CAPE TOWN – What you're looking at here is one of 2018's most important new cars. In an SA exclusive, we’re the first on local soil to drive what's likely to be the best-seller in the Polo range.

Saying South Africans love the Polo is akin to pointing out something as obvious as the sky is blue or Jacob Zuma is a divisive character. Polos sell by their thousands and have been doing so in Mzansi for three generations. Ever since the Playa – itself a rebadged Seat Ibiza Mk2 instead of the European third generation of Wolfsburg’s light hatchback – was launched in 1998, the Polo has become an integral part of the South African motoring fabric.

We’ve been unequivocal in our praise, too. The vehicle has won the prize for top light hatchback in our annual Top 12 Best Buys a number of times, the outgoing generation most recently in 2017 despite having been in the market since 2010.

VW’s feeling bullish

There’s a lot riding on public acceptance of this new Polo. Volkswagen SA, however, is bullish in its forecast, and as such has spent billions upgrading the plant in Uitenhage to build the new Polo for local and international consumption on a single line alongside the new Polo Vivo (which we’ll feature next month on in another exclusive). It’s bought 330 new robots, bringing the total to 580, and that makes the Eastern Cape plant one of the most complex and advanced globally.

Upgrading the plant was crucial, of course, because the new Polo is exactly that: new. It sits on the VW Group’s scalable MQB platform that is shared with a wide-ranging line-up of vehicles, all of which have their front axle, pedal box and engine in the same position. That, in turn, lowers engineering costs and complexity.

On the Polo, MQB stretches 2 548 mm between the axles, which promises a spacious cabin, while tracks nearly 1,5 metres wide suggest surefooted road-holding. At 4 053 mm long and 1 751 mm wide, the Polo has grown by 81 and 63 mm respectively. Yet, it’s 7 mm lower.

The local line-up

Locally, the new Polo range will consist of five 1,0 TSI models along familiar Trend-, Comfort- and Highline spec levels, offering two power outputs (Highline models get an 85 kW/200 N.m version of this engine, coupled with a six-speed manual). The mid- and high-spec versions can also be optioned with a seven-speed DSG ’box. Prices run from R236 500 to R303 500 (although VW says these could still change slightly), placing the Polo at the upper end of the segment. Read more about pricing and specifications here.

Topping the range is a 147 kW/320 N.m GTI, which will cost about R390 000 and be available right from the full range’s introduction.

Design, outside and in

To those dimensions mentioned: they afford the car a foursquare look, emphasised by recognisable VW traits of a wide, shallow grille and headlamps, and distinct horizontal lines. Character creases along the flanks lend visual depth and, according to the VW engineers we spoke to in Uitenhage on a recent plant visit, are far more intricate to produce than before.

Overall, the design refines the clean, contemporary look of the fifth generation, but we noticed very few motorists seemed to realise they were seeing the new Polo (the black paint of this test unit certainly did it no favours). Perhaps its resemblance to the Golf is a touch too strong, but is it a bad thing when a cheaper vehicle mimics the appearance of a more expensive sibling?

That Golf similitude continues inside, where the Polo sets the standard for the class. From its infotainment technology – Comfortline models gain a 6,5-inch Composition Colour touchscreen system with Bluetooth, USB and six speakers – to the option of the newest iteration of VW’s Active Info Display digital instrumentation and App-Connect, this is an interior that speaks to consumers’ desire to downgrade their wheels without sacrificing those modern conveniences with which they’ve become accustomed. The infotainment system is best in class in terms of display quality and user-friendliness, and we were glad to note that VW has retained hard buttons for often-used functions.

Seating comfort, too, is tops – the sports seats as part of the Beats package (more of which in a moment) fitted to this vehicle are wide, go far up the back and have long squabs – and the steering column adjusts across a wide range for reach and rake.

But the real revelation is aft. The rear doors open wide, the apertures are generous, and once seated, occupants will find lots of legroom (our tape read 665 mm), making the VW one of the more spacious in its class. We measured 224 litres of luggage space, which is about class-average, but slightly up on before.

As mentioned, this test vehicle is equipped with the Beats option for Comfortline models, which costs R12 650 and includes those seats, a 300 W audio system, front foglamps with a cornering function, 16-inch Torsby alloys, tinted glass and Beats stickers and logos plastered across the vehicle.

Under the bonnet

Mounted transversely in the stubby nose is the lower-powered version of the 1,0 TSI three-cylinder turbopetrol engine. Developing 70 kW and 175 N.m (4 kW/15 N.m up on the equivalent outgoing 1,2 TSI), the triple is a refined powertrain with few vices (it vibrates slightly at low revs and lacks the ultimate smoothness of the Fiesta’s class-leading 1,0-litre EcoBoost).

It is marginally slower to 100 km/h than the 1,2 TSI, but matches it on in-gear acceleration despite overly long ratios in the sweet-shifting five-speed transmission. The one-litre also sipped a commendable 5,8 L/100 km on CAR’s mixed-use, 100 km fuel route.

Gently does it

The engine’s relaxed approach is a perfect match for the comfort-oriented suspension tuning and light but direct, electrically assisted power steering system. The ride is one of the standout elements of the new Polo. Driven back to back with a fifth-generation model, its successor is noticeably more tied down over bumpy tarmac, with a neutral handling balance that eventually fades into gentle understeer, without sacrificing the outstanding bump absorption that’s become a Polo hallmark. Occasionally, the torsion beam at the rear can feel a touch too reactive to surface changes, but we’re nitpicking. We’ll wait to drive the expertly fettled Fiesta on local soil in a few months before we give a final verdict, but the VW sets the current ride-quality standard.

In terms of safety, the Polo gains a pair of airbags to take the total to six, and fatigue detection now forms part of the package. Blind-spot monitoring, meanwhile, is an option. In our exacting 10-stop braking test, the Polo recorded 2,99 seconds, earning it an “excellent” rating.

So, what do we think?

CAR’s writers are often accused of VW bias, but when the brand’s cars are as finely attuned to buyers’ needs as the new Polo is, we can but praise the manufacturer’s efforts.

Taking what made the previous version so good – comfort, stellar fit and finish, frugal running and refined performance – while improving its tech offering, making it even more refined and enhancing the spec, Volkswagen has turned the Polo into an excellent product. Despite pricing that’s at the spikier end of the spectrum – especially on Highline models – we foresee no reason why motorists won’t again buy Polos in their thousands.