win ul­ti­mately dented by Suzuki Australia’s de­cid­edly odd trim walk-ups. Per­haps here in 82kw GLX Turbo guise, wear­ing a bargain $22,990 drive-away sticker, it can gain re­demp­tion. The other pair are likely to be more fa­mil­iar still to Wheels read­ers. The Mazda 2 has long been a favourite with Aussie buy­ers, and en­joyed a re­fresh early last year that ma­jored on trim up­grades. This third-gen car de­buted in 2014, and is built on com­pletely dif­fer­ent un­der­pin­nings to the sec­ond-gen car that was first re­vealed in 2007, de­spite shar­ing its curvy form fac­tor. This con­ti­nu­ity of look has en­sured con­tin­ued sales suc­cess, on its own eas­ily out­selling the rest of this field put to­gether, although its vol­ume has largely been ac­counted for by the value-packed Maxx model. It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see whether the $23,680 GT trim lifts the lit­tle 81kw Mazda out of its com­fort zone.

Fi­nally there’s Skoda’s Fabia Monte Carlo, yet another car with 81kw un­der the bon­net. It’s of sim­i­lar vin­tage to the Mazda hav­ing gone on sale here in 2015. Un­like its Polo cousin, the Fabia doesn’t get the slick

The Polo now rep­re­sents al­most 10 per­cent of all the cars Volk­swa­gen has ever sold

MQB chas­sis, in­stead rid­ing on the pre­vi­ous-gen Polo’s PQ26 un­der­pin­nings. This car wears a re­tail price of $23,990, mak­ing it the prici­est of the bunch, an is­sue com­pounded by this par­tic­u­lar ve­hi­cle’s Tech Pack and metal­lic paint lift­ing it to a hefty $26,290 be­fore you’ve fac­tored in on-roads.

Park the five to­gether and there’s re­ally only one car that’s an in­stant at­ten­tion seeker. The Citroen C3 kicks the but­toned-down con­ser­vatism of this class squarely in the dusters, of­fer­ing el­e­ments of the quirky Cac­tus in­clud­ing de­formable side Air­bumps, an al­most MPVlite pro­por­tion­ing, and an un­flinch­ing com­mit­ment to re­ject­ing the sta­tus quo. In­side and out, there’s al­ways some­thing for your eye to alight on, from the bold 17-inch al­loys, to the float­ing red roof panel, the leather door pulls, the mas­sive lazy-boy front seats, the steer­ing wheel with chubby hor­i­zon­tal spokes, you name it. It’s al­most as if the C3’s designers tried to rein­vent the aes­thet­ics of ev­ery­thing. It’s am­bi­tious if noth­ing else.

That’s never a word you’d use to de­scribe the de­sign of Volk­swa­gen’s Polo Mk6. I think there’s a del­i­cacy of line and de­tail about it, but I was in the mi­nor­ity there. A mi­nor­ity of one. Ev­ery other tester was dis­ap­pointed by its lack of ad­ven­ture, the bloated rear end com­ing in for par­tic­u­lar dis­dain. I liked the canted C-pil­lars, although couldn’t help won­der­ing whether de­signer Klaus Bischoff had been in­spired by the Austin Princess when he set­tled on their an­gle. Prob­a­bly not.

The chis­elled bon­net, the de­fined shoul­der line that runs through the door han­dles and the way the grille de­tail car­ries through the head­lamp pod are all deft touches. That said, ex­am­in­ing the colour op­tions for the Polo sug­gests that it’ll hardly jump out at you. This ‘En­er­getic Or­ange Metal­lic’ con­fec­tion aside, you get to choose be­tween white, grey, sil­ver and black. That hardly makes the most of the op­tion of hav­ing a body­coloured dash in­sert. As is be­com­ing the norm with light hatches, the choice be­tween a three- or five-door body style has been qui­etly shelved with all Polo Mk6’s be­ing fam­ily-friendly five-door vari­ants. It hides its in­creased di­men­sions well, the kamm­back sil­hou­ette rem­i­nis­cent of the old MK2F Polo G40.

Drop in­side and you’re greeted by a big Golf-style in­te­grated touch­screen that flows into the trape­zoid­shaped dash in­sert, fin­ished in this car in in­of­fen­sive grey. The trape­zoid trope re­curs through­out, and in­cludes el­e­ments such as the door pulls, the HVAC con­trols and the screen sur­round. It’s rare to find Ger­man brands do­ing whim­si­cal or light-hearted de­sign, largely be­cause they’re so ter­ri­ble at it, and the Polo’s hexag­o­nal-shaped cuphold­ers be­tween the seats just look a bit odd. It’s also strange to get man­ual air-con con­trols with no op­tion of cli­mate con­trol in this Launch Edi­tion, when the new GTI gets a dig­i­tal sys­tem that de­liv­ers a far more co­her­ent look and feel.

Af­ter the soft-touch, feel-good sheen of the Polo, the Swift’s cabin feels like some­thing from a class be­low, per­haps un­sur­pris­ing given its pric­ing. Scratchy, cheap-feel­ing plas­tics, air-con ‘di­als’ that prove to be merely fixed plas­tic hous­ings and a cen­tre screen that flatly re­fused to con­nect to An­droid Auto aren’t any­body’s idea of show­room sur­prise and delight, but look beyond that and the Swift’s qual­i­ties aren’t hard to ap­pre­ci­ate. There’s a lovely steer­ing wheel, de­cent pedal po­si­tion­ing and the pack­ag­ing in the pas­sen­ger cell is amaz­ingly good, of­fer­ing com­fort­ably the most rear pas­sen­ger room of any car here, even bet­ter­ing the su­per­sized Polo. Of course, that space isn’t mag­icked out of thin air and, in this in­stance, comes at the ex­pense of boot space, the Swift’s mea­gre 242 litres

It’s al­most as if the C3’s designers tried to rein­vent the aes­thet­ics of ev­ery­thing

ut­terly out­classed by the Volk­swa­gen’s cav­ernous 351-litre cargo bay.

The Fabia Monte Carlo gets a pair of huge, luridly striped grey, red and black sports seats that dom­i­nate the cabin, yet com­ple­ment the chubby per­fo­rated leather steer­ing wheel and al­loy pedal set. Skoda is in­tent on beating you over the head with some rather heavy-handed brand­ing too, with Monte Carlo lo­gos on the hatch, side win­dows, sill plates and the mul­ti­me­dia screen, de­spite this be­ing a mere trim level rather than a hot­ted-up ver­sion. Your mileage may vary on whether this pays suf­fi­cient def­er­ence to Skoda’s ral­ly­ing her­itage. The mas­sive front seats com­pro­mise rear space and the dou­ble-pane, full-length glass roof is ei­ther a bless­ing or a curse, de­pend­ing on how you view these things. The dash treat­ment is clean and co­he­sive although switch blanks show where you miss gear such as seat heaters.

Then there’s the Mazda 2. It feels small, largely be­cause it is nar­rower than the oth­ers, de­spite fea­tur­ing the long­est wheel­base here. Com­pared with the Genki upon which it’s based, this GT trim adds 16-inch ma­chined sil­ver al­loys and an ab­so­lute riot of soft-touch pure white leather in­side with neat con­trast stitch­ing. Think of the al­bino cows. Un­like some of the other cars here, the Mazda feels as if it’s had ev­ery op­tion thrown at it, with­out a switch blank in sight and the cos­metic up­grades are fairly well in­te­grated.

Pedal it down a coun­try road and, de­spite the tale of the tape, its wheel­base feels ner­vously short. We’ve cov­ered many miles in the Mazda 2 and it’s tra­di­tion­ally been po­si­tioned as the light car of choice for those who want some­thing fun, re­li­able and af­ford­able. Yet the 1.5-litre atmo en­gine now sounds un­couth and is lack­ing in herbs, post­ing the slow­est, or joint slow­est, times to 100km/h, through the 80-120km/h bench­mark and stand­ing 400m. Its cause isn’t helped by the dis­mal Dun­lop Enasave rub­ber, while the de­fault trans­mis­sion cal­i­bra­tion feels flabby. Switch to Sport and it tries to keep revs above 4000rpm at all times. That’s fine if you’re bar­relling through corners, but if you’re just look­ing to make re­spectable cross-coun­try progress it soon be­comes te­dious on straights.

Should you feel com­pelled to give the shift lever a prod to rec­tify this, you’ll be delighted to dis­cover it down­shifts when you push it for­wards (like the Citroen). There are no pad­dles, but you do get a pop-up head-up dis­play, sup­port­ive seats and a great steer­ing wheel. The driv­ing po­si­tion is good and ride qual­ity isn’t bad given its mod­est wheel­base, but start cov­er­ing some miles in the Mazda and it feels as if you’re row­ing it along a bit. In many re­gards it feels an old-school light car that’s hap­pi­est jink­ing about town, squeez­ing into tight park­ing slots and rev­el­ling in its abil­ity to shrug off ne­glect.

The Fabia’s vir­tu­ally on par with the Mazda across 400m, pip­ping it by mere hun­dredths, although much of that is down to the Skoda’s gear­box, which is un­able to hold revs at launch. The Czech car is oth­er­wise at an ad­van­tage in this com­pany by dint of the fact that it wears the most fo­cused rub­ber (Bridge­stone Potenza RE050AS), but its tyres can’t can­cel out the short­com­ings of its damper tune. One or two up, the Fabia can feel flinty in its re­sponses, as if it needs

more so­phis­ti­cated valv­ing in its dampers. Put a cou­ple of big lugs in the back seats and it irons out sur­face im­per­fec­tions well. That com­pres­sion damp­ing is­sue rears its head when cor­ner­ing the Skoda hard, as it trans­fers weight rapidly to its out­side front tyre, of­ten in­cur­ring a scratchy ESP in­ter­ven­tion. That’s a shame as brake pedal feel is ex­cel­lent and the en­gine seems vaguely in­de­struc­tible, with great throt­tle re­sponse.

Wind noise is the worst of this group, es­pe­cially around the mir­rors, and it oc­ca­sion­ally feels as if there’s a faint pres­sure os­cil­la­tion in the cabin; a mild ver­sion of what you get if you open one window at speed. The sec­ondary ride suf­fers from a pat­ter­ing on any­thing but a smooth road, and we found that the back­rest ad­just­ment on this test car grad­u­ally mi­grated to full-on re­cline if you tra­versed bumps. Even in Sport, the trans­mis­sion up­shifts at lit­tle more than 5000rpm, blithely ig­nor­ing the last thou­sand revs avail­able.

If the Fabia dis­ap­points be­cause its fo­cus doesn’t live up to its mo­tor­sport sell, the Citroen C3 is quite the op­po­site. You ex­pect this thing to be about as sport­ing as shoot­ing fish in a bar­rel, partly be­cause it has the best ride qual­ity of the group. The cyn­i­cal among you might well re­alise that the C3 rides on the PSA PF1 plat­form, which dates from the first-gen C3 of 2002, and that soft­en­ing ev­ery­thing off and pro­mot­ing its ride qual­ity is merely a way of hid­ing the dy­namic short­com­ings of an out­dated chas­sis. And you’d be right. That said, in of­fer­ing a key point of dif­fer­ence, and an im­por­tant one, the Citroen cer­tainly carves out a niche as a comfy, long-dis­tance plod­der. A lack of mod­ern elec­tron­ics like ac­tive cruise con­trol and AEB takes the shine off the Shine’s in­ter­state cre­den­tials a lit­tle, but the fab­ric seats are fan­tas­tic, the ride cos­set­ing and, when you show it a cor­ner, it’s a lot more com­posed than you’d ex­pect. In other words, this age­ing Citroen has a wholly ac­cept­able ride/han­dling bal­ance.

It’s not par­tic­u­larly quick and there are all man­ner of quirks, such as the neu­rotic idle-stop with its kill switch in the in­fo­tain­ment menu struc­ture and propen­sity to snatch at the wheel when it shuts off, the glove­box that’s full of fuse­box, the de­fault trans­mis­sion cal­i­bra­tion’s abil­ity to plug you into third gear at 800rpm, the shoddy er­gonomics of stalks and cruise con­trol lurk­ing out of sight be­hind mas­sive steer­ing wheel spokes and the Sport but­ton lo­cated in the guts of the fas­cia where you’d nor­mally find USBS, fluff and lost gummy bears. The de­vel­op­ment of smart­phone mir­ror­ing must have been a bolt of sal­va­tion for French man­u­fac­tur­ers too, who sud­denly had a Plan B for those who found their in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems im­pen­e­tra­ble. You’ll over­look all of that for the C3’s charm­ing de­meanour and re­laxed ride. It’s gen­uinely a de­light­ful thing to schlep along in.

The Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo feels the quick­est of this bunch, with an over­tak­ing punch beyond the ken of any of its as­sem­bled ri­vals. It’s largely pre­scrip­tive in­so­far as it has no drive modes what­so­ever, which quells any resid­ual mode anx­i­ety. The gearshifte­r drops all the way back into ‘M’ rather than ‘D’ which is a cu­rios­ity, but even in man­ual mode it will up­shift and down­shift for you, so think of it more as a Sport set­ting for the trans­mis­sion. The en­gine’s re­sponse feels the most tur­bocharged of our con­tenders, of­fer­ing a fat, boosty ladling on of torque from around 1800rpm that al­lows it to cover ground ef­fort­lessly, although a car that’s this good to drive de­serves a bet­ter tyre than the Bridge­stone Ecopia EP150. If it wore Poten­zas like the Fabia, the Swift would un­doubt­edly be the most ex­cit­ing of this group. The steer­ing feels alive with plenty to sig­nal the lim­its of grip, although there is the oc­ca­sional in­stance of rack rat­tle. The car feels foursquare and fighty, but the down­side to this is a

nig­gling ride qual­ity and a ten­dency to crash through com­pres­sions and lat­eral ruts, sit­ting down hard at the back. In some re­gards the damp­ing’s rough edges feel like the Skoda’s, but the Swift de­liv­ers a lot more in the way of fun, which buys it a lot of credit.

As good as the Swift is, the Polo makes it feel a bit crude. So pol­ished is the Volk­swa­gen’s ride qual­ity, con­trol weight­ing, damp­ing, steer­ing, throt­tle map­ping and trans­mis­sion cal­i­bra­tion, in Sport mode at least, that it feels al­most Golf-like in its un­flap­pa­bil­ity. Corners that would have the Swift’s wheel twist­ing and writhing in your hand are im­pe­ri­ously swat­ted by the Polo. An un­ex­pected bonus is that the three-pot en­gine sounds so thrummy and char­ac­ter­ful at the top end too, bring­ing a wel­come dose of at­ti­tude to the oth­er­wise buffed to a sheen Volk­swa­gen. Faults? Not too many re­ally. The stan­dard trans­mis­sion cal­i­bra­tion in ‘D’ is just too lazy, up­shift­ing too keenly and ca­pa­ble of cre­at­ing heart-in-mouth mo­ments when you pull into fast-mov­ing traf­fic. Best stick to Sport. Then there’s the nag­ging ques­tion of the DSG’S dura­bil­ity com­pared with the re­li­a­bil­ity of a torque con­verter au­to­matic.

So the fin­ish­ing or­der? The Mazda 2 has to fin­ish last. It’s cramped and slow and it feels as if much of the mar­ket has passed it by. It used to be a podium shoo-in, but it has re­tained a dated form fac­tor and not kicked on ad­e­quately as newer and more ca­pa­ble ri­vals have suc­ces­sively rel­e­gated it down the peck­ing or­der.

The Fabia Monte Carlo puts in a solid show­ing, ul­ti­mately let down by a jittery ride, a value propo­si­tion that doesn’t quite gel and a se­ries of cal­i­bra­tion de­ci­sions that take the edge off what is a fun­da­men­tally ca­pa­ble car.

It feels about right to place the po­lar­is­ing Citroen C3 in mid­field. It rides sweetly, looks like noth­ing else, is full of bold ideas and cov­ers miles so ef­fort­lessly. The hard plas­tics, so-so fuel econ­omy, pack­ag­ing com­pro­mises and fun­da­men­tally an­cient chas­sis cur­tail its chances of go­ing any fur­ther here, but a five-year war­ranty could well take the edge off any resid­ual re­li­a­bil­ity or value con­cerns.

The Swift is another car with no­table flaws that is so like­able that it does well. The in­te­rior is un­so­phis­ti­cated, but it’s such a hoot to drive, you prob­a­bly won’t care. It’s a perky-look­ing thing that has real sub­stance to it, although we wonder how many po­ten­tial GLX Turbo buy­ers will pre­fer to mi­grate to the Swift Sport. As an ex­er­cise in cre­at­ing a gen­uinely light­weight, ef­fi­cient su­per­mini, it’s one that earns se­ri­ous ku­dos.

Nev­er­the­less, it shouldn’t come as any great sur­prise that the best han­dling, most pol­ished, most spa­cious, quick­est, most eco­nom­i­cal and best value car wins this test. Yes, the Polo can be ac­cused of a cer­tain con­ser­vatism, but for many that’s ex­actly the ap­peal. It’s a gen­uinely class act and puts clear air be­tween it­self and the next best. You’ll find joy in any of the or­di­nary cars here. But there’s only one car that truly tran­scends the or­di­nary and it’s Volk­swa­gen’s jewel-like Polo Mk6.

The Polo can be ac­cused of con­ser­vatism, but for many that’s ex­actly the ap­peal

FABIA RUNS PRE­VI­OUS-GEN POLO PLAT­FORM; SUS­PEN­SION TUNE DOESN’T QUITE GEL ON AUSSIE ROADS

WHAT THE SWIFT LACKS IN OVER­ALL RE­FINE­MENT IT MAKES UP FOR WITH PUPPYISH EN­THU­SI­ASM

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