What really is the difference between a light hatchback, a small hatch and a small SUV these days? With the new-generation Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline the lines have been blurred, or so the Australian division of the German brand claims.
The just-launched Polo is so much larger than its predecessor that Volkswagen hopes that it can reach out of the light hatch class, and into the sales sphere of cheaper but basic small hatches such as Kia’s $19,990 driveaway-with-auto Cerato. Or even, perhaps, Mazda’s $20,490 plus-on-road-costs CX-3 small SUV.
That view is also nice precursor spin to a Polo price rise. The outgoing generation was $1000 cheaper than this one, and at $17,990 plus on-road costs – or driveaway for an unspecified period of time – it in some ways needs to compete with the larger segments given its closeness in cost. Add an automatic transmission – as most buyers will – and that soars to $20,490 plus on-road costs/limited-time driveaway.
Enter the Kia Rio S. It is actually longer and taller than even its newly enlarged rival, and while its fresh South African-built competitor also claims to have the largest boot in the segment, this South Korean five-door falls only just behind.
The two-year-old Rio also delivers its bigger body for $1000 less than its rival, at $16,990 plus on-road costs. Kia will even do an automatic – albeit a dated four-speed – for $17,490 driveaway as an ongoing offer, so you can bet on a much cheaper deal for the manual tested here. Add a seven-year warranty, cheaper servicing and some hidden equipment delights, and the S puts up a surprising fight.
Kia Rio S
Price: $16,990 plus on-roads, or limited-time $17,490 driveaway with free auto
Engine: 74kW/133Nm 1.4-litre 4cyl | six-speed manual
Fuel use claimed: 5.6L/100km | tested: 7.6L/100km
Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline
Price: $17,990 plus on-roads, or limited-time driveaway
Engine: 70kW/175Nm 1.0-litre turbo 3cyl | five-speed manual
Fuel use claimed: 4.8L/100km | tested: 6.3L/100km
Light hatches work best with a manual transmission. There we said it. If you need an auto, both the Rio S and Polo 70TSI Trendline have issues – with too few gears and too much of a price-premium respectively. As manuals here, both start superbly well.
Kia utilises a simple 1.4-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine that should last forever and a day. If it doesn’t, there’s always the seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty to lean on. The Rio gets 4kW more power than its rival, and a six-speed (versus five-speed) manual, but also a 42Nm torque deficit in a 26kg-heavier body.
With a kerb weight of 1111kg, the lighter new Volkswagen’s 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine also delivers its fewer 70kW at 5000rpm, a thousand revs before its rival. The kicker, though, comes with 175Nm from 2000rpm until 3500rpm, half the revs required by its foe.
The Polo needs premium unleaded fuel, though, which will at least partially offset its claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption figure of just 4.8 litres per 100 kilometres (versus 5.6L/100km for the other regular unleaded-slurper here).
And finally, just before kick-off, the 70TSI Trendline offers exclusively over its rival what is dubbed ‘city’ (as in it’s only active under 30km/h) autonomous emergency braking (AEB), as well as a larger 8.0-inch (versus 7.0in) touchscreen, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshifter, plus a full-size spare tyre. But the cheaper S responds with its own unique standouts including rear parking sensors, automatic on/off headlights, and an array of little niceties – so it really is game on…
Volkswagen Australia claims that not only does the sized-up Polo muscle its way into a larger competitor set, but it also pushes past rivals that “continue to offer obsolete naturally-aspirated engines and four-speed automatics – to say nothing of plastic steering wheels.” And the gauntlet only continues to plunge in the press release…
“Even the entry-level manual Polo features the Golf’s elegant, flat-bottomed leather wheel with multi-media controls. That literal touchpoint is emblematic of the Polo having graduated from its class not only in terms of physical growth, but in sophistication. The Polo is obviously more up-market than rival cars.”
So, is the Polo 70TSI Trendline really a momentous step ahead of its predecessor and even its largest rival here? Mostly ‘yes’ but in some ways ‘no’.
Up-front and the leather wheel and gearshifter are lovely. Not only is the top of the dashboard grained in soft-touch material, but the middle section is too. Compared with the outgoing model, both driver and passenger sit so much lower now, with a demonstrably superior driving position addressing one of the flaws of the old hatch.
The touchscreen is a high-resolution unit that is blissfully easy to use and comfortably the best in its class, complete with a bright rear-view camera. That said, the inch-smaller Kia screen is still excellent and it takes the silver medal in this class.
There’s still no digital radio or integrated satellite navigation on either the 70TSI Trendline or S, but both feature decent six-speaker audio and – crucially – the choice of USB-input Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology.
Both also feature manual air-conditioning, standard remote central locking, power windows (with all-auto up/down on Polo versus driver-only on Rio) and mirrors, multi-function trip computers, twin vanity mirrors, and bottle holders in each door.
In more ways beyond auto on/off headlights, however, the Kia then leads with a sunglasses holder, twin-front map lights plus a centre cabin light, a glovebox light, a rear map pocket, and overhead grabhandles all missing from its rival. The previous-gen Volkswagen used to have these features, as well as even vanity mirror lights, but they have been disappointingly consigned to history in this new entry model grade.
The latest South African-made model no longer even gets cloth trim on its rear doors, so the upshot is entirely barren surroundings for back-seat passengers.
The South Korean may only get a thin-rimmed plastic steering wheel without cruise controls – in this day and age, really? – and entirely hard dashboard plastics, but at least the graining of the plastic is good, fit-and-finish is excellent, while even its lower centre console features a proper storage bin lid as well as a rear USB charging port.
Each five-door hatchback stretches over 4.0 metres long, but the 4065mm-long Rio further puts its extra 12mm of body length to good use in the back seat. Of the two contenders here its rear bench is marginally deeper and cushier – as is its front seats – complete with slightly more legroom and extra toe room.
The Polo strikes back with greater headroom – anyone taller than this tester’s 178cm frame will welcome that – and it feels wider owing to a 26mm-broader body.
The 70TSI Trendline’s two-tier boot also benefits from that acrossways expansion, with a 351-litre boot volume up 26L on its rival. To the eye there’s nothing in it for luggage space, though, with the 325L-rated S offering impressive depth in particular.
For context, though, the smaller Mazda2 and Toyota Yaris claim boot space of 250L and 286L respectively – teamed with demonstrably less rear legroom. Inside, then, it’s an even start for the Kia Rio and Volkswagen Polo.
ON THE ROAD
Some pricey luxury cars don’t ride the bumps as smoothly, or steer as accurately, as the Polo 70TSI Trendline. This must be said up front, because both the German-engineered Volkswagen displays vividly impressive dynamic properties not merely for its humble pricetag.
Around town both hatches here benefit from sensible 65-aspect, 15-inch tyres that help quell divots and potholes with aplomb. They make mockery of low-profile tyres that thump and crash their way through city streets to create an unenjoyable drive.
It’s just that the newer Polo is by some margin more polished than its rival.
It is slightly cushier, yet also tighter in rebound over large speed humps. The Rio is pleasant, but at the extremities of its suspension’s boundaries it can either clunk or float ever so slightly. Actually, at low speed part of that perception comes down to suspension and tyre noise, which feels like two-size-segments cheaper than its rival.
Where the 70TSI Trendline is virtually silent right up until speeds rise on coarse-chip surfaces, the S sends the odd hollow thrum through its cabin over sharp imperfections in addition to near-constant surface whirr from its wheelarches.
Both of these five-door hatchbacks join more closely together in terms of their measured, linear and consistent steering, as well as handling that is wonderfully stable, planted and assured.
Perhaps they lack the fleeting nippiness of a Mazda2, or the ultimate fun and engagement of the much lighter Suzuki Swift. But only personal preferences can decide whether a playful (like them) or grounded (like these two) light hatch is more favourable. Personally, this tester prefers the Mazda and Suzuki philosophy.
The Volkswagen’s calmer tuning of its electronic stability control (ESC) and its smoother manners push it slightly ahead once again, though there otherwise isn’t much in it for handling.
Indeed, it’s the 70TSI’s 1.0-litre turbo three-cylinder that most obviously widens the gap between these two. This instantly effortless, supremely responsive and genuinely brisk engine simply allows a driver to tap into the best its suspension can offer more often, whether around town or on a twisty road.
The 1.4-litre S is good only for a non-turbo four-cylinder, avoiding any harsh vibration or buzziness that can afflict other rivals. The six-speed manual delivers closer gearing compared with its five-speed rival, so it’s also easy to keep the engine in its sweet spot, where it remains eminently willing.
In acceleration terms there’s nothing in it, but especially in hilly Sydney and the often-undulating freeway ringroads around it, there is a frequent need to grab lower gears in the Rio to the detriment of refinement. Meanwhile the Polo sits near-silently in fifth.
The latter model’s turbo engine also includes stop-start functionality around town, instantly and imperceptibly cutting the three-cylinder and bringing it back to life with a tip of the clutch pedal.
In a 25-minute urban drive with an average speed of 25km/h, the Volkswagen returned a brilliant 6.9L/100km – versus 8.5L/100km for the Kia. An hour’s drive on the freeway closed the gap, 4.9L/100km versus 5.9L/100km respectively, while adding enthusiastic driving narrowed it further to 5.9L/100km versus 6.6L/100km.
The overall totals? 6.3L/100km Polo plays 7.6L/100km Rio. Ah, but, with premium unleaded costing $1.50 per litre, and travelling 15,000km annually, the former will cost you $1418 to fill per year. With regular unleaded at $1.35 per litre, the latter will ask for $1539 out of your pocket over a calendar – or $121 extra.
Switch to servicing, and while both hatchbacks include annual or 15,000km intervals, the 70TSI Trendline will cost a capped-price $2444 over five years or 75,000km according to its manufacturer-published figure, versus $1701 for the S – or a $743 difference equating to $149 extra annually. There’s nothing in it, long term.
While the new Polo 70TSI Trendline isn’t the light-car liberator that Volkswagen wants it to be, it is absolutely an impressive effort in terms of safety and infotainment technology, drivetrain efficiency and enjoyment, and suspension smoothness.
It certainly transcends its class in the way it drives, feeling just like a thoroughly updated version of the ‘mini Volkswagen Golf’ the last model felt like when it launched back in 2010. In short, it updates its class-leading drivability nicely.
And although the ‘decontenting’ of this entry-level Polo is disappointing especially for those riding in the rear, there is no doubt it makes up for this with its bigger screen, extra roominess, increased refinement, standard AEB – the list goes on and on…
The older Rio seizes its greatest opportunity inside, though. It may not have a leather steering wheel or cruise control, but consider its space and pricetag plus a seven-year warranty and cheaper servicing, and it’s tough to argue that it isn’t strong value.
Indeed, had we tested this manual S against other rivals, its roomy rear and big boot, plus excellent infotainment and handling, would have seen it shine even brighter.
The Volkswagen is comfortably worth the extra, but the manual Kia is so well-rounded that – unless the dud four-speed automatic is needed – it’s far from a loser.
Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline – 4.5 stars
Kia Rio S – 3.5 stars
- Interested in buying Volkswagen Polo? Visit our Volkswagen showroom for more information.
- Interested in buying Kia Rio? Visit our Kia showroom for more information.