Volkswagen’s Small Contender from Brazil
Can VW fox its rivals in the U.S. with an import from Brazil?
By Andy Bannister
Recent reports that Volkswagen is considering importing its European small hatchback, the Polo, to North America, make me wonder why it isn’t also considering looking south – to Brazil.
Like most European-built cars, the Polo, which is now in its fourth generation, is going to have a tough time making money stateside at the moment; such is the level of the US dollar against the Euro. Even in its home market VW now imports a smaller sub-Polo model, the Fox, from its Brazilian subsidiary, having failed to make a profit with its own entry-level model, the Lupo.
The Fox is a designed-in-Brazil cheap and simple small hatchback which you could argue finally takes the company back towards its roots making an affordable “people’s car”. It is, however, intended for international consumption, unlike some previous local VW models which have had little appeal outside South America.
Costing around £6500 ($12,700) here in the UK, the Fox finally gives VW a chance to fight back against rivals who already have well-established factories in the eastern outposts of Europe, where labour costs haven’t (yet) caught up to the increasingly-uncompetitive rates seen in countries like Germany and Belgium (where the European Polo is currently manufactured).
Fiat’s Polish-made Panda, the new Hungarian-built Opel/Vauxhall Agila (a joint venture with Suzuki) and the Czech-made threesome of the Peugeot 107, Citroën C1 and Toyota Aygo show how shifting production into the former Soviet bloc is paying dividends for carmakers just now.
Strangely, the Fox competes with these rivals on price but feels a class bigger than and as solid as a traditional Volkswagen should be. When you get the tape measure out the reason is evident – the Fox is in fact only three inches shorter than the Polo, and a foot longer than the VW’s previous Lupo tiddler.
The Lupo was actually a fine city car, with cute bug-eyed looks and brilliant build quality, being a cut-down version of a previous generation Polo. Unfortunately it just cost too much to be a success, and had a few other drawbacks, like a luggage compartment the size of a glove box. It will, however, be fondly remembered in years to come, particularly in its slightly manic GTI version.
In Brazil the Fox is available in three- and five-door versions, but only the former makes it to Europe, with deliberately spartan trim and an extremely limited choice of models. Perhaps VW is afraid it will become too popular and steal sales from the home-built Polo. The two cars share a couple of engines, which in the Fox’s case means a 1.2-litre 54bhp three-cylinder, and a rather better 1.4-litre 74bhp four-cylinder, meaning the car isn’t just a city player.
Stylistically the Fox looks reasonably like other VW’s, although the exterior is possibly the least successful part of the package. It certainly appears a backward step from its Lupo predecessor.
It is neat and inoffensive but somehow the proportions aren’t quite right – the Fox appears a little too tall and gawky, and very plain at the rear, meaning there’s less obvious showroom appeal than some of its European competitors.
In these days of belt-tightening, credit squeezes and fears of a recession around the corner, however, the Fox is sensible with a capital S. With its simple, solid and roomy interior – helped by a neat sliding rear seat – and a low purchase price, there is much to recommend it. The Fox is cheap to run, cheap to insure, and offers a pleasant, if unremarkable, driving experience.
Cleverly VW has managed to gloss over its exotic origins, so most buyers probably think their “good value” new hatchback is as German as sauerkraut, which should help its resale value. If only it didn‘t look quite so dull!
Even that could be fixed. Back home in Brazil a chunkier, more aggressive “soft-roader” version, the CrossFox, is also on sale, and it is a whole lot easier on the eye, even if it is still the same front-wheel-drive hatch underneath.
One snag in considering the Fox for the USA is that drivers with long memories may remember that VW tried this trick a few years ago, foisting an unrelated small car in three bodystyles – also designed in Brazil and called the Fox – on Americans from 1987-1993. History seems to record it wasn’t the one of the more successful or fondly-remembered vehicles to carry the Volkswagen badge.
So, there you have it, the VW Fox. Too small, too ordinary, too burdened by previous experience to be a success in North America? Perhaps. If so, Volkswagen’s Brazilian outpost already makes the Polo as well, and it is also already in production in China. If smaller cars than the Rabbit are the order of the day, no doubt VW will find a way.
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