It’s being touted as the most sophisticated VW Polo ever – and it is. But has that upward mobility alienated the Polo from its once youthful, budget-conscious target market? And where does the cheaper yet talented Polo Vivo fit in? By DEON SCHOEMAN.
Between them, the Volkswagen Polo and its slightly older, more affordable Polo Vivo stablemate have dominated South Africa’s passenger car sales charts for more than half a decade.
It’s a success story born of a clever strategy: as soon as a new Polo generation is introduced, the former model becomes the Polo Vivo. Both ranges are produced locally at Volkswagen SA’s Uitenhage plant, where high local content and strong economies of scale also allow for competitive pricing.
VWSA’s strategy to continue production of models being replaced started way back in the Golf Mk1 days. When the larger, fancier Golf 2 replacement arrived in SA in 1984, the original was transformed into the more affordable, more basic Citi Golf – and a legend was born.
So popular was the Citi Golf that production continued for an astounding 25 years, and there was an outcry when it was finally retired in 2009. It was replaced by a more basic version of the fourth-generation Polo, badged the Polo Vivo.
The arrival of the first Vivo coincided with the launch of the Gen5 VW Polo in SA – still a compact runabout, but smarter, safer and more refined than any of its predecessors.
If anything, the execution of the newcomer was more scaled-down Golf than posher Polo, and combined with the Polo Vivo, the result was a top-selling duo that soon dominated the SA sales charts.
Nine years later, it’s time for another new Polo … and a new Polo Vivo. The latest, sixth-generation Polo oozes sophistication inside and out, with equally advanced technology to underpin it. The Gen2 Polo Vivo, of course, offers all the benefits that made the outgoing Gen5 Polo so popular.
However, it does pose the question whether the Polo’s continuous quest for self-improvement hasn’t resulted in a car so ambitiously executed that it’s all but shed its positioning as a compact and accessible model.
By the same token, is the Polo Vivo really still the bare-bones basic, entry-level car it set out to be? In fact, is the new Vivo not more Polo than Vivo?
To find out, I have an example of each newcomer parked in my test garage. Resplendent in metallic black is a New Polo 1.0 TSI Comfortline with the optional Beats package, while the fiery red hatch is a Polo Vivo GT.
The Beats package is a collection of extra-cost add-ons inspired by the trendy ‘Beats by Dr Dre’ headphone brand. Valued at around R12k, it comprises a 300 Watt sound system with subwoofer, a dashboard part-finished in anodised red, two-tone seats and trim, special wheels, and various other embellishments.
Clearly, it’s a way for VW to underline that, for all its sophistication, the Polo is still targeting the young, hip and happening crowd, if not exclusively so. The new Polo’s appeal is far broader than that.
It’s also significantly larger than its predecessor, with a lower, wider look that’s both keener and more grown-up. Compare it to the Polo Vivo, and you’ll notice crisper lines and shorter overhangs, creating a sharper, contemporary demeanour.
More important, the underpinnings utilise VW’s MQB platform, already a highlight of other new-generation VW models and offering a superior combination of low mass and high rigidity. The result is a car that promises better handling and enhanced refinement.
The small-displacement, three-cylinder turbo engine reflects the global motor industry’s focus on fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. The 70kW power output and 175Nm torque peak won’t set the tar alight, but provide adequate urge for a hatchback weighing just more than a ton.
From a tactile perspective, however, the most impressive aspect of the new Polo is the interior. It feels as smart and swanky as it looks, with upmarket finishes, soft-touch surfaces and crafted materials.
The ergonomics are spot-on, thanks to well-positioned instruments, user-friendly switchgear, and a high-res touchscreen display for the full-featured infotainment system. You can even opt of a configurable TFT instrument display as opposed to analogue dials – at added cost, of course.
Safety is top-class, with six airbags, electronic stability control and a portfolio of intelligent driver assistance systems. As has become the industry norm, buyers can add even more kit from an extended list of optional luxury and convenience extras – if the budget allows.
Accommodation is also a big step up from the previous Polo (now Polo Vivo), especially for rear occupants, who get more leg, head and shoulder room. The boot is more capacious, and is home to a full-sized spare wheel – a must-have given our road conditions and extended travel distances.
On the move, it’s the new Polo’s refinement that’s the biggest eye-opener. The hatch rides our pothole-scarred suburban roads with supple composure, easily ironing out bumps and dips, and always feeling like a bigger car than it actually is.
However, it retains the vital manoeuvrability of a compact hatchback: the steering is both responsive and precise, without the usual numbness associated with electric assistance.
The only downside is the drivetrain. That little turbo engine goes about its business with gruff enthusiasm, but has to make do with a five-speed transmission geared more for economy than get up and go.
The effective ratios are just that little bit too tall, robbing the Polo of low-down pep, and requiring concerted use of the gearbox. The optional seven-speed DSG transmission may be a better option here.
Pep is something the Polo Vivo GT has in abundance. It might lack the snappier looks of the new Polo, but it doesn’t look dated by any means, and the smoother, uncluttered lines still create a nicely balanced silhouette.
True to its GT moniker, this flagship Polo Vivo gets racy 17-inch alloys and low-profile rubber, as well as a lowered suspension, to add further visual lustre (and grippier handling). But next to the new Polo, it is noticeably smaller, and aesthetically plainer.
The interior also can’t match new Polo’s cockpit for sheer style and tactile appeal, although the clear instrumentation, integrated colour touchscreen and well thought out control set still score high ergonomic marks.
Decent multispeaker sound, Bluetooth, USB connectivity, air-con, electric windows and mirrors, and central locking are only some of the comfort items on the GT’s standard features list.
The Vivo is slightly heavier than the Polo, but it feels a lot nippier, thanks to a more muscular engine, and a better gearbox choice. The 999cc three-pot turbo mill is effectively the same as the Polo’s, but in this guise delivers a healthier 81kW and 200Nm.
Crucially, the gearbox is a six-speed manual with closer-stacked ratios, allowing the engine’s muscle to be managed much more effectively. No wonder the Polo Vivo GT feels frisky and raring to go! Midrange urge is particularly punchy, and there’s little need for hard revving.
It might be quicker, but the Polo Vivo lacks the polish of the new Polo. The drivetrain is busier, and the chassis is less forgiving on indifferent surfaces. The steering isn’t as precise, either. But heck, it’s a lot of fun to drive!
An accusation often levelled at more affordable cars is a shortage of safety gear, but the Vivo GT offers dual airbags, ABS brakes and traction control as standard. Of course, it’s a moot point whether the GT still qualifies for budget car status, though …
Which brings us to the all-important matter of price. Comparing the two models in baseline Trendline trim, the Polo retails for R235,900, while the Polo Vivo can be had for R179,900. That’s a whopping R56k difference, even if the Vivo’s spec is much more basic.
With the Beats package, the otherwise mid-spec Polo Comfortline carries a R276,000 price tag. Add niceties such as the test car’s auto climate control, cruise control, the enhanced Composition infotainment system and parking assistance with rear-view camera, and the cost rockets beyond the R300k mark. That’s Golf territory.
The Polo Vivo GT retails for R245,000 – but even if you factor in R4,779 for a three-year/45,000km service plan (standard on the Polo), and R9,382 for leather trim, a multifunction steering wheel and sport seats, the final price tag is still (just) shy of R260,000.
Yes, it’s smaller, not nearly as advanced and a lot less refined, with lower levels of standard kit. But the extra urge makes a big difference dynamically with little impact on the fuel bill, while the running costs are likely to be lower.
There’s no doubt that the new VW Polo is a real cut above in terms of outright sophistication. In fact, if you don’t need the extra space, a well-specced Polo is a very real alternative to an entry-level Golf.
Bang for the buck has always been the hallmark of the Polo Vivo (and the Citi Golf before it), and that’s also true of the latest version. The Polo Vivo GT adds real engagement and ample features to the mix, making it a very tempting choice for value seekers.
And who can afford to ignore value these days? DM
|VW New Polo
|VW Polo Vivo
|In-line 3-cylinder, 999cc, turbo
|In-line 3-cylinder, 999cc, turbo
|70kW @ 5,000rpm
|81kW @ 5,000rpm
|175Nm @ 2,000-3,000rpm
|200Nm @ 2,000rpm
|Five-speed Manual, FWD
|Six-speed manual, FWD
|16-inch alloy, 195/55 R16 tyres
|17-inch alloy, 215/40 R17 tyres
|Fuel tank capacity
|Retail price/as tested