FIRST DRIVE | Why the 2022 VW Polo is the B-segment hatch to beat
SA consumers need no introduction to the Volkswagen Polo nameplate. On a monthly basis the Polo and its more affordable Polo Vivo sibling continue to set the sales charts ablaze, a duo established rather comfortably as the most successful new passenger vehicles in the country.
The regular Polo has often been regarded as a more attainable, compact version of the Golf. This parallel is a testament to the level of engineering, quality and overall refinement boasted by the model. It is regarded as the segment benchmark, the standard-bearer to which its peers aspire.
Over the past 12 months there has been noticeable activity in the B-segment hatchback arena. The Stellantis group was responsible for three contributions, with fresh instalments of the Opel Corsa, Citroën C3 and Peugeot 208. Hyundai brought a new i20 to market and Honda released the successor to its popular Jazz, now named Fit.
Although sales of the new Volkswagen Polo commenced some time ago, last week saw the media introduction of the model. It was probably not by coincidence that Renault opted to release its fifth-generation Clio concurrently.
My flight ticket was to Gqeberha, then onward to Kariega, home of the Volkswagen brand and where the Polo is built for local and export markets. A reminder that the 2022 model is an extensive revision of the current sixth generation car. The first thing to know about the enhanced range is its adoption of new designations, doing away with the former Trendline, Comfortline and Highline monikers.
The entry-level version is known simply as the Polo (from R311,800), while the middle-grade model is the Polo Life (from R350,000), followed by the R-Line at R421,900 and topped by the GTI which asks R489,400.
Two engine choices are on offer. First, a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder, turbocharged-petrol in the standard and Life models. Next up is the four-cylinder, 2.0-litre, turbocharged-petrol (147kW/320Nm) exclusively for the GTI. The former unit comes in two states of tune. The a 70kW/175Nm setup is paired with a five-speed manual. The more powerful 85kW/200Nm configuration employs a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission. Meanwhile, the GTI has the same transmission, but without a seventh gear.
Our experience on the day was limited to the Life 1.0 TSI manual and GTI. The aesthetic upgrades are immediately noticeable. With larger headlamps, refreshed alloy wheel choices and rear lights aping those of the Golf 8, there is no mistaking the new Polo with the old one.
A note about the headlights. We asked the company if anything had been done from an engineering perspective to prevent thieves from ripping them out of their sockets. The company said attention had been given to the issue and a “solution” was also in the works for the Polo Vivo.
These days, it is an unusual surprise to find three pedals and an H-pattern shifter in the vehicles we test as automotive journalists. The short, fluid clutch action of the 1.0 TSI felt just right and swapping cogs was a treat, with a precise feel from the gearbox. It still retains a mechanical handbrake, which some might appreciate more than others. Nosing the vehicle up to pace through the quiet roads of the Eastern Cape proved pleasant, reminding us of the virtues we praised so highly in the pre-facelift Polo.
A light but accurate steering system is among them, as is an insulated passenger cell that suppresses noise, vibration and harshness as well as some premium cars. If you really pay attention, you might notice the characteristic, three-cylinder thrum from the engine. That is more of an endearing attribute than an annoying one. Performance from the motor seems fizzier than the 10.8-second 0-100km/h sprint time implies. Put that down to the placebo effect experienced when driving a slow car with overt enthusiasm – it feels like you are moving quickly, but when you look at the speedometer you realise you are far from trouble.
Standard interior features include a basic digital cockpit (there is a more advanced one as an option), a four-speaker audio system with a 6.5-inch colour display, Bluetooth as well as the We Connect Go system which links the vehicle to a smartphone application.
Park distance control (front and rear), cruise control, LED headlamps, power-adjustable mirrors and rain-sensing wipers are part of the conveniences. Cloth upholstery is standard, while the steering wheel is leather-wrapped and incorporates satellite audio controls. It rolls on 15-inch Essex alloy wheels.
There is quite an impressive array of optional features. Consumers with larger budgets might delight in the prospect of having a Polo brimming with certain amenities usually reserved for luxury cars. For example, the LED matrix lighting package (R15,500, an extended navigation system with wireless smartphone connectivity and inductive charging (R20,600) and adaptive cruise control with lane-keep assist (R12,700). A panoramic sunroof will set you back R14,500.
Basic safety kit from the basic model up comprises of electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, dual front, side and curtain airbags and ISOFIX anchor points. When it was tested by Euro NCAP in 2017, the Polo achieved a five-star rating.
Next up, it was time to get reacquainted with the playful GTI. Seasoned readers of this publication might remember we had an example of this breed in our long-term test programme from March 2020 to the following year.
It is quite special the Kariega plant is the only facility in the Volkswagen Group network to build the Polo GTI. While on a tour at the operation, we had the chance to play a role in the assembly process. A minor one, admittedly: fitting the fender GTI badges onto vehicles destined for countries such as Germany, France and Denmark. It also offered a look at the tartan fabric upholstery specific to those markets. Our customers take leather by default.
Buyers have the option of a new 18-inch alloy wheel style dubbed Faro, replacing the Brescia type of before. The standard rollers are still 17-inch, with the Milton Keynes design. Most noticeable on the inside was the new steering wheel – just like the one in the Golf 8 GTI. Aside from that, it is business as usual, which is a great thing.
They have not neutered its acoustic character like they did with the bigger Golf GTI. It still sounds characterful and feels like a modern compact hot hatchback ought to sound. The Polo GTI sprints with conviction (claimed standstill to 100km/h is 6.7 seconds) and tops out at 238km/h, although its speedometer shows 280km/h. It suspension is lower than a normal Polo by 15mm, and the adaptive chassis control function offers selectable modes, from Eco to Sport. Obviously, we committed to the latter, exploiting the buzzy engine note and athletic spirit of the car.
There is no denying that the Polo remains a truly accomplished motor vehicle, elevating the stock of what is expected of a B-segment hatchback. But there is a question that needs to be pondered. Can the model (and its rivals, for that matter) maintain relevance in a market where buyers’ preferences are continuously shifting towards more versatile crossover and sport-utility vehicle options?
In the future, it seems possible the best-selling Volkswagen passenger car might not look like a Polo as we currently know it.
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