With all the great tech and cars launched since they arrived, it seems odd the rebirth of Volkswagen in Malaysia starts with a mildly facelifted car originally designed to make in-roads in third-world markets. Yet, here we are, with the Volkswagen Vento acting as the tip of the spear to save the brand from an ignominious death at the hands of Malaysian car buyers.
That sounds harsh but let’s not beat around the bush. Any story we post on social media about Volkswagen inevitably attracts comments by owners with problematic and often unreliable cars (assuming that they do own Volkswagens), hence it’s a real world issue affecting more than just a handful of disenchanted customers. Things are then compounded by what seems to be indifferent levels of customer service and poor retained values, which is akin to getting stomped on when you’re already lying face-down in the mud.
How then will a car like the Polo Sedan Vento turn things around?
A new name deserves a new face
While old-school Volkswagen fans may not agree with the name change, using the Vento badge in Malaysia makes a lot of sense. Volkswagen Malaysia wanted a full model line-up with engine and spec options, so they needed some separation from the Polo hatchback.
To achieve those aims, there are three variants available dubbed Trendline, Comfortline and Highline. Aesthetically, the change from Polo Sedan to Vento is a mild one. There’s a new grille with three horizontal bars and a redesigned front bumper with rectangular instead of oval fog lights. There’s also a new set of head and tail lights as well as chrome bars on the rear bumper and boot lid.
Inside, Volkswagen limited its makeover to new seat patterns and a silver finish on the central instrument cluster. At least they kept the flat bottom steering wheel, which is nice to hold and adds a touch of luxury. Build quality is good but our test unit experienced inconsistent radio reception; not a big deal if you’re a journalist testing a car over a short period of time, but infuriating for an owner.
Taken as a whole, the Vento does appear like a more expensive product than its predecessor, though ultimately, anyone can tell the two are one and the same. No shame in that, though it’s worth noting the base model Trendline doesn’t get a lot of the shiny new bits.
The return of TSI and DSG
One of the main USPs Volkswagen is pushing for their new car is the use of the 1.2-litre turbo-charged TSI engine and dry-clutch DSG gearbox in the Vento Highline. With 105hp it doesn’t set new class standards (a Honda City has 15hp more) but the 175Nm torque output from 1550-4100rpm more than makes up for any power deficit.
Then there’s the DQ200 DSG gearbox. Volkswagen claims changes have been made to their 7-speed dry-clutch transmission to tackle any issues that cropped up on earlier versions, which hopefully means better reliability and less hair-pulling due to failed ‘Mechatronics’ gubbins and improper lubricant specs. Is this therefore finally the end of a problem that’s haunted Volkswagen Malaysia for the past few years? Only time will tell.
If you’re still wary of the TSI and DSG combination, Trendline and Comfortline cars come with the same 1.6-litre MPI engine and six-speed automatic as found in the Polo Sedan, which has proven to be a trusty and reliable combination.
Fun to drive but watch those bumps
Our first taste from behind the wheel of the Vento came at Volkswagen Malaysia’s media drive where all the cars were the Vento TSI Highline. So any impressions we have will be specific to this car, which is important to remember because there are probably quite big differences in the way it and the other variants drive.
Yes, most of it is down to the differences in the engine and gearbox but the Highline also has bigger 16-inch wheels shod with 215/45 R16 tyres; by far the widest and lowest profile tyre used on a B-segment sedan sold in Malaysia. It’s a difference you feel in the very first few kilometres of driving.
It’s been a long time since we drove a Polo Sedan but we don’t remember the ride being quite so firm. On uneven tarmac, road imperfections are sent through the suspension to your backside, so it’s a good idea to either slow down or take evasive action. We blame the tyres for this because there’s a fair bit of suspension travel. Don’t ask how we know this.
Luckily there’s also some pay-off for putting up with the firm ride. With so much torque available from so few revs, the TSI engine really encourages you to push on and make use of the seven slick-shifting ratios in the DSG ‘box.
Using the sequential manual mode on the gear lever (there are no paddles), gear changes are instantaneous and near seamless whether you’re down-shifting or powering away, leading to the Vento travelling at unprintable speeds. Dive into a corner at such a pace and most rivals would be in terminal understeer but the wide tyres on the Vento deliver a lot of front end grip. Combine that with some keen braking (despite using drums at the back) and suspension that offers just the right amount of damping and give, and this little Volkswagen ends up delivering the most fun-driving experience in its class.
Oh, and a word on fuel consumption. Volkswagen claims a combined figure of 18.2km/L, buteven with our hard driving, the Vento managed a really respectable 13km/L, so those with a light right foot can expect some excellent range on a single tank of fuel.
Would you buy one?
That’s the ultimate question isn’t it? Volkswagen Malaysia are asking RM93,888 (before insurance) for a Vento TSI Highline, which is reasonable when you consider what you get for your money. However, a top-spec Honda City Grade V is about RM5,000 ‘cheaper’, so the Vento comes at a premium many may not be willing to pay for a variety of reasons.
Is it fair for a brand to be punished for its previous missteps and for its new products to be viewed with a degree of scepticism? Of course it isn’t, but it’s even more unfair for owners who bought the earlier cars to live with so much grief and suffer high depreciation rates too.
Malaysians though are a forgiving bunch and while it’s tough to forget bad experiences, we’re always willing to try something if we perceive it to deliver more value than what we pay. So, based on what we’ve seen on this first drive, the Vento has a chance of being a long-term success. As for the reliability issues, maybe Volkswagen Malaysia can let us run a test car for 40,000km to see how it holds up. We’ll put in the miles and report on our experiences if they’re willing to step up to the plate.