Buying a car is stressful. Cost, reliability, resale value. But don’t despair, SA’s best-selling nameplate is back and it’s made the decision a whole lot easier.
2009. Volkswagen overlord, Martin Winterkorn, says to the then head of design, Walter de Silva: ‘Vaulter, I want new Polo to be ze leader in Europe and everyone else in ze world… Moo-ha-ha-ha!’ Right oh, no pressure then. The car he crafted went on to become World and European Car of the Year in 2010 and (joint) South African Car of the Year in 2011. Mission accomplished.
De Silva, of Bugatti Veyron and Lamborghini Gallardo design fame, let’s not forget, expressed through its linearity of form and taut lines, that the VW Polo should celebrate simplicity, safety, reliability and practicality – all the attributes that make a great supermini. Decision makers in Wolfsburg farmed production out to South Africa’s Uitenhage plant – recognised amongst the group’s top facilities after its multi-billion rand investment – and more than 195 000 fifth-gen Polos were built and sold, not only locally but to the most discerning markets all over the world. Quite the backstory when it comes to introducing the new Polo Vivo.
Let’s get straight to brass tacks. The new range consists of three engines and four trim lines. 55 kW 1.4 Trendline, a basic vehicle for fleet customers; 63 kW 1.4 Comfortline, the one we’ve driven; 77 kW 1.6 in Comfortline or Highline; and 81 kW 1.0 TSI GT, a modern day reimagining of the original MkI Golf GTI. So what has Volkswagen done to ‘vivo’ yesterday’s Polo? They’ve made value for money modifications, which meant prioritising its local supplier base, reducing cost and increasing efficiency. Hence the carryover of locally forged MPI engines (TSIs are imported), while the new interior trim, cloth seats, wheels, and the head and taillights are all locally sourced. Best of all, the cars are built nose-to-tail on one production line. So motivated factory staff can manage everything from a Vivo Trendline all the way to the Polo GTI. Viva, Polo, Viva!
So, we seized a small window of opportunity to test the integrity of Uitenhage’s baby, by grabbing one straight from the national launch event, and subjecting it to an exacting 1 000 km test from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, over every sort of terrain a Polo Vivo might encounter, and some it almost certainly wouldn’t. Things started off uneventfully enough with a gentle cruise from PE to Plett, affording us time to drink in the interior and standard spec of the cheerful Comfortline-spec vehicle. It’s all regular Polo inside – just like that we’ve come to know and love – so soft touch plastics, a leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel, electric windows all round (yay!), isofix anchor points and a handy hill hold assist.
Optionally fitted to our test unit was Electronic Stability Control (ESC) with tyre pressure monitor for a reasonable R 2 500 and Cruise Control for R 1 800, that’s it. We could’ve done with electric side mirror adjustment (leaning over is so ’72 Beetle, as you’ll find out on page 44), the marginally fancier colour touchscreen infotainment system, or a paint finish in anything other than Avis Rental white, but the upside to a short options list is minimal impact on kerbweight. And as we discovered when we slipped off the N2 and set course for Uniondale via the infamous R399 Prince Alfred’s Pass, the new Vivo is all about light, easy reactions and driver-friendly fun. In case you were unaware, the legendary pass isn’t some lavish expanse of smooth tarmac, but rather a long (68 km long, in fact, making it the longest accessible mountain pass in SA), twisting and in some sections incredibly rough gravel road, that’s considered by many to be Thomas Bains’ greatest work, purely because of the seemingly insurmountable engineering challenges he faced. Not dissimilar to what the little Vivo must endure right now.
The first stretch is heavily rutted from logging trucks traipsing in and out the forestry area and it’s hard to spot the severity of the ruts before it is too late to brake. The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension is taking a pounding and at this point I’m a little concerned I might puncture – out here there’s precious little cellphone reception. The Vivo answer? Dart around the dongas. The electromechanical power steering, and an absence of any unnecessary weight, means the Vivo turns on a dime. All of a sudden I’m having visions of the VW works rally Polos tearing through the forest in the Sasol rally. Eventually the roughness subsides and tens of kilometres of smooth, arcing dirt road ends Prince Alfred’s Pass on a high. What a road, what a car.
From Uniondale, there’s still the small matter of 550 km before we and the Vivo are home free. But it feels like it can take it in its stride considering what it’s just endured. True to form, I set the cruise control, settle in for the long haul and soak up all the joys of the R62, SA’s Route 66 if you will: Smitswinkel Padstal in Oudtshoorn (think Gas Monkey Garage but with moerkoffie), the fierce Pakhuispas, the can’t-be-missed Harry’s Sex Shop in the middle of the Klein Karoo, a breather with some bikers in Barrydale, and the exquisite Tradouw Pass. Could you ask for anything more from a road trip?
Ok, truth be told, we could’ve done with a more driveable motor out in the vast expanse of the Karoo, but the 63 kW / 132 Nm MPI battle axe has never purported to have eye-popping performance (0 – 100 km/h in 12 sec), so, assuming you keep the revs high and think maintain momentum when overtaking, you can still hold down a decent average speed. Do that and it isn’t exactly a BlueMotion fuel sipper though, VWSA’s claimed/combined figure of 5.9 l / 100 km is more like 8.0 l / 100 km in the real world.
But it’s in the real world where the Polo Vivo plays by its own rules. Relatively affordable, honestly designed, decently equipped and now a genuine delight to drive. Volkswagen has never been in the business of making cheap cars, instead they’ve only ever been in the business of building peoples’ cars. And just like the Beetle, Golf, Citi Golf and previous Polo before it, business is a booming.
In a nutshell –
Volkswagen Polo Vivo Comfortline 1.4
SA’s best-selling car is now one of its sweetest handling cars
Breathless MPI motor won’t exactly take your breath away
Engine: 1 398 cc, 4-cylinder, petrol
Power: 63 kW @ 5 000 rpm, 132 Nm @ 3 750 rpm
Performance: 0-100km/h 12.2 sec, top speed 177 km/h
Tyres: 15-inch alloys, 195/55
Economy: 5.9 l/100 km (claimed)
Transmission: 5-speed manual
CO2 emissions: 140 g/km
Price: R200 500