Volkswagen Polo Vivo GTS tested

South Africa’s history with the Volkswagen Polo goes back to 1996 when the rebadged Seat Ibiza was introduced as the Playa. It’s been mostly a happy relationship since then, Saffers taking to Golf Lite like Brazilians to samba. And the dance goes on; in 2010 the Mk IV Polo shed weight and features, morphing into the Vivo, the heir apparent to the prehistoric CitiGolf. Thanks to its price and heritage, it’s been a consistent top five seller ever since

What it wasn’t – isn’t – is exciting; Vivo traded what few thrills and whoopee Polo IV offered for sense and solidity. Back in 2011 Volkswagen read this as a gap and filled it with the two-door Vivo GT, sure that its student market could do with a pinch more pizazz. Here then is the updated GT, the GTS, the automotive equivalent of pops in 1980s Day-Glo tank top with an e under his tongue.

The added extras

Visually, the most obvious difference from the previous GT is the 5-door shell, understandable given that the Vivo is no longer offered as a two-door, but disappointing nonetheless. To add individuality GTS differs from the ubiquitous municipal pool car in its wheels, stripes and checks. Or plaid, to be more precise, a riff on the iconic 1979 Golf Mk I GTI cloth that resonates with petrolheads of a certain age. We didn’t get the funky tartan on our early GTIs so it’s a reference probably lost on the new Vivo GTS owner. Other features that set it apart are black roof and side mirrors, 205mm rubber, Rivazza wheels in I-forgot-to-wash-them grey metallic, two-tone GTS side decals and, inside, a leather trimmed steering wheel with red stitching, thicker carpets and drilled pedals, set slightly closer together, all the better for heel-toe hooligan antics.

That’s it. Volkswagen has been typically snoep with the extras list. Basic specification is at Trendline level with a CD/MP3/Bluetooth unit installed and six speakers standard, but there is no trip computer, the front windows are not one-touch openers and the rear are manually operated. Even silver paint and an alarm are extra, bizarre in a country in love with one and in desperate need of the other (Vivo is the country’s most stolen car).

The important bits

The GTS engine is unchanged from the GT, VW’s venerable 1598cc four-pot stalwart, circa 1996, largely unburstable, generally tractable and rev happy. The figures are not particularly exciting – 77kW, 150Nm of twist – but, as most South Africans will know (we’ve all either owned or driven one) it has characteristically decent in-gear acceleration. The well-known engine is linked to the equally familiar 5-speed gearbox and there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s slick, competently gated for quick, intuitive changes and rarely makes a fool of its owner. Mated to the relatively light clutch, the whole setup is stress-free and uncomplicated – ideal for urban environments.

On the road

Depending on what you have just climbed out of, the GTS is at once either old and rough, or familiar and agreeable. Certainly it is old-school, with Vivo’s hard, grey plastics and hard-wearing polymer fabrics the order of the day. Twist the ignition key and the impression intensifies; mechanical sophistication is not high on Vivo’s list of attributes, more so when you rev the engine. But, as noted, the process of propulsion is never anything but easy and soon enough the racket is forgotten, the abiding feeling one of competence. The steering has much to do with that – light at parking speeds, heavier on the highway, it is well-balanced, not over-assisted and communicative. Cornering is competent too, the reduced ride height (by 7mm) makes a noticeable difference and the simple MacPherson strut, torsion beam suspension setup copes well with the increased G-forces. But most notable is the car’s naturally aspirated character – because there is no turbocharger there is no turbo lag, just a steady stream of power. As noted, the old engine produces plenty of torque, meaning accelerating out of corners doesn’t need exactly the right gear, something that’s crucial in the current crop of small triple-cylinder turbos.

Where it all starts to get a bit 1984 is out on the highway. Granted the ride is perfectly acceptable, but noise is unacceptably high due in large part to the tall gearing and the absence of a sixth gear. Consumption also rises markedly, though the absence of a turbo means that there will be no truly nasty surprise a la those self-same small turbos which, on the boost, can consume astonishing amounts of Saudi’s best.

Verdict

By day three of the extended test Vivo GTS’s raison d’être was clear – a quicker than normal Vivo for people looking for legendary reliability and an infinitesimal smidgen of individuality. There is however no getting away from the fact that this car has been overtaken by the New Order. Dynamically and technically the Vivo is now a dinosaur from another era, much as its CitiGolf predecessor was an anachronism at its death. As a Conceptline budget choice that trade-off is understandable, if not wholly acceptable, but the Vivo GTS competes in the price range of far newer, demonstrably better vehicles, and there seems little point. Worse still, Volkswagen chooses not to offer a service plan which, at R200k, is frankly beyond the pale. Vivo GTS then will go to only hard-core VW fans that disregard everything else on the basis of fierce brand loyalty, family or peer pressure or familiarity. To them we suggest a rethink; there are far better cars out there with more features, style and ability (see our rivals box). VW builds some of the world’s best vehicles but this, sadly, is not one of them.