Small but sweet: Three sub-R300k hatches from SA’s top-selling manufacturers

Small but sweet: Three sub-R300k hatches from SA’s top-selling manufacturers
SA’s bestselling passenger car, the Volkswagen Polo Vivo. (Photo: VWSA)

Given South Africa’s economic doldrums, finding an affordable car is top of mind for many people. The Toyota Starlet, the VW Polo Vivo and Suzuki Swift are three hatches that won’t break the bank.

While local new-vehicle sales fell 2% overall year on year last month, three manufacturers were still way ahead of the game. Number one bestselling manufacturer, Toyota SA Motors, managed to flog 12,440 units in October, representing a 27.4% slice of the total market.

Volkswagen SA sold 6,595 units to come in second place, while Japanese upstart, Suzuki Auto SA, continued its sterling run, once again taking third place by selling 4,480 units. 

As usual, the local bakkie-obsessed market saw to it that the good old Toyota Hilux was the number one best-selling vehicle with 3,110 units sold in October. 

South Africa’s favourite passenger car, the Polo Vivo, roared into second place (2,280 units) while another Toyota, the popular Corolla Cross, came in at number three (2,100 units). 

Ford’s wildly popular Ranger nabbed fourth position, finding 1,853 new homes, while yet another Toyota, the ever-popular Hi-Ace, sold 1,546 units to take fifth position.

The appetite for bakkies does not abate, with the Isuzu D-Max, the third bakkie in the top 10, taking sixth place.

The Toyota Starlet, which has been selling well for more than three years, came in at number seven (1,363 units), and at number eight was the Suzuki Swift hatch (1,248 units).

VW’s locally produced Polo came in at number nine, selling 1,235 units and the soon-to-be discontinued Nissan NP200 rounded up the top 10 with 961 units sold. (It’s worth mentioning that not a single premium passenger car made the top 10.)

I recently received a letter from a Daily Maverick reader asking me to recommend a couple more “affordable” cars. I’ve chosen three of my favourite current hatches, costing less than R300k and all of which featured on Naamsa’s Top Ten October bestseller list. Here you go. 

The Toyota Starlet

sub-R300K hatches

The Toyota Starlet has been a bestseller since its launch in 2020. (Photo: Toyota SA)

Launched back in 2020 and upgraded in June 2022, the Starlet’s star is far from waning. It’s been in the Top 10 since its debut. And while it’s really a rebadged Baleno due to a global share agreement between Suzuki and Toyota, it’s here where we see the power of a catchy name and a trusty brand.

The name Starlet has appealed to its young, ambitious and aspirational market, and with the Toyota badge behind it, sales have been off the charts. The Baleno, with its somewhat bulbous name, has sold a fraction of its doppelgänger.

Available in three trim levels: the Starlet Xi, Xs and top-of-the-range Xr, you can choose between a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed auto in the Xs or Xr models. (The entry-level Xi is only available as a manual.) It’s an attractive-looking hatch with stuff like a honeycomb lower grille and fog lamps surrounded in chrome.

While there’s a fair amount of hard plastic in the cabin – unavoidable for this price range – the two-tone dashboard ups its appeal. The Starlet has some decent tech by way of its nifty infotainment system which has surprisingly crisp resolution on a 7-inch screen.

A bonus is the two fast-charging USB ports in the rear. Speaking of which, it’s pretty roomy back there for a hatch, plus the rear seats can fold flat to significantly expand the normal 314l of boot space. There are also numerous cup and bottle holders for added convenience. 

The Starlet relies on a 1.5l naturally aspirated engine, good for 77kW (9kW more than the first generation 1.4l) and 138Nm of torque, which has seen an increase of 8Nm.) Frugal fuel consumption adds to its appeal at under 6l/100km, and it has six airbags, an unusually generous safety addition in this class.

Price: Toyota Starlet – from R280,000.

The Volkswagen Polo Vivo

sub-R300K hatches

The top-of-the-range Polo Vivo GT. (Photo: VWSA)

For as long as I can remember, the Polo Vivo has reigned supreme as the best-selling passenger car in SA. People love its compact and timeless looks. When it comes to its youthful target market, the VW badge carries strong currency in its “cool” appeal.

Introduced to the market in 2010, VW created a winning recipe by basing the new Polo Vivo on the outgoing fourth-generation straight Polo. This strategy has continued until today. Added to the Vivo’s success is the fact that it’s locally produced at Kariega, VW’s plant in the Eastern Cape.

Inside the cabin, the seats are draped in high-quality durable cloth material and the plastics, while hard, don’t have that cheap look. There’s plenty of legroom up front while rear seats can be dropped to enable 952l of boot space. The no-nonsense infotainment system is touchscreen-based, fast and intuitive to operate.  

The range consists of the entry-level Vivo 1.4 Trendline, the 1.4 Comfortline, and the 1.6 Highline – all 5-speed manuals. Then there’s the auto 1.6 Comfortline and the top-of-the-range Vivo GT, slightly more powerful and pricier at R341,000.

While the 1.4l engine produces 63kW, my preferred engine is the more zippy 1.6l 4-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol, producing 77kW and 153Nm. 

I’m a big fan of the way the Vivo hatch drives. It’s nippy and cheeky and can effortlessly cruise at high speeds on highways with almost no road noise. Where it really shines is in its fuel efficiency, coming in at around 4.7l/100km. 

Price: Volkswagen Polo Vivo hatch  – from R255,600.

The Suzuki Swift

sub-R300K hatches

The popular Suzuki Swift hatchback. (Photo: Suzuki Auto SA)

The Swift has much to do with the success story of Suzuki in SA. 

It’s been around locally since 2008 when Suzuki returned to local shores as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Japanese-based company. 

If you look at the sales charts, its appeal just keeps on growing. For example, in 2022, Suzuki’s third and current-generation Swift sales figures grew 108% year on year.

It’s a cute car to look at with its almost helmet-like side profile, “froggie” eyes and smiling grille. Inside, it’s very utilitarian – nothing fancy and probably of all three cars reviewed here, it has the most plasticky feel when it comes to interior finishes. (But it’s also the cheapest of the trio.) 

The infotainment system is easy to operate and in the more top-of-the-range Swift, there’s Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. 

There’s adequate room for rear passengers and, unlike the earlier generation where the Swift’s boot was tiny, there are now 268l on offer.

The range consists of a 1.2l naturally aspirated engine, good for 61kW and 113Nm. In terms of spec, the entry-level GA model is pretty basic, but still has ESC and two airbags.

Then there’s the GL with some add-ons like audio control switches on the steering wheel and front fog lamps as standard.

The GLX in my book hits the sweet spot in terms of offerings such as hill-hold control and a reverse camera. The top-of-the-range turbocharged 1.4l Swift Sport is almost like an entirely different car, with its 230Nm of torque, 6-speed manual or 6-speed auto gearbox, and a price tag of R455,000. 

Overall, the Swift is a fun car to drive, road-holding is good, pricing is excellent, and when it comes to consumption, real-life driving will see it come in at around 5.5l/100km.

Price: Suzuki Swift – from R205,900. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Schalk Burger says:

    These review are very well done – thanks. Great concise style and informative. All 3 these cars represent good value and great second hand value. All proven technology, means long term reliability and ease of maintenance.

  • Ismail Lagardien says:

    I was “forced” to buy a new car several months ago, and got the Starlet. The only problem, so far, is that it is the one that was on the showroom floor. Brand new, but monkeyS#$t brown. Always liked cheap cars. When I first got a car allowance many years ago, colleagues went for Benz C-class or BMW 3 series – I bought a Mazda Sting (and had all the decals removed). Not a day’s problems. Thanks for the review, Mel.

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