Forget supercar rivalries. Class warfare exists to an even greater degree in one of the cheapest new vehicle segments, where pricing really is the greatest source of power for competitors such as the Suzuki Swift GL and Volkswagen Polo Urban.
These five-speed manual-equipped, five-door entry-level light hatchbacks each retail for exactly $16,990 driveaway – not a dollar more, and not a cent less. And speaking of actual power, both deliver a 66kW output from their 1.2-litre four-cylinder engines.
There is a difference, however: the Swift is a brand new model, while this Polo is in its final months before a larger and likely-pricier next-generation model lobs locally. And the approaches of each differ markedly.
While Suzuki is attempting to deliver semi-premium engineering with its fresh entrant at the expense of equipment, Volkswagen by contrast is throwing every bit of equipment at its older offering for a reduced pricetag.
While in this class every penny counts, with the recommended retail costs of this box-fresh Japanese and ageing European holding a mirror to each other, the question is which light hatch philosophy wins out – less is more? Or more for less?
Suzuki Swift GL ($16,990 driveaway)
Volkswagen Polo Urban ($16,990 driveaway)
Suzuki’s semi-premium engineering philosophy has delivered a Swift with an 870kg kerb weight. It isn’t tinny and it is safe, so clearly money has been spent on using more expensive body construction methods and materials to keep the mass down.
Reducing weight unlocks everything from increased performance to greater frugality, and the GL’s fuel consumption figure of 4.6 litres per 100 kilometres is class leading. Complete with sporty seats and a flat-bottomed leather-wrapped steering wheel, this petite Oriental express also promises to be a driver’s delight within a mundane class.
Volkswagen’s six-year-old model, however, has continued its run as the segment benchmark even in its twilight years. The Polo started from such a high standard back in 2011 that it continues to remain the light hatch to which others are judged.
Rather than waiting patiently for a new model to arrive, though, its maker has thrown so much equipment at this newly released Urban model grade that it could now be the bargain of the segment. That said, the South African-built German model betrays its vintage by being 182kg heavier (at 1052kg) and, unlike its rival, it needs a turbocharger to produce an identical power figure.
The Polo Urban also claims to slurp a similar 4.8L/100km, and it gets 160Nm of torque versus 120Nm for the Swift GL. Like shopping at Aldi, every digit will matter in this contest…
The current Polo may be nearing the end of its lifecycle, but it remains ruthlessly competitive inside.
No other light hatchback delivers a soft-touch dashboard, cloth-covered rear-door trims, proper vertical door grabs, auto-off headlights, a leather-wrapped gearshifter and handbrake lever, and even vanity mirror lights and rear reading map lights. It all comes as standard for $16,990 driveaway, which makes it a new value benchmark.
Inside, this Urban simply feels ‘mini Golf’ – in other words, decidedly semi-premium.
The Swift offers none of the above niceties. Sure there is some cloth trim cloaking the front doors, and the thin-rimmed steering wheel is nicer to hold in the hands and is also leather covered, the latter of which is a rarity for a base model.
However, even a 2005-built base Swift – which this tester purchased new – came with chrome doorhandles and rear-roof grabhandles that have been deleted with this new model. Even more inexplicable is the removal of a six-speaker sound system, which was standard 12 years ago, reduced down to a weedy two-speaker unit here.
Of course, all three of the above losses are gains for the Urban.
Yet for a hatchback apparently meant to be savvy and sporty, it is actually manual buyers who have been shunned with the Swift given that for just $1000 extra a buyer can pick the GL Navigator model grade that teams an automatic continuously-variable transmission (CVT) with lots of extra equipment.
Suddenly, a 7.0-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology, integrated satellite navigation, a rear-view camera, alloy wheels and foglights all become standard with the auto.
By contrast, as well as all the other little treats the Polo offers, all Urban manuals include a 6.5-inch touchscreen with CarPlay/A-Auto and a rear camera, if not navigation, plus 15-inch alloy wheels, if not foglights.
It is a great shame for the Japanese contender because, in addition to its racier steering wheel, the GL offers a lower and more comfortable driving position than its rival here, plus far greater seat support and padding all over. Swipe through the photos above – the Urban’s driver and passenger seats look as flat as they feel.
And despite having a body that is lighter and 132mm-shorter from nose to tailgate, the Swift further delivers far greater rear legroom and headroom than its rival. Its seat base may be flatter, but it’s also softer.
While the Polo offers less leg space, however, its tilted-up bench continues to be a design masterstroke, ensuring that thighs of taller passengers are supported while enhancing the perception of outright space. Its comfort rating is higher as a result.
The German-badged contender also packs a moderately larger boot, with claimed 280-litre capacity trumping that of its 242L foe.
ON THE ROAD
For steering precision and suspension sophistication, this Suzuki quickly thrusts itself back into contention in this comparison test. The way this new hatchback manages to feel agile and light on its feet, yet also solid and controlled, is the sort of engineering expertise expected – but not always delivered by – premium brands.
Around town the Swift GL feels compliant and peppy, with a consistently light and sharp connection through the driver’s hands making it a cinch to weave through city backstreets and squeeze into tight parking spots alike.
Although it lacks a turbocharger, that 870kg kerb weight pays dividends in terms of performance. The 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine is smoothly responsive, and it allows the driver to let revs drop, and then pull cleanly from the bottom end of the tachometer. Or a driver can simply enjoy excellent performance when pedalled.
The dainty, light-action manual shift is no hardship, and the upshot of all this engineering work is on-test urban-only fuel consumption of 6.3L/100km, versus 8.5L/100km for its turbocharged rival.
Indeed, only beyond urban confines does the Polo Urban make up ground in terms of both performance, consumption and refinement.
Volkswagen’s 1.2-litre turbo makes 160Nm of torque from 1400rpm until 3500rpm, before 66kW of power is delivered between 4400rpm and 5400rpm. On freeway hills and small gradients alike, the manual can comfortably stay purring along in fifth gear. More than that, speed can be added from 80km/h on a hill in fifth, such is its torque.
Suzuki’s 1.2-litre turbo needs 4400rpm showing on the tachometer to produce 120Nm, which is more critical when cruising than the 66kW of power it makes at 6000rpm. The engine can’t accept fifth gear at 80km/h on slight hills, and going back to fourth results in less performance but more noise than the Polo delivers in fifth.
Where the Swift also betrays its light weight is in terms of wind and road noise. While plenty of whistle and roar is generally accepted in the light car class, the ‘mini-Golf’ doesn’t tolerate the same level of intrusion. It’s quiet, by comparison.
The Urban is also more silken and plush in terms of its ride quality, yet it’s also softer and fluffier in its steering, and permits its body to flounder around over speed bumps or ragged country roads in a way the newer GL does not.
While the Volkswagen is stable and enjoyable, the Suzuki is rewardingly keen and genuine fun, managing to feel tighter – with a firmer but still comfortable edge – and all the while being more dynamic through bends.
That said, the Polo narrowed the fuel consumption gap with the Swift to 6.0L/100km versus 5.3L/100km after some outer-urban run; although even then it’s the only vehicle here with a requirement for pricier premium unleaded fuel.
TMR VERDICT | Which Car Wins The Hatch Match-Up
Rare is the occasion when a model receives such a high score this late in its lifecycle. The Polo Urban isn’t perfect – its steering and body control could be tighter, and it lacks the autonomous emergency braking (AEB) of its Skoda Fabia cousin.
However, for $16,990 driveaway it simply delivers the engine response and smoothness, suspension comfort and refinement, and several niceties expected only in larger and pricier contenders. In recognising its age, Volkswagen has dragged down its entry-level pricetag while raising equipment, and it deserves a win here.
The Swift GL remains the pick for both a keen driver and a buyer enthusiastic about environmental performance and reducing fuel costs, and in the latter case particularly around town where the lead of this non-turbo contender is most obvious.
In many ways the Suzuki is the more charming offering, but the Japanese brand is shortchanging buyers who want a manual transmission by denying them a decent equipment level. Teamed with less torque, a cheaper cabin, and louder road noise, and this funky contender stops short of being the fantastic new entrant it otherwise is.
Suzuki Swift GL – 3.5 stars
Volkswagen Polo Urban – 4.5 stars