Car (South Africa)
The well-balanced sophisticate
Mention small hatchbacks in any car-related conversation and there’s a Pavlovian tendency for the little Volkswagen Polo to spring to the forefront of buyers’ consciousness. Since the first example of the Mk IV rolled off the line at the firm’s Uitenhage (now Kariega) plant in 2002, around 700 000 examples have found homes with local motorists. South Africa is the 10th largest market for Polo worldwide. In the wake of a multi-billion-rand investment in 2017, Kariega added the sixth-generation model – along with many others underpinned by the group’s MQB A0 platform – to its production portfolio for both local and export markets. The numbers at play are quite something to behold. In the case of the Polo and the budgetplaced Vivo with which it shares a production line, 165 000 units come out of Kariega each year. That equates to a Polo or Vivo rolling off the production line every 105 seconds!
Yet even with such impressive stats, the Polo hatch still occupies an automotive genre that’s come under some assault from the increasingly favoured light-suv and crossover segments. And while those segments have taken a bite from the D-hatch pie, the knock-on effect is clear to see in the direction Volkswagen has taken with the updated Polo.
With the local Golf line-up reduced to just one model – the GTI – the role of upmarket and tech-laden hatchback VW has now fallen to three models of the updated Polo: the entry-level base, the 147 kw GTI and this mid-range Life model.
Cosmetically, Volkswagen hasn’t done anything radical for the Polo’s midlife reboot. More horizontally aligned brakelamp arrays and tweaks to the nose are the most noticeable updates. The latter is particularly striking in the case of our IQ Light-equipped test unit. This not only adds adaptive headlamps featuring a 24-LED array units, but also takes a leaf out of the Golf 8’s playbook with the inclusion of an LED light bar spanning the width of the grille.
Inside, the Polo remains the benchmark against which its rivals are measured. The fascia is an exercise in ergonomically sound simplicity, with the inclusion of crisp TFT screens for the smartphone-compatible infotainment system and instrumentation lending functionality and flair to proceedings. Despite its rivals having gained serious ground on the Polo in the perceived quality stakes, the finishes in the German car are still class leading. Along with impressive NVH suppression, it cements the impression you’re driving a premium product.
We’ve often talked about the fire-and-forget effortlessness of Volkswagen’s products – their ability to do everything with such fuss-free aplomb that you barely notice the workings of the car when you’re piloting it – and it still filters down to the Polo. The Macpherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension is brilliantly tuned to dismiss all but the worst road scars, yet there’s enough feel in the stilllight power steering and chassis to make the Polo feel composed under all driving conditions.
The 1,0-litre turbopetrol threepot may have the least power in this group, but a healthy 175 N.m of torque and close gearing that gives way to a tall ratio only for the final cog mean that it feels eminently driveable. It is flexible in cut-and-thrust town driving and civilised at the national limit. It all equates to a car that is more planted and substantial than its rivals here, offering a big-car driving experience in a small-hatch package.
The democratisation of big-car traits is further reflected in the nature of the driver-assistance technology Volkswagen offers for the Polo. Our unit featured forward collision detection with autonomous braking, active lane-keeping assist, pedestrian monitoring and adaptive cruise control. This is a great array of big-car features, but it highlights the Polo’s one big weakness in this company. Said safety features – along with the likes of reverse camera, keyless ignition and entry and sat-nav – are all optional extras. Care is needed to ensure the competitive R353 600 sticker price doesn’t swell towards the R400 000 mark.
One CAR tester spent a great deal of time with the Polo and drove it from its launch. As he so aptly put it: “Expressed through its pure, simple linearity of form, the new Polo reinforces the key attributes that make a great compact hatch and then enhances these with VW’S digital know-how, and it’s a genuine delight to drive”.