The latest Polo -- with its high-tech digital instrument display -- couldn't come at a better moment for one Volkswagen salesman. "It's high time," the dealer said with exasperation after surveying several older, low-tech models sitting on his lot near Mannheim, Germany.
It has been especially challenging to find buyers for the 8-year-old current Polo. Things should change for the salesman with this month's arrival of the sixth-generation Polo, which has a high-tech interior and modern look. The refined finish of the subcompact's glass-encased central display even tops the dashboard in the brand’s new top-of-the-line Arteon, which was launched in June with a price tag three times higher than the Polo's.
VW is not the only automaker that is packing its small cars with cutting-edge infotainment, safety and comfort features. Ford, Nissan and Kia have already done the same with their subcompacts in Europe. It's a big shift because important innovations used to be introduced in pricey luxury sedans before trickling down into lower segments over time. These days, however, the pace at which this so-called "democratization" process takes place is accelerating, driven in part by trends in consumer electronics as well as safety regulations.
"More and more often we see that new features – especially in the area of connectivity and driving assistance systems – are no longer top-down. The speed at which the innovation cycle develops is so dynamic, carmakers don’t want to force their customers to wait years until the product cadence ensures higher segment cars are first equipped with them," said Stefan Bratzel, head of the Center of Automotive Management in Germany.
Dirk Hoheisel, a management board member at supplier Robert Bosch, took it a step further. "In some cases, this is even flip-flopping," said the executive, who runs Bosch's car multimedia and automotive electronics businesses.
A key reason for the intensifying investment in small cars is that the subcompact segment is one of the last strongholds still dominated by traditional European volume brands. The sector, where most models are about 4 meters long, has proved unappealing for premium car manufacturers to attack.