For a company that built its local reputation on hot hatchbacks, Volkswagen is constantly pushing to diversify their model range. Their entry into the various other market segments has been as aggressive, but being plagued with technical issues has sent them back two steps for every step forward. It has been a tough battle, but Volkswagen is finally starting to pull through and can once again focus on brand development.
When they first released the Polo TSI back in 2010, it was part of their big push for their TSI products. The Golf TSI and Scirocco TSI were more premium offerings that were familiar to fans of the Volkswagen brand, but the Polo TSI was a car for the people. It was meant to bring in new customers who were looking for a first car or those who wanted to upgrade to what was perceived as more premium than Asian products. In retrospect, the Polo TSI was a relatively Spartan product – but the reassurance of German engineering and a peppy little motor were more than enough convincing for most.
The next big change for the Polo came with the Polo Sedan and its counterpart, the Polo Hatchback. This is where the naming convention becomes a little confusing: both the Polo Sedan and the Polo Hatchback shared a 1.6-litre naturally aspirated powertrain, but the Polo TSI (while still a hatchback) was the only one to receive the 1.2 TSI motor. Whatever it was, both the Polo Sedan and Hatchback were more affordable offerings and helped Volkswagen to close the gap with established entry-level products.
This year, Volkswagen has begun a little bit of a rebranding exercise. The Polo Sedan has become the Vento – a name that has a fairly successful history for the Volkswagen brand. The hard truth is that the Polo Sedan is a product that was designed for India and Russia, and it didn’t benefit from the kind of strong branding of the Golf, or the Jetta, or the Scirocco. It was arguably an afterthought, something to fill a market gap that only exists in our region, but it has done surprisingly well.
But that’s not all that Volkswagen has done. The unveiling of the Vento brought with it a new variant for the Polo-based family: a Polo Sedan with the 1.2 TSI motor from before. It’s a bit of a pick ‘n mix here, but with the modular nature and design of Volkswagen’s products, it isn’t very difficult to execute. Known as the Vento Highline, it is the only variant in the Vento range that has the turbocharged 1.2-litre motor. While it’s easy enough to imagine what the car feels like, Volkswagen Malaysia insisted on taking us on a two-day trip to the northern state of Penang.
On first impressions, the Vento Highline is more than just an improved powertrain. Yes, the engine is the highlight of it – a turbocharged 1.2-litre motor with 105 PS and 175 Nm of torque – but the change in name brings a number of improvements, both in terms of design and equipment. Specific to the Vento Highline are a number of pieces that may be familiar: the steering wheel is straight out of a Golf R, and the centre console is finished in a metallic silver that is similar to the Golf TSI of old. The exterior benefits from larger wheels and revised grills and bumpers, making for a more mature look.
Perhaps the most important addition is the Electronic Stability Control (ESC) that helps to keep the car in check if you begin to lose control. This isn’t something we had the opportunity (nor were we particularly keen) to test, but it’s a reassurance that makes the Vento a far better proposition than before. Cruise control helps to take the load off the driver during long-distance driving, while hill-hold control prevents that dreaded roll-back when dealing with dual clutch systems. Passive safety comes in the form of four airbags and ISOFIX, making it a baby-friendly product as well.
In the real world, the Vento Highline is every bit as energetic as you could hope a city car would be. It excels in tight urban spaces, easily nipping across lanes and ahead of slow-moving traffic. Out on the highway it isn’t quite as impressive, although if you stay committed to the accelerator, it will hit 200km/h with little protest. The dual clutch gearbox in its current form doesn’t shift as crisply as in older models, but this is part of Volkswagen’s efforts to improve gearbox longevity. Ride and handling is appreciable in true European fashion: it is neither too soft nor too stiff, and it has excellent dynamics when throwing it through the corners.
Does the Highline warrant the RM7,000 premium over the mid-range Comfortline? At RM93,888, the Highline is one of the more expensive products you can buy for this segment, but it is the only turbocharged compact sedan in class. The wide torque band allows you to be light-footed with the throttle, which in turn improves fuel consumption. The aforementioned ESC is also another great reason to pick the Highline over other variants, simply for that added level of protection.
While the Vento is a Volkswagen, it still has its developing-nation roots hanging over it. But this isn’t a cause of concern: the Vento may not be on the same level of luxury as a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz, but it retains the hallmarks of a solid German product. Things like doors that close with a reassuring thud, or well-weighted steering systems, or a well-sorted chassis – they are not necessarily listed in the spec sheet or the options list, but they are just as important when it comes to your ownership experience.