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Small car, big dream

Volkswagen has put all of its marketing muscle to sell the Polo, a premium hatchback, as the car of the discerning owner. The competition, eyeing the same pie, won’t give up without a fight. Who wins the race?

autos Updated: Apr 21, 2010 13:21 IST
Shapur Kotwal
Shapur Kotwal
Hindustan Times

There is a clear distinction between the ‘value’ hatchbacks and the ‘premium’ ones, loosely divided by size and a Rs 4 lakh price point (for the base model). Volkswagen’s all-new Polo is clearly positioned in the upper end of the hatchback market and is all set to woo customers with its promise of German engineering and quality.

The competition is not something the Polo can dust off its well-chiselled shoulders. There’s the more flamboyant and full-of-styling-details Korean i20; the tall but not without individual character, Czech Fabia; there’s also an Italian supermodel with classic proportions, the Grande Punto. Every member of this quartet speaks its own distinct design language.

Build quality
When it comes to build quality, the Hyundai doesn’t exude the same robustness as its European rivals, and it’s the Fiat Grande Punto and Skoda Fabia which feel the most robust. That’s not to say the VW Polo isn’t well built — it may have a relatively lightweight body, but the surface finish is exemplary.

The Fabia’s upright design body makes the best use of space despite not having the longest wheelbase. However, the cabin comes furthest forward and the high roofline allows passengers to sit nice and upright. In contrast, the Grande Punto has a much longer wheelbase but the attractive and low-slung profile has eaten into passenger room, especially at the back.

The Polo too has a sporty profile and its a snug fit for passengers on the back seat because of the way the roof swoops down at the rear.The suspension system plays a vital role in Indian conditions so it’s good to know that the Polo, Fabia and Grande Punto have a relatively sophisticated MacPherson strut and an A-arm set-up in the front.

The i20’s front suspension is a more modest design but it’s good enough to get the job done. At the rear, all four cars have a non-independent, twist-beam dead axle, which is the norm for most front-wheel-drive hatchbacks.The Grande Punto comes with conventional hydraulic power steering while the Fabia uses an electro-hydraulic unit. Both the i20 and Polo have pure electric assistance.The top-end versions of all these cars (except the Punto 1.2) have ABS and airbags.

Volkswagen won’t win any design awards for the Polo’s interior. What it could win an award for, however, is functionality — it has a big glovebox, generous door pockets, and a generous boot. The large dials can be read at a blink, the chunky controls and switches can be used almost blindfolded and the insides have a well-screwed-together feel.

The plastic quality is pretty impressive too, especially the big bits like the dashboard and the doorpads. However, we rued the absence of a dead pedal. Unlike the Highline version, the Comfortline spec doesn’t get chrome highlights on the dashboard.

And VW has stripped many features off this Polo such as climate control, height-adjustable seatbelts, power mirrors, rear power window controls for the driver and rear centre three-point seatbelt. The front seats are well bolstered but you sink into them.

The i20’s interiors are sober but the interestingly detailed steering wheel, the information pod on the dash and a two-tone split give it character. It feels wide inside and the front seats are large and comfortable. This is also the most feature-laden car of the lot — it comes with climate control, auto folding mirrors, six optional airbags and steering-mounted controls too.

What it lacks is an upmarket feel. And the seats feel a bit hard as well. The Fabia’s seats, however, feel comfortable enough for a luxury car. The interior quality is superb and feels just a shade below the Polo. The Fabia also has plenty of cubbyholes, big door pockets and a triplet of three-point seatbelts at the rear. The Fabia has auto up and down power windows and heated mirrors to prevent fogging in the monsoon. You can also lock all four windows with just a turn of the door lock.

By complete contrast, the interiors of the Grande Punto look dull. The cabin is well encapsulated and has a robust feel with hard-wearing materials. However, fit and finish is quite poor. There are some nice bits though, like the chunky steering wheel and the meaty gear knob. The Grande Punto has flawed ergonomics.

The steering wheel is too close to the driver, the pedals a touch too high and the front seats lack under-thigh support. The base Active spec is also the least equipped of the cars; there’s no seat height adjust, rear power windows, 60:40 split to the rear seat or car audio. The boot is also the smallest and narrowest and the load lip is high.

These may be large hatches, but not all of them have good rear space. The Polo, for example, is both low-slung and has the shortest wheelbase and the rear seat is the lowest of the four cars. But it’s well shaped and has good under-thigh support. The Fabia, with a slightly upright backrest, has the comfiest backseat with maximum leg- and headroom and generous boot space.

The i20 is even wider and hence best for carrying three abreast.However, the seat itself doesn’t have the plushness of the others and the flat, hard cushion doesn’t cosset you well. The Grande Punto has the least rear space, which gets especially cramped when you have a tall driver up front.

All these cars come with engines that are a shade under 1.2 litres to meet the ‘small car’ regulations and benefit from huge savings in excise tax. But apart from their capacity, these motors don’t have a lot in common. The Polo’s three-cylinder motor develops 74 bhp, which is modest by today’s standards. However, it’s been tuned for driveability instead of outright performance and this engine hits the sweet spot in city traffic.

It has a reasonably wide power band, is quite responsive and pulls quite cleanly from low engine revs. The engine does have a three-cylinder thrum to it, especially during idle, but it’s not obtrusive.In fact we liked the workman-like note when revved, especially as the motor loves to be spun.

The Polo feels quite lively when kept in the meat of its powerband. The gearshift is the best in this class and swapping cogs is something you enjoy. Also well suited to city traffic is the super-light steering that can be twirled with one finger. What finally clinches it for the Polo as a city car is the softened suspension that absorbs road irregularities.

The i20 is almost as impressive when driven in traffic. The Kappa motor, despite having an extra cylinder, is not as refined as the Polo’s and a tad raucous when revved hard. But the throttle response is the best and this makes city driving effortless. The midrange isn’t too strong and the Kappa labours to the redline.

It’s best to keep this engine at low revs where it feels best. The gearbox needs very little muscle and the steering is light as well but that still doesn’t make the Hyundai as nice to drive as the Polo. The feedback from the i20’s electric steering is inconsistent and the gearbox is nowhere near as precise.

While the i20 is softly sprung, absorbing a fair share of bumps, it does crash through larger bumps quite uncomfortably.The Fabia shares the Polo’s three-cylinder engine but, without the upgrades, it doesn’t feel as good. The Skoda motor tends to stall at low speed, is a little more audible than the Polo, and despite the shorter gearing, feels like it needs to be maxed out to get you anywhere.

The saving grace is the motor’s midrange that has sufficient grunt to keep the Fabia moving smartly. The accurate gearbox is a boon, and you need to use it to keep the motor in its sweet spot. The Fabia is the quickest car here when it comes to in-gear acceleration but it is not the best car to drive of this bunch.

Its ride quality, however, is very good and it can tackle any road. But it’s not as well-cushioned as the Polo, there is an underlying firmness at low speeds and the suspension is more audible. However, these grouses disappear the minute you pick up speed. The Fabia’s steering is light and accurate, which makes it easy to punt around town.

The Grande Punto’s 1.2 motor makes the least amount of power but is smooth, refined and comparatively silent at low speeds. The clutch is light, which is good for stop-start traffic. But the weak midrange makes the Punto feel out of breath whenever there’s a gap to close.

Though the engine likes to be revved, there is not much performance to be had in the top-end either. The hydraulic steering also needs slightly more effort when parking. What the Grande Punto has is absolutely the best ride quality — silent, very absorbent and with good body control as well; you feel you are riding the proverbial magic carpet.

The Polo with its consistent power delivery is a happy highway cruiser too and feels quicker than its performance figures suggest. It is quite stable at high speeds too but the column-mounted electric steering is devoid of feel, which spoils the fun through corners.

Though the Punto is the slowest, it feels the most stable at speed. In fact, the Grande Punto’s blend of ride and handling is the best of this group. It turns into corners with aplomb, the delightfully accurate steering, bristling with feel, makes the Fiat hatch a joy to string corners with. The Fabia comes close to the Grande Punto dynamically.

The ride is a touch more supple but there’s more up and down movement and the Skoda doesn’t feel as planted as the Grande Punto. The i20 can’t match the dynamic prowess of the Europeans and the suspension feels unsettled on uneven surfaces and there is tendency to pitch.

But the i20’s engine is the most powerful and the car’s the quickest of the lot. This gives it an edge on the highway, where every extra bit of power in these big hatches with small engines makes a difference. The responsive and efficient Kappa motor helps the i20 stay ahead as the most efficient car here.

It returns 11.2 kpl in the city, and that’s impressive for a car of this size. But the Polo isn’t all that far behind, with an impressive 10.9 kpl in the city. Because of its good aerodynamics and relatively tall gearing, the gap between the i20 and Polo is even less on the highway. The Fabia and Grande Punto consume considerably more in the city — 9.7 kpl is quite a way back.

First Published: Apr 21, 2010 12:48 IST