THE BUDGET B segment is hot right now, and three of the big guns â€“ Chevrolet, Ford and Volkswagen â€“ have just upgraded their weaponry. No easy task to pick a winner from these three, so we enlisted a crack team of professionals. Enter a motley crew aged between 20 and 23 years old â€“ all prime candidates for new wheels. The problem? Theyâ€™re not like us, you know. The youth spout dialogue siphoned from DSTVâ€™s music channels, pepper their utterances with traces of Gossip Girl and Entourage, then mix it into a heady colloquial argot that would make Google-Translate proud. I was expecting baggy-jeaned quasi-cool life forms puffed with swagger and hot air, but thatâ€™s not exactly what we got from this mix of engineering and accounting students. Presented with a scoresheet and felt-tipped pen, their eyes sharpened up, mouths tightened and the task at hand became as serious as a final exam.
Judge a bookâ€¦
You can predict a sunny day during a Cape winter as easily as you can the likelihood of Paris Hilton actually doing hard time, yet here we are on a brilliant Friday scorcher in August at a Bellville campus with three gleaming hatchbacks to present to Gareth, Garth, Maxine, Authia and Adrian. A crimson Polo, instantly recognisable in Vivo form and barely altered from the Polo that led B segment sales for half a decade, has already drawn a crowd. Approving nods and glances abound. A green-tinged Ford Figo â€“ a similar reskinning of the feisty Fiesta â€“ is also re-equipped for another lease on commercial life. Both have received subtle design updates to keep them modern and in tune with the new stylistic direction of their respective marques. In effect, both take a page from the book written by the Citi Golf. Itâ€™s not until we encounter the cheerily silver Chevrolet Spark that we see all-new. Yet despite being bigger, sharper and cleverer than the outgoing model, new Spark immediately polarises opinion with its crazy aesthetics.
â€˜The Poloâ€™s styling is tasteful, with clean lines. Itâ€™s the best looking in its class.â€™
â€˜The Figoâ€™s shape is not appealing, nor modern, nor elegant, nor exciting.â€™
â€˜I actually like the futuristic, alien look of the Chev,â€™ says one of the girls. â€˜Itâ€™s a girlâ€™s car,â€™ says one of the boys.
We say: Volkswagenâ€™s understated design sense means the Vivo retains the timelessness Guigiaro engineered into the Mk1 Golf. Fordâ€™s attempt follows the same principle, but strangely it looks dated already, rather than classic. The Chevrolet is a pastiche of 2010 concept styling on a platform too small to properly showcase it. Clever visual touches abound, yet the final result is awkward and emasculated.
Wheel of fortune
Despite the cars being tiny, our students had no problems clambering into their cabins. And even their boots, as it happened. The Chevrolet offers up the smallest wheelbase at 2375mm, making it the most cramped here. A tall roofline saves it some grace as headroom is more than adequate even for six-footers. Legroom is a different story, with the Spark severely compromised, notably at the rear. A safe mix of materials and surfaces somehow conspire to produce a very experimental cockpit, with a motorcycle-inspired instrument binnacle ahead of the driver. Itâ€™s busy, visually unique, a talking point. Figo and Vivo plump for predictable interiors more or less on par with the cars theyâ€™re based on. Unfortunately this is where it all falls apart for the Ford. Rough, easily scratched plastics detract from the India-built Figo. Itâ€™s low rent. In stark contrast the Vivo features smoother plastic finishes and safer, dark and dark grey hues. Ergonomically and aesthetically it is also the more mature of the two, and immediately gains favour with our testers.
â€˜Polo has a neat interior with a well organized dash. Instruments are conservative with a modern feel.â€™
â€˜The Figo has a very plasticky feel and the warning beeps are extremely annoying, but the seats are comfortable.â€™
â€˜The Chevyâ€™s dials are interesting, very sporty. Not much rear space though.â€™
We say: Even in base trim the Polo is handsome, though it lacks features standard on the other cars â€“ no electric windows up front, all manual wing mirrors. But the all-important ambience is no shame on Wolfsburgâ€™s other cars â€“ it excels. Still, it loses out in one key area, with flat and unsupportive seats to the Figoâ€™s grippy, comfortable items. You might think the Spark has a slipshod interior, but you know what, it doesnâ€™t. Itâ€™s over the top, but the only car here that could have been designed for 2010 and beyond. Thank the Beat concept car which starred in Transformers and provided inspiration. Alien indeed.
The wallet factor
Each of our test cars weigh in as near as makes no difference to the R125 000 mark â€“ in fact itâ€™s the exact price of this Ford Figo in Trend spec. For your money you get ABS, aircon, airbags, an alarm plus central locking, electric windows up front and even an MP3 CD Player. It is packed with kit. The Spark, at R125 495, offers a near identical list of gizmos and even benefits from a mini-USB connection for music files. The Fordâ€™s sound system is punchy, but only gets a pair of front speakers. The Sparkâ€™s audio system has an additional pair of speakers in the rear, but a weedy driver. In standard entry spec the Polo gets nothing at all. VW offered us their bare-bones base unit, which despite having a 55kW 1.4-litre engine, gets no signifier at all on the bootlid, unlike the slightly higher-spec, higher output (63kW) model which proudly carries the 1.4 badge. Instead you get the â€˜cheap as chipsâ€™ R109 900 price sticker and the chance to bankrupt yourself on the arm-long options list. Our test unit came with aircon, an alarm system, ABS and an MP3 player (USB, SD card and radio only), bumping the price to R123 350. Chuck in a set of alloy wheels and one has price parity with the Spark, but youâ€™ll still be winding down your windows and adjusting your mirrors like your dad used to. By hand.
â€˜The Chevy Spark seems too expensive, but safety is key and it does come with a lot of kit.â€™
â€˜The Figo is pricey, but not too bad when you consider how many features come standard.â€™
â€˜The Polo represents good value for money, but the options could get pricey.â€™
We say: For options box ticking there are few who can rival the Volkswagen Audi Group. That itâ€™s a problem here at budget level just goes to show how under-equipped the base Polo is. At base Vivo level no amount of speccing gets electric windows, which only feature as an option from the Trendline (R119 900) starting point. It feels slightly dishonest but will no doubt be rewarded at trade-in time when the VW will hold the trump cards. The Ford and Chevy make the most of their rather more generous offerings and each car does exactly what is says on the tin. If you can look past the Fordâ€™s cheaper materials, it represents excellent value for money. Chevâ€™s Spark however has the most efficient powerplant, churning out 60kW and 108Nm while returning enviable consumption figures of 5.4â„“/100km. It even manages to be the quickest sprinter to 100kph in this company, its 11.9 seconds trouncing the Figoâ€™s 12.2 and walloping the Vivoâ€™s 12.7 â€“ surprising all in the process.
Whatâ€™s in a name?
Like a train wreck, we saw this one coming a mile away. Chevrolet has had a muddled lineage in South Africa with recycled Holdens and Opels wearing the bowties for the first couple of decades, and then more recently snatching that identity from Korean Daewoos. The marqueâ€™s current reputation, despite the testosterone-fuelled Lumina, is still one for young mums, bolstered by a good reputation for after sales support and servicing. Ford too has a good rep for service, and a flair for consistently delivering good commercials and middling sedans and hatches. Then thereâ€™s Volkswagen, the German champion of the peopleâ€™s car. For years, VW has pulled off sporty and classy, keeping the badge aspirational for a number of reasons. The Mk1 Golf led the entry segment for three decades, building badge equity in a process that never happens overnight. We would usually be critical of the sort of subjectivity that could make the badge more important than the metal. But what we saw in action here, from the buyers themselves, offers up some insight into the desirability â€“ and likely sales success â€“ of the vehicles weâ€™ve lined up.
â€˜The brand is just not appealing to us,â€™ said every single one of our testers of the Chevrolet Spark.
â€˜VW has a great reputation for their engineering and for their sporty hatchbacks, like this Vivo.â€™
â€˜Ford is a good, reliable brand. This oneâ€™s a bit girly though.â€™
We say: Most manufacturers would kill for the kind of desire Volkswagen has cultivated around its badge. The young aspire to it, the mature revel in it, and it seems the formula can be applied to everything from double cab bakkies to slippery coupes. Ford has done well to emerge from the mid-90s mediocrity of third and fourth generation Escorts, bland Mondeos and regurgitated Lazers, with a new vigour spearheaded by the sportier Focuses and Fiestas. But it cannot hope to match the German brand for understated cool. As for Chevrolet, the marque is starting again from the ground floor after a long absence, brandishing value and service as its new core elements. Those just arenâ€™t sexy, and neither, truth be told, is the new Spark.
Regrettably, the one aspect of vehicle testing our students could not enjoy was driving, so youâ€™ll have to settle for our take. Re-runs of the same roads by three different testers, plus a track shake-down, exposed some key differences. In sum, the Spark was the wildcard, with its dart-like levels of nippiness and the fastest 0-100kph sprint time of the three. Put it down for the most part to a superior power-to-weight ratio (990kg kerb), despite the 1.2-litre mill, and less rolling resistance from those biscuit-like 155/70 R14 tyres. That said, the short wheelbase and narrow track meant cornering was livelier than weâ€™d have considered ideal for the segment, though one would hope the average Spark driver would drive more conservatively. At 120kph in fifth gear the Sparkâ€™s fizzy 4200rpm will make you wish for a taller final ratio or additional gear.
The Figo and Vivo are an exercise in contrasts despite the same 175/65 R14 tyres, close kerb weights (1049 and 1070kg respectively) and 1.4-litre engines, with the Ford having a 7kW advantage. While levels of grip are predictably on par, the Figo was quicker in the sprints (though slower on roll-on acceleration), while the chassis dynamics were more lively and â€˜chuckableâ€™. Its nimble manners are complemented by a well judged set of gear ratios and the quickest, crispest gearshifts of the trio. The Vivo scores in feeling very safe and predictable, erring towards stodgy on the handling yardstick.
Bottom line is that these are not performance cars by any imaginative stretch and if weâ€™re honest each does the job they were designed for in admirable fashion. There may be variations in boot space, legroom front and rear, details of finish and levels of in-car entertainment, but each is a worth addition to this busy segment.
While our panels of students may be able to tell us what the consumer WILL be spending his or her money on, weâ€™re still confident that we know better as to what they SHOULD be investing in. Itâ€™s also worth noting that a common thread in discussion between students and staffers alike was that, at the R125 000 mark, none of these cars are hugely affordable and they are certainly not cheap. That price point is way above the means of the average student, and even those on the first rungs of the employment ladder will still be plying the second-hand market. All those riders aside, if you are still forced to choose between these three, weâ€™d insist you look past its garish interior and opt for the Ford. Weâ€™re almost as adamant that itâ€™s the right choice as weâ€™re confident youâ€™ll take the VW instead.