Words by Jordan Katsianis
The Polo GTI has always found itself in somewhat of a predicament. Designed as a grown up, mature supermini in standard form, the Polo GTI has never really found favour with enthusiasts thanks to this underlying conservatism. Repeatedly unable to capture the larger Golf GTI’s effervescence, the new Polo GTI has been redesigned from the ground up to achieve this goal, and is closer than ever to its talented bigger brother. But can it capture the Golf GTI’s magic, or will it fall into the same ‘must try harder’ category as previous versions?
Visually, the Polo is not off to a great start. The now five-door-only bodywork, shared with the standard car, is over-complex and looks more like a demonstration of Volkswagen’s latest metal stamping techniques than an actual production car. Combined with mundane front and rear fascias, even the GTI’s trademark design cues like the honeycomb grille and red highlights struggle to lift the Polo GTI above indistinct.
Under the skin, however, the new Polo GTI has made a much better fist of aping its big brother. Now based on a similar, albeit simplified chassis, sharing the same excellent EA888 turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and the standard Golf GTI’s XDS electronic front diff, have these new ingredients finally given the Polo GTI the tools to offer a Golf GTI experience at a lower price point? Well, yes, and no.
Volkswagen has done something remarkable with the new Polo. Despite a completely new platform, the new Polo looks almost identical to its predecessor. Sure, look closely at the details and you’ll notice that the bodywork is more complex, the lighting units heavily faceted, but whether by accident or design, a step forward into the future, the Polo’s design is not.
All the GTI paraphernalia is correct and present, though, with liberal use of red highlights on the brakes, badging and the iconic red stripe across the front bumper. Like the Golf, the Polo GTI’s headlights are also bespoke, that red line extending into the lighting unit itself. As is the usual GTI way, the Polo is grown up, purposeful, but not too obvious, a perfectly formed metaphor about the way the Polo GTI drives. Spec wisely and the Polo GTI will easily slip past unnoticed. Whether that’s what you want in a hot hatchback, however, is something to be considered.
Thanks to the new Polo’s substantial growth in width, space inside feels far more generous than most superminis, feeling well screwed together, without being too grown up. The GTI bits are crucial to this, as the usual appearance of tartan seats and red stitching, augmented with new elements like the giant slab of red plastic stretched across the dashboard, help lift the otherwise dull interior. The seats are near perfect, comfortable and supportive, having enough lateral support without resorting to supersized bolsters that restrict access.
The GTI’s excellent steering wheel also adds to this sense of sportiness, as although we aren’t particularly fond of flat-bottomed wheels, the smooth leather and perfect grips help lift the GTI’s interior over mainstream Polos. It would be nice to have some more substantial paddle shifters behind the wheel, but they feel reasonably solid and are an acceptable trade-off for their quick-witted responses as compared to other dual-clutch gearbox supermini hot hatches, whose paddles look good but are slow to respond.
In typical VW style, though, all the touch points are almost perfect. The driving position is near spot-on, unlike many superminis, with plenty of adjustment in the steering and seating positions. The high-mounted infotainment system is also placed in exactly the right position, close to the driver’s eye-line without looking like an afterthought like most floating screens. Beside which, Plus cars are fitted with VW’s Active Info display, a screen replacing the traditional dials. These screens are becoming increasingly in vogue, but its use in a supermini definitely gives the Polo GTI’s interior a distinct USP, although it’s not quite as high resolution as the Golf.
You could definitely say the ears of the evo office pricked up when we heard the new Polo GTI would finally be fitted with a proper GTI engine. Unlike the previous generation car, which offered both the 1.4 twincharged four-cylinder engine (which sounded much better on paper than it was in reality) and later the 1.8-litre TSI engine, this new car features the well-proven, torque-rich EA888 from the Golf GTI. Producing 197bhp at between 4400 and 6000rpm, and 320Nm of torque from 1500 to 4400rpm, the Polo offers an identical power output to the Mk5 Golf GTI, and even more torque.
For the moment, the Polo is only available in the UK with a six-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox, with paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. A manual gearbox is due in late 2018, says Volkswagen. The gearbox itself is typical VW, with an inherent slickness to gear changes and excellent response from the paddles. Town driving is not the transmission’s forte though, as it will often lurch between gears and hesitate when pulling away. As the road opens up, though, the Polo’s DSG makes more sense, slipping between gears and shifting with an alacrity missing in most mainstream rivals.
There is one caveat to the gearbox, however; it has an inherent lack of drama. It seems to go about its business without any real urgency; the shifts, although quick, have none of the pomp and circumstance of the Golf, even when pressing on. The effect is yet one more element that seems to have come from VW’s vast collection of components, rather than being one specifically engineered for this application.
The 2-litre turbocharged engine also has its weaknesses, as although it shares an engine code with some very talented hot hatchbacks, the Polo’s flat torque curve leaves the engine feeling a little breathless and lacking any real enthusiasm for the upper third of the rev range. As a result, the engine feels flexible, rather than enthusiastic, effective, but not very GTI.
VW claims the DSG-equipped Polo will rattle off the 0-100kmph sprint in just 6.7sec. Yet, while it feels as fast as the numbers suggest when going all out, it never feels quite as quick as its torque figure and relatively low 1355kg kerb weight suggests.
There’s plenty of muscle at low speeds, but the delivery goes a little flat in the mid-range – it feels as if the car’s potential is being deliberately reined in so as not to tread on the toes of the Golf – although this reluctance could also be explained by the tall intermediate gears.
VW has made some big noises about the Polo GTI’s ‘playfulness’. With the larger Golf being pushed upmarket, the field is left clear for VW to deliver a more fun hot hatch. Certainly the Polo’s compact external dimensions (I say ‘compact’, it’s actually larger than a Golf MK4 in every dimension other than length), low weight and big engine should make for a genuinely entertaining package.
Initial impressions are good, because like its big brother, the Polo benefits from slick and naturally weighted steering, almost perfect control weights and a taut yet controlled ride – on our Sport Select-equipped car, at least. Push harder and there’s strong bite from the front tyres and a definite sense that the rear axle is taking its share of the load, and on the smooth and snaking roads of our Spanish test route the VW felt planted and poised. Like the Golf, it covers ground quickly, with an almost clinical precision. And therein lies the problem. Once you’ve tackled a few corners you’ve pretty much got the measure of the Polo. The steering is quick and precise but there’s only the bare minimum of feedback, while that grippy chassis doesn’t want to get expressive. Lifting the throttle will tighten the car’s line, but there’s no sense of the puppy-like agility you get in the 208 GTi.
The XDS ‘differential’ is also no substitute for the real thing. Torque vectoring means there’s plenty of grip when you turn in, but with the ESP in its halfway house Sport setting (you can’t turn the systems off completely) the inside wheel simply spins power away out of slower turns. Selecting Sport sharpens the throttle, adds artificial weight to the steering and fractionally firms up the dampers, but the Polo’s benign character remains. It’s an effective way of getting from A to B quickly, but not a thrilling one.
Take things easy and the GTI is a normal Polo, which means it’s comfortable, refined, roomy and easy to drive – few superminis are as simple to live with.
Volkswagen claims the Polo will sip fuel at a rate of 16.99kmpl when driven on the combined cycle, however like most turbocharged engines it will consume significantly more when driven with enthusiasm.
In the UK, the new sixth generation Polo GTI is currently available in two models – basic GTI and GTI Plus. If you were hoping that the Plus would bring with it similar goodies to the Golf GTI Performance, though, you’ll be disappointed, as there are no technical upgrades, just added levels of equipment. As standard, all the usual GTI goodies apply, including tartan sports seats, 17-inch wheels, twin chromed exhaust pipes and a subtle, but still obvious, rear wing.
Plus models add adaptive cruise control, LED headlights, Volkswagen’s digital dial pack and heated and folding mirrors. Both models are available with options like larger 18-inch wheels, sunroof and an upgraded infotainment system with embedded satnav if you wish to further bolster the Polo’s standard equipment. Prices for the basic car in the UK start at just over Rs19.47 lakh, with the Plus model representing a Rs 1.39 lakh jump.
The supermini hot hatch class is in a state of transition at the moment, and is likely to change in the very near future. The typically polished Mini Cooper S is also a constant threat, offering a similar combination of a 2-litre turbocharged engine and dual-clutch gearbox in its recently facelifted guise. The Mini is a slightly more expensive car, though, and to match the equipment levels of the Polo, especially in Plus form, the cost discrepancy increases as its tempting options list is raided.