You get what you pay for, goes the truism. In the wonderful world of NAP and import taxes, excise duties and APs, this only holds true if you believe increases in things like quality, luxury and performance should cost exponentially more. If not, there is no justifying the gajillions one will have to shell out for Bentleys, Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
It’s even more crucial when it comes to compact cars, for example, the Volkswagen Polo. If you’re in the market for a B-segment hatchback, what are you really looking for besides a reliable box on wheels that can ferry yourself and possibly an average-sized family around in about a 50 km radius with the occasional balik kampung or glutton’s jaunt further afield? If you’re looking for a pocket rocket, by all means the various GT, GTi, GTI or Sports versions of numerous models justify premium prices.
But a 1.2 litre Polo at RM113,888? There isn’t even really the badge snobbery since, well, it’s still the People’s Car and it’s not quite got the special draw of, say, a MINI. That said, there are also question marks over the Honda Jazz, which comes in at just under six figures. But that’s one for another test driver.
The benchmark for a small hatchback has to be Perodua’s Myvi, which moves over 8,000 units a month for the national carmaker. A 1.5 litre version, which kicks in at about 103 PS, or two less than the Polo’s turbocharged plant, has several trims which average at about RM55,000.
So is the Polo worth two Myvis? Let’s start with the fact it looks better and has a VW badge in the front. However, if you really wanted to show off, and insist on a VW, there’s always the Scirocco.
Aesthetic and intangible qualities aside, the next obvious talking point is the powertrain and here, there is no comparison. The 1.2 TSI dishes out its 175 Nm of torque from as low as 1,550 rpm while the Myvi gets you 136 at 4,400. The TSI is also paired with the very pleasing seven-speed DSG that ensures quick shifts to the right ratio all the time.
Well, except when you put pedal to metal. This never used to happen in the old Golf GTI, but maybe the robotic monkey in the DSG isn’t quite as conversant with the 1.2 as it is with the 2.0 turbo plant. When you’re looking for that sudden burst of power, the DSG seems a bit surprised and takes awhile to figure out the three or four-step downshift it needs to make. That said, once it gets there, overtaking in city traffic is a breeze.
The Polo is well-planted and leans no more than any other sporty hatch (bar those kitted to cause spinal hernia after each speed bump) when making hard turns. Coupled with its diminutive size, it is hardly flustered when weaving devilishly through the mess of slow cars on the right lane and fast lorries on the left and motorbikes in the middle of everything.
And this is where the Polo wins points for being special. Its USP is pretty much that while it can make quick progress on all roads, it makes no real sacrifice in terms of comfort. The ride is fine despite not showing the classic wobble of so many small cars that try to mask the ‘rich character’ of our roads, while the front seats secure a mid-sized body very snugly.
Despite having more torque in reserve than, say, a 1.8 litre Toyota Altis, the small TSI manages to push the 1,126kg car along at roughly 10 km per litre in the city without any real effort at saving fuel. On the other hand, the 14-plus km per litre claimed by VW might only be achieved by driving with the same delicacy used in eye surgery.
But no such grace is needed when fiddling about in the cabin. Much of the controls for the stereo, air-con, lights and wipers are the hardy basic VW stuff without too much electronic hoopla. Yes, this means it’s from the cost effective parts bin but once again, it befits the sort of car we’re looking at buying here.
As expected, the fit and finish is all up to VW standards and maybe it’s the smaller dimensions of the car, but the standard RCD 310 stereo booms with a vibrant intensity. Speaking of smaller dimensions, one aspect where the Polo is clearly beaten by a Myvi is cabin room. But that’s to be expected in a design by Daihatsu, which has dedicated its life to creating cars in the image of Doraemon’s pocket.
The Polo also comes with plenty of safety ‘features’ (read: European base-standard safety requirements) such as electronic stability, anti-slip regulator, anti-lock brakes, etc which are only partially matched by ‘premium’ variants of local makes.
And so, we come to the cop-out … er, conclusion. It’s hard to quantify things like looks, badge snobbery and even safety features (which only count if you ever get yourself into a hairy situation). But aside from that, what the Polo offers is a very easy drive. I can see why a rich man might buy this for his daughter who just needs a small car to go about on her day-to-days. It is probably the best city runaround car, surpassing even the Fiesta – which has gained quite a following here but of course, only costs three-quarters of the Polo.
It would probably be instructive to line these three cars up and look at the comparison to figure out how much your motoring soul values each particular feature. In the end though, it’ll probably boil down to this – no family will have a Polo as its first car, but many will buy two or more Myvis.
Unfortunate then, that despite growing competition in the local market, something like an entry-level Polo is still only a reasonable purchase for the top five percent income bracket. Not that it is out of reach of those who earn less. It’s just not sensible. A terrifyingly strange thing to say about the People’s Car.
Footnote: The Polo TSI reviewed here is the upgraded spec model compared to the model we first wrote about in October 2011. You can probably immediately notice the exterior differences – this car carries better looking alloy wheels.