Volkswagen Polo Vivo Maxx: SGR Stands For “standard gauge road-car”. Industry is defined as systematic labour, especially for the creation of value. Last week’s railing against the Mobius was the cold, harsh view of an unblinking industry analyst; and while that car’s construction may espouse systematic labour, where or not value is created is doubtful at the very least. However, that does not mean that we cannot build a car.
The innovation behind it and its identity might both be purely German, but we can take pride in the fact that we assemble the final product and the results are actually quite impressive. Say hello to the locally assembled Volkswagen Polo Vivo Maxx, the real car for the people built without misguided gallantry or patronizing condescension.
(Full Disclosure: DT Dobie was extremely so keen for me to add test mileage to their demonstrator that they were adamant in their heartiness in exhorting me to have it for an entire weekend. I immediately headed to some backwoods not far from my residence where a little bird had told me the Chinese were drilling what would eventually be the longest train tunnel in Africa; and it turns out they actually were poking some pretty deep holes sideways into the landscape for the 120km/h diesel-electric Iron Snake to effortlessly make its way from the city to my homeland. Yes, the much-discussed SGR is going to nudge the Ugandan border at Malaba upon completion.)
So, what is it?
This car is many things. It is an icon of the rebirth of industrialisation of a nation. It is a political feather-in-the-cap in the résumé of a populist on his final term. It is the most attractive financial plan ever since Hino went quiet about their 0 per cent deposit arrangement on their trucks. It is a Volkswagen Polo Vivo Maxx hatchback. It is silver with a dark grey racing stripe going down its side. It is also my voiture du jour, ironically landing in my hands less than 48 hours after my previous column castigating the Germans for losing their touch ran on these very pages. Teutonic vindication? Not exactly. Car Of The Year nominee? Most definitely.
The car is many things, but in that broad introductory time lapse — from Industrial Area into the Southern Bypass, then up Lang’ata Road towards the Galleria shopping mall — the car is one thing only: impressive.
What is the interior like?
There is a lot of grey here, a lot more than I expected; and sure enough, it reminds you that you are shopping from the bargain pages at the back of the catalogue. A little colour coding and two-tone effect would go a long way in improving the overall feel. The interior of the Polo is very similar to that of the Amarok (they’re siblings after all); but the Amarok has some piano-black accents on the steering wheel that would not have gone amiss in the little hatchback.
That being said, the car does not feel cheap. It also does not feel locally built –if the Mobius is our current standard of “locally built”. Another surprise is the amount of room in both rows of seats. The external measurements belie the interior space; on my way to the railway construction site I carried three “tour guides” and a sidekick, which meant we were five deep. Not one complaint was made about accommodation or personal boundaries. Score one for the Polo, the interior space gets 95 per cent. Yes, that score is insanely high, but then again a subcompact hatchback carrying five grown men with no qualms whatsoever deserves unfettered accolades. Sir Alec Issigonis would be proud, if he were German.
There are concessions to be made when trimming costs and it doesn’t take long to notice where the cutbacks happened. The rear windows have manual winders. The side mirrors are manually controlled as well, which means adjusting the passenger door mirror could be quite the task. There is an exposed seam on the rear hatch, where it meets the roofline. Plastics abound — you’d be foolish to expect leather here given what you are paying — but the material quality is high-grade. Interestingly, there is a shelf that runs under the dashboard which is very handy for storing cellular phones and house keys, a detail that I lauded endlessly to my uninterested passengers, until I started tossing the car left and right. Those trinkets skittered noisily back and forth – metal keys and plastic phone covers on a hard plastic shelf are not exactly the embodiment of stealth technology. Live with it, if you can.
There are no grab handles either, and for that, the Polo loses a mark. That is an usual oversight from the Germans and surely cannot be in the interests of cost-cutting.
What about the exterior?
The headlamps. I cannot stop staring at the headlamps quizzically. They are the same shape as almost every other new Volkswagen’s — conservatively trapezoidal — but the Polo’s eyes are “weeping”. The indicators dangle off the lower outer edges of the main headlamps like tear drops from the corner of an eye. There isn’t anything to complain about that little design cue since it still looks conservatively comely; and the upshot is it gives the Polo a distinctive visage, otherwise it would look exactly like the Golf when viewed from dead ahead.
The conservative theme continues over the rest of the car, which does not seem to be updated from the previous model. However, it still dresses better than those vile blobs deliberately designed to “look cute” and “stand out” but instead end up distorted and looking like props from a kiddie show that airs on Saturday mornings, a trait the French and the Japanese are notorious for. In fact, I daresay the Polo is one of the most handsome little cars ever, just understated enough not to offend but still stylish enough to please.
The 14-inch alloy rims could do with a size increase though. Those tyres are really tiny, 15”s would not be out of place. This is an adjustment one can make oneself aftermarket, provided you go for black multispoke affairs. Of course these have to be paired with either brilliant-white or burnt-orange paintwork, with the racing stripe in deep black. There are other colours available, such as red or the silver of my test car, but you are buying brand new; for once in your life you have control over what goes on the car since the vehicle is priced specifically to attack the grey import scene where “used” is the definitive adjective – a scene where choices are limited to odometer readings and number of previous owners. Buy this car in white or orange, like I plan to.
What is it like to drive?
The most outstanding characteristic here is the weight of the steering. It is heavier than usual; heavier than one would expect in a car of this size, and this makes tasks like cornering a deliberate, slightly ponderous activity; not just the singlehanded tiller-twirling subconscious motions we absentmindedly go through. This steering reminds you that you are, in fact, driving. It doesn’t affect the handling directly, but it gives the feeling of helming something substantial, something solid. It is what I’d expect the tiller of a Touareg to feel like.
The tyres are skinny, and they will squeal under tension, followed shortly afterwards by inches of understeer if you turn in hard. That is how these cars are set up, both deliberately as a safety feature against lack of talent, and as an inherent engineering side-effect, the result of tasking the narrow front wheels with steering, braking, accelerating and bearing the weight of the engine.
85hp and 132Nm are what you get from that engine. The power figure looks amusingly low and unsurprising for a 1.4 but then look at the torque: 14kgm. That torque is channelled through a 6-speed slushbox with tiptronic override that has a tendency to hold on to higher gears at ridiculously low rpm. The torque helps: trundling along at 1600rpm is barely noticeable, until the need to overtake arises, after which the gearbox does its best to annoy the hell out of you by refusing to downshift until your right foot is pushed all the way over the front axle in frustration. Then it picks up, and boy does it haul a** then! The low weight is a good palliative against the absence of horses and makes handling easy. After the daily 9-to-5 slog Monday to Friday, you can take this car to a lonely back road over the weekend and get it on three wheels if you know how to kill understeer by trail-braking, or you can squeal its tyres, before heading back home to wait for Monday and a repeat of the 9-to-5 slog. Unlike the white rice Japanese diet of desktop printers disguised as motor vehicles (Vitzes and Notes and Passos and whatnot), the Polo Vivo is actually an interesting little thing to drive and would appeal to open-minded enthusiasts.
An Opportunity for us to make a fresh start
Obviously, this is not the first time we, as Kenyans, are building a car, but the Polo assembly can be taken as an opportunity for a fresh start. As I have repeatedly stated: we do not need to reinvent the wheel when creating a homegrown automotive industry. If we had someone enterprising — and rich — enough to buy the rights to the Polo’s tech, and then reskin that car in habiliments crafted by a local design student with a bit of engineering input, we could easily have our “own” car. The odds of someone inventing a new type of engine or suspension are quite slim, and internal combustion is pretty much universal in concept, so rather than going back to the late 19th Century and working our way upwards, how about starting from the here and now with an already available platform and developing it instead. It is what the Asian tigers did and look where they are a mere 20 years down the line. Hyundai has spawned its own Lexus-style, high-society model line called Genesis, and it is making the real Lexus quake in its boots. Did they hone their carmaking abilities by building a front-drive World War II Jeep out of steel pipes and calling it the Farmer’s Choice when in reality it was just an outdated pig? No. They built obsolete Japanese cars under licence and learnt what they could from building those cars and worked their way up from there. We have a German car that we can learn from, especially on matters of material science and build quality. Carpe diem, citizens.
And that is why the tunnelling for the Standard Gauge Railway served as a backdrop for the Polo’s road test. Both are manifestations of industrial growth in our little East African powerhouse. Both are the results of overseas boffinry — Chinese and German respectively — but again both can be rightfully claimed as our own. Both were born in 2017 and both herald a new future for graduates of engineering institutions such as myself. Have a good week.
What you see is what you get
There are no pretences here: the vehicle is cheap, so do not be surprised by the cost-cutting involved to justify the pricing. There are certain details that are immediately noticeable – the non-powering of movable glass surfaces, the use of drum brakes on the rear axle and the 14-inch wheels. Slightly less obvious are the exposed seams and rivet heads on the leading edge of the rear hatch, but you will not see these until you open the hatch, and you will be too busy loading and unloading the car to even notice or care.
Completely unnoticeable is the 1.4 litre engine that suffers no forced induction of any kind. On paper, the natural aspiration of such a puny mill should put off egomaniacal and overachieving pedal-stompers like myself who dislike being overtaken and will do 1km/h over the speed limit if it means I get to inch ahead of you. In reality, the NA 1.4 cedes absolutely nothing performance-wise to its similarly sized turbocharged sister that lives under the hood of the Jetta (above, right). This thing will keep up easily with more substantial traffic, especially if you reduce weight by first asking any passengers to step out.
You will keep up with more grown-up cars, sure, but consumption will suffer in the process. The 6-speed auto has no shortage of ratios but it shows an unwillingness to downshift unless the accelerator pedal is firmly welded against the firewall, and even then, there will still be a brief pause before it goes “Oh, alright” and slips down a cog or two. The ECU understands a flattened accelerator to mean one thing: burn as much unleaded as you possibly can, and it will oblige accordingly. However, steer clear of the emergency vehicle-style throttle openings and the 45-litre tank will carry you a fair way between fill-ups. I didn’t get a chance to do a proper mathematical consumption test, but some quick Google-Fu indicates that 16km/l seems quite normal.
So now, for Sh1,750,000 you get the Maxx, the top-spec car which comes with roof rails and a nifty dark racing stripe going down the side between the wheel arches and just above the side-skirts. For a hundred grand less, one can avail oneself of the Trendline, which has no roof rails and the racing stripe is thematic: it consists of three mini-stripes in the colours of the Kenyan flag. Some might like this little detail but I think that’s just trying too hard.
There are some things you won’t necessarily see but you still benefit from: things like ABS and EBD which, a mere decade ago, were the preserve of hardware costing ten times as much. There are additional details that can only be German; like the low brake fluid warning indicator. Who thought of that?
One annoyance is the key plipper. Instead of the bird-like tweet that accompanies locking/unlocking the doors and/or arming/disarming the alarm, the thing toots its horn. It can be mildly amusing for lovers of practical jokes, getting the car to hoot with no one in it, but if you are a grown-up you will cringe every time you approach your car and in the process of unlocking it, cause innocent bystanders to jump out of their skins as a driverless car blows its horn at them.
Would one buy one?
So, why would one buy one? A more interesting question would be why would one not buy one? Check this out: the one of two throne-dwelling Maxx parades on the shelf at Sh1,750,000, which you could either fork out in its entirety if you have such an amount saved somewhere, or if you are averse to hoarding like me, split the payment into a 10 per cent deposit and spread the balance over 60 monthly instalments of Sh36,654 each. The Trendline has a marginally easier payment protocol of Sh34,560 per month over 60 months, following the same 10 per cent deposit. Does that sound like a plan or what?
We can preach all day about the Vivo’s nippy nature, its fuel economy and its practicality but there is no denying that its most outstanding feature, which could easily be its most attractive as well, is the price tag. It is simply unbelievable; and it doesn’t end there. The car comes with a 3-year/120,000km warranty. I’m sorry, but I have to sign off now and look for Sh180,000. I have to get me a brand new Vivo Maxx with a warranty. It will be in brilliant white or burnt orange with black wheels.