The Volkswagen Polo is a long-standing success story in South Africa. Look around, they’re all over the place.
Locally the Polo hatchback was born 25 years ago as the ‘Playa’, which was something of a local creation based on the Seat Ibiza, but with rear end modified to resemble the Golf 4.
They figured since they were already building the Seat Cordoba-based Polo Classic in SA, an Ibiza adaptation would be a cheaper option than tooling up for the actual Polo hatchback that was sold in Europe.
As much as that made sense at the time, VWSA reverted to the real Polo for the following generation, as it would allow them to gain a lucrative export contract that’s still in place today with the very latest hatchback.
But while it went from strength to strength in Mzanzi in the first two decades of the millennium, the Polo hatchback’s popularity has been waning in recent times.
Sadly, pricing could be to blame here. While the stripped-down Polo Vivo, which starts at around R250 000, still sells up a storm, It seems Volkswagen is struggling to convince local buyers to part with between R343 100 and R456 800 for the latest Polo TSI range, not forgetting the GTI at R535 600.
The rising popularity of the SUV is no doubt also to blame here, which is a pity because as far as hatchbacks go the Volkswagen Polo is easily the best on the market right now.
Having been impressed with the 85kW 1.0 TSI DSG model tested earlier this year, I recently got to try out the humbler 70kW manual Life model, which proved to be another pleasant surprise.
It might be the base engine and gearbox combination but there’s a certain refinement to its overall operation that really elevates this product. The previous week I had driven the Polo Vivo GT, which was a great deal of fun, but it’s also built to a price and no match for the newer Polo in terms of overall refinement.
The Polo’s 70kW turbocharged engine felt adequately powered in all the driving situations I encountered and the five-speed manual gearbox shifted smoothly through the ratios and didn’t feel under-geared at highway speeds.
Economy was reasonably good too, with my test car averaging 7.7 litres per 100km in a week spent mostly driving around town. In these urban settings it drank around 8.4 litres per 100km - although it can easily surpass nine l/100km if you’re too liberal with the throttle. On a short highway stint, however, I got it down to 4.9 litres per 100km after resetting the short-term trip.
The Polo also rides comfortably and it's relatively quiet out on the road. You do feel a bit of vibration at idle, however, but that’s a given with a three-cylinder engine.
Cabin and specification
Overall cabin quality is decent, and there’s still a good mix between analogue and digital, with traditional climate controls as well as modern digital instrumentation and touchscreen infotainment.
When it comes to practicality the Polo is competitive within the B-segment. The rear quarters are not cramped, but there isn’t much leg-stretching space either. And the 351 litre boot should cater for most needs.
The Polo that we had on test was the mid-spec Life model, which is actually the best appointed 70kW model as the R-Line is only available in 85kW guise.
Standard features, as per the base model, include a Composition Colour infotainment system, multi-function steering wheel and electric windows and mirrors, with the Life spec grade adding 15-inch alloy wheels to the mix long with upgraded “slash” fabric seat upholstery, leather-covered steering wheel, central arm rest and an additional USB-C port.
But while the 70kW Life manual model is great to drive, at R385 300 it’s not all that much cheaper than the 85kW DSG-equipped version, which comes in at R408 000.
They’re both great cars but either way, you could argue, that’s a lot of money for a Polo.