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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Best in show: VW Polo

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Yes, you read that correctly. My personal star of the Geneva Show is a thoroughly vanilla B Segment competitor from Europe’s most conservative mainstream manufacturer. It may sound perverse but the Polo won my heart on a couple of fronts and it manages to comprehensively nail the zeitgeist in the process.

Probably the most impressive aspect of the vehicle is the level of perceived quality that Volkswagen has achieved. The fit and finish of the interior is good enough to put the Mk VI Golf to shame (remembering the relative starting prices), let alone any other B Segment competitor.

Particular highlights include the well-integrated metal inserts around the dash vents, bright-work inserts in the rubberised air direction controls and satin metal interior door handles that stayed icy cold and possessed a beautifully weighted action. Most surprising was the soft-touch surfacing extending to the bottom of the door casings, an area where cars even two classes up are often hard and resonant.

The only bum note, and it really did have a significant impact on my overall impression, is the unfortunate shut-line that crosses the centre-stack trim just below the centre vents. I recognise that I’m quibbling over a misplaced shut line on a €12,000 car but when the rest of the interior is so impressive and exhibits such fine attention to detail, such a visible compromise stings.

Looking at the exterior, again it’s a story of details.

With some manufacturers going hell-for-leather trying to differentiate themselves with unique night-time lighting signatures (with varying levels of subtlety and success), it was only a matter of time before the trend trickled down the segment ladder. That it reached the Polo quite so quickly was a bit of a surprise.

The rear lamp interiors are fabulous with a brooding eyebrow and a dynamic slash down the outside edge, backlit with a diffuse glow (no glaring LEDs here thankfully). I can’t wait to see these lamps at night and I have a feeling that they will become a highly visible reminder to other motorists of how well considered the Polo is.

Up front, the classic “VW” pressed headlamp bulb cap has made way for one with a finely cut mesh that echoes the pattern of the lower grille insert. This alone would have been enough to make the headlamps stand out in the attention-to-detail stakes in the B Segment. Clearly the good people in Wolfsburg thought this wasn’t enough.

There is now more than a hint of Audi-style fanaticism in the highly detailed treatment of the indicator lamp, with it’s suspended clear lens, and the inclusion of a dynamic silver “blade” to break up the can. Both serve to give a  sense of drama and precision to the front end of the car.

Happily, unlike many Audi lamps, the Polo’s strike the right balance between assertiveness and outright aggression and fit well with the overall design theme of the car, something that I can’t say for the lamps of an Audi A4. Again, the eyebrow is in attendance, tying the Polo clearly to Golf VI and the Scirocco.

You will have noticed that, up until this point, my commentary has been all about fine details with very little attention to how the thing actually looks as a package. Well, what can I say? It’s a successful, logical and conservative evolution of the design themes established on the da’Silva-ised Golf VI and Scirocco. The interior is an unremittingly sombre affair with a complete lack of playfulness compared to it’s competitors. Some commentators at the show went so far as to call the Polo boring and lacking the king-hit dynamism of the Ford Fiesta which is so rocking the European sales charts at the moment. I can’t disagree with them.

Here’s the kicker though: I think the very fact that this car doesn’t buy into the super-kineto-tastic school of small car design may very well be VW’s trump card.

As the recession has started to really bite, it’s been interesting to read the various reports on the changes in consumer spending habits, product preferences and design output, particularly in the highly volatile (and highly responsive) fashion industry. As the mood has become darker and less frivolous, so have the clothes. To be lairing about in a lurid Versace gown with a slit up to heaven is no longer the done thing. Understatement (think Donna Karan) is the name of the game. Even Versace has toned things down for Spring/Summer 09. A Bit.

I commented recently on a quote from Simon Collins, of Parsons, where he discussed the response of fashion designers to recession at the recent New York shows. To jog your memory, here’s what he said:

We are going to focus on brands with real integrity. There was much more intelligence to the merchandising of the lines. There was the same level of creativity but less window dressing and more focus on salable items.

To me, this sums up what the new Polo represents in relation to it’s competitors. The new design speaks of solidity, (emotional) dependability, a profound depth of thought and, most vitally, a sense of timelessness.

The Polo borders on anti-fashion when sat beside a Fiesta, but given how tired the kinetic Mondeo is now looking, I’m quite certain that the Fiesta will fall victim to the same shift in taste leading to the requisite second-hand sales turn-over. The Polo, meanwhile, will soldier on as a bastion of restraint in a financial climate that calls for, you guessed it, restraint. Owners won’t feel compelled to exchange it for something more “on trend”.

One bandwagon that the Polo will easily jump on, however, is that of downsizing. By offering no tangible disadvantage in terms of perceived quality and having such a mature personality, potential buyers will not feel as though they are losing out as they buy down a size, either as a result of a harsh financial reality or the feeling that they no longer need a bigger car.

That the car is 7.8% lighter than the previous model (three cheers to VW for going backwards! They are the company that oversaw the Golf bloat from 810Kg to 1414Kg after all… ) and comes with a new range of super efficient diesel and petrol engines will only bolster the Polo’s case in the market. We may be enjoying a brief respite from rising oil prices but the Polo will be backing you up at the pump when prices start rising again

I will be extremely surprised if this car doesn’t storm the market in fairly short order. It has all the ingredients of a car of the moment: lower weight, fuel efficiency, a timeless rather than fashion forward personality and a phenomenal sense of value.

Although I’ve been discussing the opportunity to radically alter the personal transport paradigm, the immediate reality is that manufacturers need to make cash to fund the shift and people, in the mean time, still need to keep moving. The Polo is the right product to enable these two things to happen while helping to minimise, in a small but significant way, the impact of personal transport.

So, all you automotive designers and design thinkers out there? What’s your take on the Polo? Does it deserve “Best in Show” or is it putting you to sleep? Let us know in the comments!

Category: Car, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Motor Shows, Things I like

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4 Responses

  1. Joe Simpson says:

    Drew

    I really can’t argue with any of your rationale here – but I’m going to attempt to put forward a counter point..

    Totally agree on how this seems perfect for the times, and how such a sober, mature design will remain fresh long after the Fiesta’s “jumpy” styling seems about as new as a year-old pair of boxer shorts.

    But (and my argument is going to be a fairly irrational, emotionally-based one) the Polo completely fails to stir me. Ultimately I can’t help feeling disappointed in the sober-nature of its design.

    The Polo has always represented the ultimate “dulleswagen” to me; bought by the kind of people who have such disinterest in cars that they’ll either grow up to have a Passat, or used to have a Passat before their kids left home and they received their bus pass…

    We all know that the two major demographic groups who buy such B segment cars either tend to be young, sub-30s types, or OAPs. I fear for the former group, that the Polo still falls into a category of ‘the sort of car your dad insists you have – because it’ll be ‘safe and reliable’ – when what you really wanted was an (altogether more funky) Fiesta, Clio, etc.

    Additionally, while I admire where Walta da’Silva is taking VW’s style strategy overall, when I heard him say a few months ago “prepare to be shocked by the new Polo, it’s a complete departure from anything before” – I was expecting something a little more radical than this. It’s clearly evolutionary – couldn’t we have had a little more playfulness? Or is that sort of thing going to be reserved just for the Up! ?

    In these times, when people appear to feel the need for a level of austerity, you’re surely right – and I’m sure they’ll sell like hotcakes. But I can’t help wonder how many of those younger buyers that car companies (their marketing departments especially) covet will be pulled towards the altogether more funky Fiesta, Mini, Mito… etc? And whether that’ll leave VW shifting Polo’s mainly to a market of OAPs?

    Still, as you say, amazing perceived quality. 😉

  2. […] lack of subtlety and detailing in the age of the new Volkswagen Polo, with it’s delightfully co-ordinated grille mesh and headlamp bulb caps, speaks volumes about […]

  3. […] while and of my three subjects, VWs Polo and Scirocco and Mercedes – Benz E-Class, it was, as it was in Geneva, the Polo that really took my breath […]

  4. oli says:

    Looks fine atleast they have resisted some of the stupid bling that spoilt spoilt recent VW – stupid little indicators (turn signals) stuck in the middle of the brake lights so that they are almost invisible when braking.

    The build of the interior and trim and panels has unfailingly been good on VWs but the engineering that you don’t see has recently been very poor recently and needs to improve,

    For example the engineering on cambelts and tensioners is so poor that the change interval was reduced in the uk to 40000 miles. If ford and peugeot can engineer systems that last for 120 and 160 respectively why can’t VW

    The change interval here was not precautionary – the tensioners couldn’t survive to 60k and don’t always make ot to 40k

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