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South Africa’s Volkswagen Polo grows up to be a premi...



Volkswagen Polo grows up to be a premium professional in South Africa

The new Volkswagen Polo. (Photo: Supplied)

The sixth-generation Polo will smash the idea of the model being an ‘entry-level’ hatchback.

A few years back, I met the guy who launched the Lexus brand in Germany. Think about that for a bit.

Lexus makes beautiful cars. But to launch the Japanese brand in a country famous for its automotive engineers, the land of the coachbuilders of Baden Württemberg and Bavaria – of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Audi – cannot have been easy.

Lexus knew that to unsettle the big German brands globally they would need to launch a car that was streets ahead, which they arguably did with the 1990’s LS400.

Lexus’s arrival had a huge effect in the US, where the new brand and the obsessive levels of attention to detail and engineering that went into creating the car gave the Germans a pretty serious knock.

In Germany, uptake was slower. The man who launched the brand there was sanguine; the experience had taught him all about selling cars in difficult markets and, as time advanced, Lexus’s leadership in hybrid production gave them a niche offering to add to the quiet and comfort of its cars. In all, though, Germans still tend to buy German cars. This is no hardship, but clearly German people have concluded that home-grown is best.

Years later, when I edited a magazine, I was on the receiving end of a PR campaign for a Cognac brand. Now, Cognac is like one of those trademarked European things, a bit like Champagne (MCC), Parmesan (“hard cheese” at Woolies), Stilton (blue cheese) and Jersey Royal potatoes (new potatoes). As a result, an exceptionally charming Frenchman explained – in quite relentlessly excruciating detail – why Cognac was not only different to brandy, but also better.

He wittered on with great commitment about terroir, heritage and water. The only problem was that he was doing this in South Africa, where we make the best brandies on Earth. In booze terms, he was launching a Citroën at the home of Rolls-Royce.

Polo GTi interior. (Photo: Supplied)

The Cognac in question was undoubtedly very pleasant indeed, but in SA we’re so inured to the sea of superb brandy that we swim in that most don’t even know how good a brandy – even just a straight-up, old-fashioned Klippies – actually is.

Here, there are folks who mix it with Coke, and the kind of people who fall for Cognac marketing campaigns led by charming Europeans like to laugh at them.

Well, okay, but if sparkling Evian came from our taps they’d also brush their teeth with it. And good brandy is everywhere in South Africa – even in Kilpdrift bottles.  Sometimes – but especially here – we forget that where you are is sometimes the place where it’s done best. The presumption that because something is local it must necessarily be a load of rubbish is very South African – and very wrong, not only in terms of brandy vs Cognac, but also in some automotive places.

As much as the industry faces significant challenges over the coming decade – not least its ability to pivot at un-South African speed to EV sales and production – there is no denying that the cars built here are really very good. By all the quality measures used by the original equipment manufacturers, a South African-built car is a good car.

So good, in fact, that Volkswagen’s giant Kareiga (Uitenhage) plant is now the only facility in the world that builds the GTi version of the car, and one of the few that builds the Polo, the giant brand’s second-bestselling car globally after the Tiguan.

The Polo is no longer a baby. Volkswagen went to some lengths to show how much it’s grown, saying that it has more interior space than a fourth-generation VW Golf.

All of this is par for the course in a car that’s now in its sixth generation – cars don’t as a rule get smaller as they evolve. Its increased size is matched by a demeanour that can only be fairly described as grown-up.

The rear of the new Volkswagen Polo. (Photo: Supplied)

Even a base 70kW manual version with a five-speed manual gearbox comes as standard fit, with levels of sophistication and suppressed noise, vibration and harshness that put the car far away at the premium end of the supermini segment.

At freeway speeds, the little one-litre motor paired well with the gearbox and, on the long hills, leant happily on its 175Nm torque. Even at high speeds, the engine noise is so well suppressed that elevated revs didn’t ruin the peace of a comfortable cruise.

The sense of calm is no doubt helped by the comfort-focused 16-inch rubber, which nevertheless cannot hide the quality of the engineering in the chassis.

As an entry-level car, the poise and steering of the Polo are second to none.

Stepping up in the SA-built GTi, it’s clear the badge is no marketing gimmick. A two-litre engine, a performance-focused ride and 147kW of vooma make the Polo GTi a proper little rocket capable of cracking 100km/h in 6.7 seconds.

Superbly chuckable, it’s a perfect foil for the urban dice. You pay for this in ride comfort, though, not that anyone who buys one will care. In the GTi, you experience more of the potential of a superbly engineered platform, which, inevitably, left me wondering if it couldn’t handle even more punch.

Add to all this, even in the basic car, an interior of absolutely unimpeachable quality, and the Polo makes a very good case indeed as an anonymous verging-on-premium small car. Compared with the cheaper cars designed for global south markets – as good as cars such as the Suzuki Swift and the Toyota Starlet may be – the Polo feels like it’s from a different planet, quality-wise.

Regrettably, that costs money. The Polo is now yours for R312,000 for a basic manual car, up to just shy of R490,000 for the GTi.

Some have said that this “feels like a lot of money for a Polo”, but the Polo has really drifted into premium territory, and the cheap-n-cheerful Polo of your memory no longer exists. Yes, there are cheaper hatchbacks out there, but none of them is anything like as good as this.

If you can handle the outdated view of the Polo as an entry-level car, then you’ll also be fine with drinking SA brandy. Just don’t do it at the same time. Sometimes, in the face of what we believe about ourselves, local really is best. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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