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By Charl Bosch

Motoring Journalist

Freshened-up Volkswagen Polo still the class benchmark

Latest revision not perfect, but fails to deter the Polo from remaining a still difficult overall package to beat.

On more than a few occasions, we as motoring journalists are wrapped over the knuckles for branding a particular car, or cars, as the most important to be launched during the year.

With the facelift Volkswagen Polo though, the importance of the above is unlikely to be frowned upon or debated, especially from a local perspective.

A seat that becomes comfy

While Wolfsburg’s Polo portfolio reads total sales of 18-million units since the original debuted in 1975, its South African history only stretches back to 1996 with what was a revised and locally assembled version of the Seat Cordoba known as the Polo Classic and then later the Polo Playa.

This, however, changed with the fourth generation Polo that finally mirrored the European model, but which continued to be built and exported from the Uitenhage Plant, now Kariega, in the Eastern Cape.

ALSO READ: Volkswagen lifts the lid on facelift Polo’s pricing

As the saying goes, the rest is history and today, two generations later, the importance of the Polo for Volkswagen South Africa remains more vital than ever.

Since the sixth generation’s debut in 2018, nearly 80 000 have been sold in South Africa with the milestone of 400 000 units produced for the local and export markets taking place in June last year. In addition, right-hand-drive production of the Polo GTI happens in South Africa and nowhere else.

So why take the risk?

It is fair to say then that the Polo has become a South African institution whose ‘recipe for success’ doesn’t require huge changes or unnecessary risk-taking.

Facelift Polo road test South Africa
Revised rear facia won’t be everyone’s taste.

With the reveal last year of the facelift Polo though, more questions came up; the restyling influenced by not the universally acclaimed Golf 8, mounting reports of interior material cost-cutting, worries about crashing infotainment system software and escalating prices despite government incentives favouring local assembly.

Decked out in the new, attractive, Vibrant Violent paint finish, the Polo, which turned out to be the mid-range Life model, had to provide answers over the seven days it was to spend in the company of yours truly.

Not a rear worth boasting about

As subjective as looks are, in this writer’s opinion, they are unlikely to attract mass approval for what has been done at the rear.

Aside from the new bumper, the restyled LED taillight clusters now cut into the tailgate in an angular design some won’t take kindly to when viewed next to the pre-facelift model.

Facelift Polo road test South Africa
Optional 16-inch Torsby alloy wheels are a must.

The Golf touches at the front are not as controversial and comprise a new bumper with vents rather than fog lights on the flanks, new headlights with the must-have optional Matrix I.Q. LEDs and a thinner grille complimented by the lower LED light bar that premiered on the Golf GTI.

As standard, the Life, which replaces the Comfortline, rides on 15-inch Essex alloy wheels, however, our tester sported the optional 16-inch Torsby wheels as well as the panoramic sunroof Volkswagen confirmed last year was the most popular option.

Ease of the inside not clear-cut…

Opening the door, comparatively little has changed from a design perspective, apart from the 10.25-inch Active Info Display digital instrument cluster that no longer requires extra forking for.

While the Polo has become famous for its soft slush-moulded materials, principally used on the dashboard, a distinct cheap feel characterises the centre console and doors in a way all too similar to the Tiguan I had over the festive season.

Simplistic interior has more kit, but some of the materials spoil the premium reputation.

Centre to the criticism is the imitation carbon fibre Lava Stone trim, which had started to come lose above the optionally fitted 9.2-inch Discover Media infotainment system.

However, this likely rated as an isolated defect as a colleague, who happened to have an identical Vibrant Violent Polo Life on test, didn’t have this issue.

While this puts a damper on the Polo’s famed build quality, the rest of the interior elicited very little complaints.

…but the merits prevail

Straight forward and easy to understand, the moment you press the push-button start to turn on the air-conditioning, the seats provide more than enough support, while the infotainment system, which comes with App-Connect, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, is easy to understand and comes with a neat display for the embedded satellite navigation.

Adding to the basic-is-best approach, the leather multi-function steering wheel offers rake and reach adjustability in addition to having a physical button rather than the touch-sensitive items that frustrated on the Tiguan.

Cloth seats are comfortable and come with lumbar support for the driver’s chair as standard.

Despite the sunroof, rear head and legroom didn’t suffer at all with ample of both being offered. Backing up the 351-litre boot, the Life boasts front and rear parking sensors as standard, as well as the folding electric mirrors and lumbar support for the driver’s seat.

Other notable options included the Comfort package that groups keyless entry and a reverse camera with the mentioned sensors, the NCAP that comprises Front Assist, Lane Assist and folding heated and electric mirrors plus the Safety that brings Adaptive Cruise Control, Pedestrian Detection and a front sensing camera.

Start, drive, enjoy

As much as the tech impresses, the Polo leaves its trump card for the way it drives and performs. While the 70kW/175Nm its 1.0 TSI engine produces appears down on power on paper, the upshot is a kerb mass of 1 067 kg and a wonderfully slick five-speed manual gearbox.

Though no ball of fire with some low-down lag, the power flow builds from low down and comes with a satisfying whoosh as the revs rise.

Space in the rear is ample from a leg-and-head perspective despite the optional panoramic sunroof.

The most impressive aspect though is the gearbox, whose ratios have been tuned in such a way that a sixth ratio never warranted inclusion.

Although hilly sections did result in the Polo running out of, uhm, life downshifting to keep the three-cylinder petrol on the boil was done with a smile as the ‘box was nothing but a delight going down and up.

Facelift Polo road test South Africa
Boot can swallow 351-litres with the rear seats up.

Another aspect of the Polo being “made for South Africa” is the ride it rides. Supple and comfortable, the ride dampened and soaked imperfections up with ease without giving the sensation of wanting to fall to pieces.

For its part, the steering is light and with just enough feeling, while consumption after seven days and 676 km in mixed conditions came to an indicated best of 6.5 L/100 km.


Around 1 500 to 2 000 Polos are sold every month and with new competition in the form of the Toyota Corolla Cross, and indeed sibling rivalry from the Polo Vivo, it has, for the most part, been a success.

The badge unlikely to topple

In fact, the one area that remains the biggest issue is the price. At the time of testing, the Life, which is expected to make up the most of Polo sales, retailed at R350 000. In the case of our tester, that rose to a worrying R441 800 with all of the options fitted.

While the notion of paying almost R450 000 for a Polo seems untrue, the cache and history associated with the name, and indeed the Volkswagen badge, are unlikely to see buyers off as it remains the clear segment leader no rival can touch despite their best efforts.

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