ITS conservative classiness and big-car refinement has made Volkswagen’s fifth-generation Polo a dominant force in the B segment since its arrival here in 2010, but the recent tide of stylish, well-specced rivals has seen it slowly age before our eyes.
The key question then: can a midlife refresh vault VW’s light hatch back to the top, or has its opposition shut the door?
Given that the pre-facelift Polo was already a handsome, upmarket-looking car, Volkswagen was never going to drastically alter things. As is the case with mid-cycle facelifts applied to most large car manufacturer’s products, the variable tideline of Volkswagen’s model range advance usually sees older models receive a visual honing to bring them in line with their newer stablemates.
To this end, we see the Polo now taking numerous leaves from the Golf’s book with sharper looking headlamps featuring the now-signature strip that flows into the main grille louvre, a redesigned front valance that, in Comfortline guise, bears a chrome strip bridging the foglamps, and a revised rear bumper crowned with more sharply styled brakelamps.
It’s conservative, but the Polo’s updates have given it an appearance akin to a micronised Golf, furthering its already upmarket credentials.
It’s a similar story in the Polo’s cabin, with just a few additional bits of trim, a new three-spoke steering wheel and deeper binnacle cowls adding to a conservative but upmarket environment largely bound in high-quality, soft-touch materials. The most prominent addition is a colour touchscreen infotainment system identical to the Golf’s. The system is simple and intuitive thanks to easily navigable menus and a combination of hard-point and touchscreen interfaces.
Given that the Polo features the shortest wheelbase here, there had to be some compromise in the legroom-versus-boot-space equation, with the latter’s 720 mm just eclipsing the others’, while the 216 dm3 boot lags behind its rivals’ 248 dm3 items.
Arguably the most striking of the quartet, the Clio’s combination of sweeping lines, muscular haunches and bladed, 17-inch, two-tone rims are a far cry from the Polo’s understated garb and goes to show that, even at this end of the market, there’s a good deal of flair to be had for the money.
Dark but dynamic sums up the Clio’s cabin, with a floating instrument hood, plenty of well-constructed, soft-touch surfaces and lots of shiny, if smudge-prone, piano-black surfaces. The Clio’s trump card is an LG-developed infotainment system with a crisp seven-inch screen hosting an impressive sat-nav system. Its slightly pinched rear profile means that the Clio is the least accommodating of rear passengers.
With its melding of sharp creases and curves, the Rio visually bridges the aesthetic void between the Polo’s classy conservatism and the Clio’s bold sportiness. Like the Renault, it too rolls on a set of eye-catching 17-inch alloy wheels and, despite being the oldest of the gathered cars, it remains a handsome player in the B segment.
Like the Clio, the Kia Rio’s cabin is dark but well put together, with the only concession owing to its age being an old-fashioned red LCD audio-system display.
While we’re loath to apply the term “cute” to most of the cars we test, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Peugeot, with its ovoid wedge profile, is the most friendly looking of the bunch. Thankfully, touches such as strong character lines along the flanks and either side of the Lion badge give the 208 just enough edge so as not to look po-faced.
Despite its compact dimensions, the 208’s cabin is surprisingly spacious and its boot is the second largest here. But, while the interior design is bold and the touchscreen infotainment system slick, touches such as a urethane steering wheel and low-grade plastics give away its budget bearings. The driving position remains a divisive aspect among the CAR team.
Ride and Handling
Nothing much has changed beneath the Polo’s skin and, to be honest, nothing really had to. The ride is compliant and well damped, the steering pleasantly weighted, if a little numb, and the handling is predictable. Factor in excellent noise suppression and a planted demeanour at motorway speeds, and it’s another case of the Polo serving up a big-car driving experience that’s difficult to match.
But we wouldn’t go so far as to label it fun – that’s the Clio’s forte. Its combination of weighty, but accurate, steering, fluid body control and ample grip make it the most entertaining member of the group. Refinement, bar some tyre roar, is good and the ride is reasonably supple given the car’s 17-inch rims with 45-profile tyres.
Despite sporting the same footwear as the Clio, the Kia Rio’s largely composed ride is unsettled by pockmarked road surfaces. Put succinctly, the Rio’s characteristics are almost a hybrid of the previous two. Like the Polo, the electric power steering is a bit vague and sound deadening is good, but there’s also a little bit of entertainment from a chassis that’s not totally averse to some brisk cornering.
The 208 majors in comfort owing to the pillowy ride served up by its soft springing and plump 65-profile tyres. This does, however, mean that it lacks the others’ composure under swift changes of direction, a trait perhaps heightened by the elevated driving position and sound deadening that doesn’t drown out suspension noise. That small steering wheel also has its pros and cons; it lends the helm a sense of directness but entailing a lot of twirling during tight manoeuvres.
On paper, the Rio’s power advantage would suggest that the old adage that “there’s no replacement for displacement” holds firm. But this stance doesn’t appear to hold any sway with Volkswagen or Renault.
The Polo’s facelift sees its long-serving 1,4-litre, four-cylinder, naturally aspirated engine fall away to be replaced by a turbocharged 1,2-litre. While it may be 13 kW shy of its Korean rival’s peak power output, the new engine punches well above its weight.
It’s the 160 N.m of torque chiming in at an almost diesel-like 1 400 r/min and plateauing across to the 3 500 r/min mark that lends it a degree of push that eclipses the Rio, with its 79 kW and 135 N.m of torque at a relatively heady 4 200 r/min, throughout our incremented in-gear overtaking tests.
This healthy dollop of twist also means that the Polo’s tall gearing, rather than hobbling the car, actually makes it both a nippy round-towner and a surprisingly long-legged motorway cruiser. It also equates to impressive frugality, with our mixed-use fuel run returning a combined fuel consumption of 5,3 litres/100 km.
While the Rio’s powerplant does a good job of punting the car along – our tests showing it to be the second-fastest in the zero-to-100 km/h dash – it still imparts the impression that, while the Koreans have made huge strides in the design and build quality stakes, there’s still some room for improvement in the drivetrain department.
Although the Rio’s gearshift action shares some of its positive traits with the Polo – being pleasantly weighted with a satisfyingly short throw – it doesn’t quite emulate the German’s precise engagement.
Commuting is relaxed enough owing to a light but easily modulated clutch, but the connection between the gearing and powerplant is a mixed bag owing to the engine’s tendency to drop out of the power band on upshifts, accompanied by a dip in momentum. But, keep the revs up and turn a blind eye to the shift indicator, and you’ll find progress to be smoother and more assured, albeit accompanied by a gruff engine note and fuel consumption that sits at 6,6 litres/100 km.
We’re not sure if it’s the expectation borne of its dashing looks and fun dynamics, but the Clio’s engine falls short in a couple of departments.
Dipping into the sub-one-litre bracket is a brave move and applying stop/start technology has paid some dividends in terms of fuel economy, with the second best average of the group, but attaining the latter is tricky owing to the engine’s shortcomings.
Although revvy and at a level pegging with the Polo in the power stakes, the Clio’s engine needs to be worked hard to get the best out of it. There’s noticeable turbo lag that simply isn’t there in the Polo, so the engine feels flat below 3 500 r/min.
Things improve once the revs climb; the little three-pot’s half-a-straight-six thrum induces a smile, the gearshift and clutch actions are positive and there’s a little bit more impetus, but it’s hardly punchy.
Renault is currently crunching the numbers to see if the European market Clio GT, with its turbocharged 89 kW, 1,2-litre turbopetrol, is eligible for our market. But, while the added power would be most welcome, it’s worth noting that this powerplant is coupled with Renault’s dual-clutch transmission that met with mixed praise from the CAR team when we sampled it in the Renaultsport Clio.
Wading into this exchange with the lowest peak outputs – 60 kW and a lowly 118 N.m – you’d expect the 208, with its 1,2-litre, three-cylinder engine, to be hopelessly outgunned. Like the others, it’s thrummy (some of the CAR testers commented a little too much so) and thrives on revs, but surprisingly pulls with more vigour than the Clio. Its saving grace is a 1 062 kg kerb weight, making it between 39 and 85 kg lighter than its opponents.
The gearshift’s somewhat imprecise action and a sensitive clutch with a high biting point means that swapping cogs can’t be hurried. Consequently, both the revs and the average fuel consumption have to take a hike northwards: the latter equalling the relatively thirsty Rio.
In terms of overall specification, the gathered cars fall into two distinct brackets: the modestly equipped but configurable Polo; and the others that, barring paint and possibly sunroof options, come as they are.
Perhaps the most noteworthy spec addition to the Polo’s update has to be the long-awaited inclusion of a three-year or 45 000 km service plan matching that of the Clio. The Polo’s specification is comparable to that of the 208, with the only dividers being the latter’s standard cruise control and the former’s additional driver aids.
The Peugeot’s biggest drawcard has to be its five-year or 60 000 km maintenance plan. Allied with its low retail price, this makes the 208 a great value-for-money proposition.
Separated by little more than R1 000, the remaining two are closely matched, with the Rio boasting leather upholstery, a longer service plan and park-distance control to the Clio’s sat-nav, stability programme and cruise control.
It must also be noted that, while the three European contenders duck under the CO2 tax threshold, the Rio sits 31 g/km above it, which means R2 300 of its pricetag is due to emissions.
The first of the quartet to fall away is the 208. Our 2014 Top 12 Best Buys pick for Light Hatch still has much to recommend it, but this isn’t our favourite iteration of the 208.
It is, however, a fantastic value proposition owing to healthy spec, that maintenance plan and a price that undercuts the rest.
The Clio is one of those cars that’s so achingly close to being a superb package but for one element that robs it of a right to challenge for the crown. It looks sublime, offers a lot of nice-to-haves as standard and is competitively priced. It’s also the most dynamically engaging car here. But, while the chassis wants to play, the engine simply lacks the low-end punch that’s broadly viewed as an essential ingredient in any nippy, compact car.
We’ve been long-time fans of the Rio and re-acquaintance with our previous Top 12 B-segment winner reminded us why. Like the Clio, it’s a handsome car, is fairly solidly put together and there’s little to want for in terms of standard specification. The only black marks against its name are an engine that’s a bit gruff and thirsty, and an occasionally crashy ride owing to those eye-catching rims.
You may have noticed that the Polo didn’t garner the most ink in this write-up, but there’s a very good reason for that – it’s just so resolved. The pre-facelift model was already an impressive car merely kept back by engines that had become a touch long in the tooth and the lack of a service plan, but the changes, albeit subtle and minimal, simply galvanise the feeling that the Polo comes from a class above.
It may sound odd to say this, but the combination of the VW’s flexible engine, ride comfort and refinement don’t necessarily awe. Rather, they give the Polo a fire-and-forget effortlessness that nothing in its class – and many other segments for that matter – can match it.
Volkswagen has also patched the perennial chink in the Polo’s armour by including a standard service plan, which further enhances the Uitenhage-made hatchback’s value proposition.
We know that voting for the 2015 Top 12 Best Buys is still some months away, but given the Polo’s latest showing, it could well be shedding its runner-up status soon.