Johannesburg - We can't say the fifth generation Polo is a tough act for the new one to follow, because it won’t be following it all. 

Rather, it’ll live right alongside it in showrooms as the old Polo becomes the new Vivo. Never before has the gap between new Polo and Vivo been so narrow in terms of modernity and perceived quality, and that fact alone makes things especially difficult for the all-new sixth-gen Polo on test here.

So what are the key differences? First off, the new Polo is built on VW’s now ubiquitous MQB platform, meaning it’s essentially the same architecture underpinning the Golf, Tiguan, Passat and Audi A3 and TT among a multitude of other vehicles. While this point might be too mechanically technical for the Polo-buying masses, just know that the MQB chassis allows this version to be longer, wider and generally more spacious, especially in the boot, than the old Polo and now new Vivo.

It also unlocks some technologies not yet seen this far down the VW range, such as blind spot monitoring, LED headlights, auto-braking (in reverse), self-parking and adjustable shocks among others, though much of these are either optional or sold in range-topping Highline derivatives only.

Because the new Polo has a longer wheelbase (+92mm) it should ride better too, and it might, but we can’t say we noticed a huge difference between this and the outgoing one. It’s still a fairly basic MacPherson front and torsion beam rear suspension underneath. That said, the 15-inch alloy wheel and tyre combo on our mid-level Comfortline test car did do a noticeably better job of soaking up road ripples than the 16s on a Polo Beats we also drove. Rim sizes go up to 17 inches as optional equipment, but be prepared to sacrifice some ride quality with these fitted.

There are mixed feelings in the Drive360 office regarding the design of the new interior, with some team members saying VW could have done more with styling and others thinking it’s a positive step up from the previous generation. Either way the quality of materials is still benchmark in the class and it’s all fitted together in a way many competitors can look up to.

There’s a new centre stack where a range of infotainment systems is available, starting with a basic 16.5cm touchscreen with two control knobs, a bigger Composition Media 20.3cm full touchscreen behind a smooth glass panel, and a range-topping Discover unit which is the same as the Composition but with navigation. If it weren’t for these vibrantly coloured displays, the cabin would be quite the sombre place, as all derivatives come standard with rather glum grey and black colour combos. There is however an optional Beats package with a glammed-up interior and upgraded audio (see below).

There’s also an optional digital instrument cluster just like you get in fancy Audis, which adds a huge splash of colour and tech, but only if you can afford the R8600 price tag of that option. Whether this Active Info Display is in your budget or not, the Polo is the only car in its class with such a feature and that shows the ambition VW is taking to the compact segment.

Under the hood is a peach of a 1-litre turbo engine; in the Comfortline’s case making 70kW and 175Nm. It’s a relatively refined little thing, delivering its power smoothly, quietly and reasonably efficiently. The trip computers on both cars we drove showed an impressively economical 5.9 per 100km, and that was including plenty of city traffic. We did note a touch of turbo lag at Gauteng altitude, but it’s easily overcomeable with some quick clutch work (a seven-speed DSG is also available). 

At the coast the regular Comfortline performed without a hint of lag, and was more than comfortable overtaking trucks on open stretches on N2 highway.

If you feel a bit more vooma is in order, the Polo in Highline spec has outputs boosted to 85kW and 200Nm. You’ll pay more, obviously, but this flagship model does throw adjustable suspension, the upgraded multimedia system, cruise control, sport seats and Apple CarPlay into the mix.

All Polos are sold with 3-year/45 000km Service Plans and 3-year/120 000km warranties

VERDICT

With strides in tech and quality the new Polo moves the compact hatch game forward in a big way. It’s one of the classiest contenders in the segment and an undeniable 2019 Car of the Year contender.

Want more colour in your life? Try the Polo Beats

The Polo Comfortline sells for R264 700, but if your budget stretches to R277 600 the Polo Beats model offers better sound and styling sizzle.

Volkswagen has teamed up with the US audio specialist BeatsAudio - founded by rapper Dr. Dre and Jimmy Lovine - to introduce the special edition Polo Beats.

The package includes a 300-watt sound system with a subwoofer, and it’s a superb system that blends crisp sound with pumping bass.

The styling package brings the cabin to life with velvet red inlays in the dashboard, striking three-tone seat upholstery, and Beats logos on the exterior and interior.

It really livens up the otherwise dour interior, without being kitsch. The added sound and colour is well worth the extra 13 grand, if you can afford it.

Drive360