Toyota’s Corolla has traditionally dominated
the sales statistics, but in recent years its main challenger at the less expensive
end of the price lists has been Volkswagen’s Polo Classic, which was introduced
to slot into the role of compact, affordable saloon when the Jetta moved upmarket.
Both nameplates have recently had total makeovers. The latest Corolla was introduced
late last year, dramatically changing the character of the popular Japanese
saloon. Despite (or because of) the radical transformation, the Toyota faithful
have supported the new model in a big way, sending it to the top of the monthly
NAAMSA sales charts. June this year saw the launch of the new Polo Classic,
several months after its hatchback stable-mate.
A serious rival to the Corolla in the R100 000 to R150 000 range, the new notchback
VW has the advantage of being focused on this sub-segment, leaving the Jetta
to take care of the upper price-ranges, whereas the Corolla, slightly larger
than the Polo, has to spread itself across the full price spectrum. At entry
level, the pair are closely priced, but a closer look at what’s on offer reveals
significant differences in marketing philosophy.
Polo Classic 1,4
For the ninth iteration of the Corolla, Toyota’s designers were given a specific
brief: to create a car for European tastes. The reasoning? Although Toyota’s
compact family saloon continued to head global sales charts thanks mainly to
its bullet-proof reliability, over the years its performance in Europe, where
virtues such as handling, performance and style tend to play a greater role
in buying decisions, had not been as good. The result of the team’s efforts
is a handsome car that satisfies European preferences in style, and matches
benchmarks such as the VW Golf/Jetta and Opel Astra in its dynamics.
It offers more interior space than many of its rivals, thanks to a 2 600 mm
wheelbase, one of the longest in its class. And the interior architecture, which
features sweeping, unfussy shapes, has a distinctly European feel.
The long wheelbase, together with underpinnings – conventional MacPherson struts
in front and a twist-beam at the rear – borrowed from the sporty new Celica,
promises good levels of roadholding and handling. And there’s Toyota’s latest-generation
4ZZ-FE engine to take the fight to the opposition in the areas of performance
Volkswagen, known for a blend of conservatism and elegance in its family cars,
has held to tradition with the new Polo Classic. Less adventurous in its silhouette
even than the outgoing Seat Cordoba-based model, the new version has balanced
proportions that, according to one tester, “make it look like a small version
of the VW Phaeton”. Its most dramatic feature is the front end (shared
with the Polo hatch), with the jewel-like quad headlights recessed into the
Interior architecture is classically European, with high-quality materials and
superb fit and finish. Derived from the compact Polo five-door, the new Classic
cannot match the Corolla in wheelbase, forcing designers to come up with creative
packaging solutions. Nevertheless, VW says, interior dimensions are comparable
with those of a Jetta 2. And a shorter overall length than the Corolla (4 179
mm as opposed to 4 365) suggests better manoeuvrability.
The Polo also features a new 1,4-litre engine designed to better the current
European requirements for fuel consumption and emissions, as well as revised
versions of the traditional MacPherson strut front and twist-beam rear suspension
set-ups that gave previous-generation models their excellent ride/handling balance.
Polo Classic 1,4
Toyota’s 1 398 cm3 4ZZ-FE engine is one of the real performers in the 1,4-litre
class, thanks to its d-o-h-c 16-valve design and VVT-i (variable valve timing – intelligent), a system
designed to provide optimal operation at high and low engine speeds. Peak outputs
are 71 kW at 6 000 r/min and 127 N.m at 4 800. The unit drives the front wheels
through a five-speed gearbox.
It’s a responsive drivetrain, with sporty sound effects to go with it, and thrives
on revs. Presumably to cope with power-sapping Reef altitudes, overall gearing
is a trifle lower than one might expect, making the engine a little busy when
cruising at the national limit. It’s a characteristic that also has an effect
on fuel economy.
Volkswagen’s engine choice for the Polo is a little more conservative. Also
a twin-cam 16-valver that drives the front wheels through a five-speed gearbox,
the 1 390 cm3 VW unit is not as free-revving as the Toyota powerplant, and achieves
its peak power output of 60 kW at 5 000 r/min. It virtually matches the Toyota
on torque, however, producing its maximum figure of 126 N.m at 3 800 r/min,
1 000 r/min lower down the scale than its Japanese rival. Overall gearing is
slightly higher than the Corolla’s. This, together with the less heady engine,
pays off in relaxed cruising ability and economy. But the car lacks its rival’s
responsiveness in cut-and-thrust situations.
Comfort and features
Polo Classic 1,4
The scores in this section, arguably the category in which the contenders diverge
most, are very much a result of pricing considerations. The Corolla is a larger
car, de-specced to make it more affordable, whereas the Polo is a compact saloon
very much in its ambit at this price level. The German’s list of equipment is
impressive, topped by standard safety items such as ABS brakes and dual airbags,
neither of which appears on the Toyota’s spec list. If you want these safety
features in a Corolla, you have to move further upmarket to GLS level, taking
a host of other standard items as well, resulting in an all-in price of R140
Another area where philosophies differ is in convenience of access and anti-theft
measures. The Corolla’s alarm/immobiliser/central locking system is remotely
activated, whereas you have to insert the key in the lock to open the Polo Classic.
The Polo’s doors lock automatically as you drive off, whereas the Corolla has
a “lock” button on the facia. And there’s a remote boot release in
the Corolla – but the Polo’s boot has a “dead-lock” facility. Of course,
Toyotas also feature a parts-labelling system, giving owners the small comfort
of knowing that all the components are identifiable if the car ends up in a
Being entry-level models, both cars come sans radios, air-con and alloy wheels
(don’t be fooled by the pictures of the Polo, which was supplied to us fitted
with all these extra-cost options). Exterior mirrors on both cars are manually
adjusted using stalks that protrude into the interiors, and windows have manual
winders. Both vehicles have power-steering, however, a feature that many will
regard as a must on a front-drive car.
With its greater legroom, the Corolla is the more comfortable car for four adults.
The Polo compensates somewhat by having hollowed out front seat-backs to increase
knee-room for passengers in the back, but the Toyota’s rear bench is better-shaped.
The Corolla’s front chairs also offer better adjustment and more side support.
Both cars have rake adjustable steering columns, but the Polo has reach adjustment
Although its interior is more cramped, the Polo’s boot takes more luggage, the
capacity measuring 392 dm3 (using the ISO-block method) compared with the Corolla’s
Both cars feature a range of storage compartments, door-bins and cup-holders.
Most handy storage feature is the Toyota’s central “box”, followed
by its lidded central compartment next to the handbrake, which can double as
a pair of cupholders. The facia-mounted pop-out unit on the Polo is quite zany
But, while the Corolla’s fit and finish are of a high standard, the Polo takes
small-car detailing to new levels, with better-looking plastics and a higher-quality
And the quality touches extend beyond the interior, to items such as the gas
struts to support bonnet and boot, and the full lining inside the boot-lid,
which contrasts with the Toyota’s exposed metal pressing.
Performance and braking
Polo Classic 1,4
The Toyota outpaces the Polo Classic against the clock, its 71 kW engine propelling
it to 100 km/h in 11,85 seconds and on to a top speed of 186 km/h. The VW, whose
power disadvantage is compounded by its heavier mass and (on the test car) a
slight flat spot in the mid-range, needs 14,25 seconds to get to 100, and tops
out at 180. And, unlike the Corolla, its lower rev-limit (5 750 r/min against
the Corolla’s 6 400) means it cannot reach a true 120 km/h in third gear.
But, as we remarked earlier, the VW is the more relaxed cruiser, 120 km/h in
fifth gear being a little less fussy than in the Toyota. And the engine has
a good torque spread, allowing steady acceleration from 2 000 r/min.
With ABS as standard equipment, the Polo avoids lock-up in emergency braking,
but the soft springing means that the body pitches a lot when the pedal is applied
hard. The Toyota lacks the VW’s anti-lock facility, and the test unit was prone
to severe rear-end lock-up, suggesting a problem with the proportioning valve.
Stopping times recorded from 100 were in the four-second bracket, but should
be around 3,5 seconds with the fault rectified.
Polo Classic 1,4
The Polo’s relaxed gearing wins the day at the pumps, the CAR fuel index figure
recorded in our standard test working out at 8,04 litres per 100 km, a figure
that is quite a lot better than average for a petrol-fuelled 1,4-litre four.
That means the car should manage over 550 km on a 45-litre tankful of unleaded.
The Toyota, with its slightly busier ratios, manages 9,76 litres/100 km, more
in line with the class average. But it does have a much larger(60-litre) tank,
which means a range of comfortably over 600 km between fill-ups.
Ride and handling
Polo Classic 1,4
In a reversal of traditional characteristics, it’s the Japanese car that has
the more sporty chassis. Its firmer springing gives it more composure in direction
changes, and it rides bumps well, with good body-control and shock absorption.
The Polo is more softly sprung, providing a “boulevard ride” on smooth
surfaces, but it loses composure in more bumpy going.
The Corolla’s Bridgestones squealed at the limit, but held on better than the
Polo’s Firestones. Both cars understeer in extremis, with a tightening of the
line on lift-off, but the Toyota is planted more squarely on the tarmac at all
times, altogether more confidence-inspiring than the Polo, which exhibits more
body-roll. Both cars have precise steering, but the Corolla’s feels more communicative.
Value for money
Polo Classic 1,4
Although it is really a smaller class of car, the Polo Classic wins in our book,
mainly because of its standard safety equipment. As we said earlier, the pricing
of the two contenders has been arrived at through divergent marketing philosophies.
Toyota’s research (and experience) reveals that airbags and ABS are not priorities
on the local market, many purchasers indicating that they’d prefer a classy
sound system. And Corolla buyers can opt for a more expensive derivative if
they would like the additional safety features. But we would have liked buyers
at the R110 000 level to be given the option of ordering extra safety, taking
the price up to R120 000 or so, while foregoing the extra convenience items
offered on the GLS version.
On the other hand, while Polo Classic buyers will have to fork out an extra
sum if they would like to take up one of VW’s new Automotion service plan options,
the Corolla 140i comes with a 5-year/000 km ToyotaCare service plan included
in the list price, a not inconsiderable cost-saver in these inflationary times.