The locally made VW Polo has come a long way since it arrived in the 1990s, now filling the shoes of the once-popular Golf.
If you're in the market for a compact, fuel-efficient hatchback but want something that feels more luxurious than an A to B runaround, you must consider the latest Volkswagen Polo Life.
The car has moved upmarket. Gone are those Polo Playa days when it barely had any features. In fact, the latest Polos are so high-tech, you'd think they ought to be electric by now.
Our test car came with a digital cockpit and an advanced infotainment system that supported Apple CarPlay. It was always online, and we made the most of this connectivity to stream music, listen to YouTube and interact with Siri through voice control.
Away from the technologies, the car offers a sumptuous ride, superb (predictable) handling, and marvellous fuel efficiency. Let's tuck in.
Built to take the family
Measuring 4 074mm in length, 1 964mm in width with its mirrors unfolded, standing 1 451mm tall, and with a wheelbase of 2 552mm, the new Polo offers tremendous space inside. Five adults can easily fit, but it works magnificently as a family car for two adults and two kids. The boot's a nice size, too, coming in at 351 litres.
Tyres – 185/65 R15 – come standard, but you can take optional 195/55 R16 tyres if you tick the box for larger wheels at the dealer. You can also spec it with the must-have panoramic sunroof. The glass roof option is one of the most popular in VW's local line-up of add-ons. It might not be something you fancy, but you might want to take it anyway to make your car more appealing come resale time because most Polo buyers want the sunroof.
Excellent ride and handling
The new Polo rides exceptionally well and is more Golf-like than ever in terms of road manners. It feels planted on the tarmac, although there is a body roll. It's not going to blow you away unless you're talking Polo GTI, but as far as the Life model goes, it's more a luxury vehicle than a sports car. I thoroughly enjoyed its easy-going nature and ability to iron out the kinks in poor tarmac. It's nice that the car has tyres with some meat to it, as they soak up some of the road imperfections too.
Steering the car and working it through the gears, you feel confident it will turn and brake as you want. Volkswagen also fitted it with a hill-start function that helps you pull away on inclines. It also has traction control (TC) and stability control (SC). The TC and SC systems work a treat and aren't intrusive. But, if you have to avoid something on the road, like a pothole or pedestrian, you can confidently control the car while feeling them working to control throttle input and brakes to prevent wheels from slipping.
Our car also came with seven airbags as standard. But Volkswagen's Travel Assist option, which means adaptive cruise control and an array of cameras and radars, stood out in terms of kit. Travel Assist offers semi-autonomous steering and acceleration and braking. It also monitors rear-cross-traffic and the speed of vehicles ahead of you to warn you of sudden decelerations in traffic. I enjoyed the partial self-drive tech, as it proved responsive. It's as good as the self-driving tech that Honda's using in the FIT hybrid, which you can read more about here.
Power and economy - best of both
Like that bread we see in supermarkets that offer the taste of white flour with the benefits of high-fibre brown flour, the Polo Life hits a sweet spot in terms of performance and economy. The auto box DSG model Polo Life sports 85kW (manual versions come with 75kW), which feels more than that when you rev it out. There's a nice linear power delivery to the redline and a meaty torque feel throughout the mid-range. Peak torque is 200Nm, which comes in low at 2 500rpm, so you don't have to rev it high, but it's nice to have that sportiness if you enjoy the odd hoon on the way home from work.
The DSG gearbox is feisty in S (sport) mode and loves to hang onto gears. And there's this very (I mean very) slight vrr-phaa on upshifts. It's fun, and thanks to the 1.0-litre capacity and three-cylinder firing order, it's got this gruff engaging sound to it. But if you dial the gearbox back to D (drive), the car turns into an eco-conscious commuter. It likes to upshift around 2 000rpm to use as little fuel as possible.
According to Volkswagen, the Polo Life 1.0TSI DSG 85kW sips 5.4 litres per 100km in a combined cycle. I achieved 6 litres per 100km after a week of combined cycle driving, which is excellent considering I stuck to S mode for most of the test drive. When I tried it on the 100km highway loop in D for the gearbox, the fuel consumption dropped to as low as 4.1 litres per 100km. The engine is a gem, smooth but also rorty, and there's the economy to write home about. I understand why the Polo sells so well because it's such a smooth drive.
Well worth the money
Look, priced at R380 000 before you start throwing options at it, the new Polo Life DSG is not a cheap car, but it's a great compact luxury vehicle. Our test car cost nearly R430 000, thanks to the fancy roof, the upgraded Travel Assist package, the multi-beam LED lights, and more. At that price point, you might argue that you should save a little longer to spend the R70 000 more to jump into the Polo GTI with a 2.0-litre engine, more spec as standard, and all the street cred that comes with that car.
Where the Polo Life DSG shines is in its desirability. You can buy this car now as a starter family vehicle. You can buy it as a cool bachelor or bachelorette car. Heck, you can buy it as a cool car now that you're an empty-nester and want to scale back from a premium SUV. The Polo appeals on so many fronts that it's challenging to find fault with it.
It might cost more to insure than its competitors, such as the Peugeot 208, Citroen C3 and Opel Corsa, because criminals love a Polo front-end, but it's a great car, and it comes with an extensive dealer network to support it. You also get a warranty of three years or 120 000km and a three-year or 45 000km service plan from VW.
While the Golf only exists as the GTI for us in SA these days, the new Polo has some big shoes to fill, which it is doing so nicely with a range of models to cater to all sorts of budgets. And, as one of SA's best-sellers, you'll get good aftermarket support for the car if you plan to keep it after paying it off.
It might not have fancy styling or two-tone paint, but it's a smart, sensible, grown-up choice that proves that hatchbacks can still work well as daily drivers despite the growing proliferation of crossovers and SUVs we see on the road.
We'd have a Polo Life DSG painted black with a panoramic sunroof. What colour would you specify for your Polo Life? Let us know in the comments section.