Can VW’s pocket rocket Polo GTi leave the Golf lagging behind?
First drive: Volkswagen Polo GTi
Volkswagen Polo GTI
Model: Polo GTi
Date Reviewed: April 19, 2018
Affordable, lightweight and lively to drive are key ingredients of any hot hatchback.
Get three car fans together for more than an hour and a debate over hot-hatch heritage is likely to ensue. For my money Volkswagen invented the class back in 1976 with its first gran tourismo injection – better known as the Golf GTi.
The Mark 1 was pint-sized compared to the current seventh generation Golf GTi. It retains all the hallmarks of hot hatch fun but it isn’t cheap, starting at €38,950 – and that’s before optional extras.
And in terms of scale, the smaller VW Polo is truer to the original Golf and similar in size too. So it must have been obvious to the product planners at VW HQ that the latest Polo could deliver the sort of fun that put the original Golf GTi in motoring’s all-time hall of fame.
With that very idea in mind, Volkswagen has dropped a 200hp turbocharged petrol engine in to its five-door supermini. So is it a Golf GTi beater from within the same stable?
It should be said that the Polo GTi is not new. It first came on the scene 20 years ago in 1998 to no real fanfare. The Mark 3 Polo-based version produced an unremarkable 120hp. In 2006 the next generation crept in with 150hp and 180hp in the so-called Cup Edition. In 2010, the Mark 5 pushed out a credible 180hp, but again it didn’t cause a stir on the sales front. This latest version tops 200bhp: can it finally make a dent on Golf sales?
From the outset, the latest Polo was designed with a GTi version in mind, according to Haris Karahodzic, responsible for its chassis engineering and dynamics. He told The Irish Times that the Polo GTi needed to be sporty but not too harsh for daily use. The benchmark in the class is the brilliant Ford Fiesta ST and as much as it pains me to say it, the ST’s ride can be a little choppy when you are not driving “with enthusiasm”, as they say in motoring parlance.
The Polo GTi comes with a conventional spring and damper/shock absorber suspension set-up, but Karahodzic has made the suspension stiffer using stronger shocks and springs. Up front he also fitted a stiffer and better mounted anti-roll bar using a vulcanised rubber mount and not a split metal clamp. Specially designed wheels allow the GTi’s track to be widened slightly to increase lateral grip. As a cost option there is an active damper suspension set-up called sport select that has two settings, soft or hard. This is unlike the active damper fully variable DCC system in the Golf GTi. The standard suspension is only slightly firmer than the active’s soft setting.
The usual GTi trimmings feature outside but are nicely restrained and subtle. There are of course GTi badges and the essential meaty double exhaust pipe that makes – or appears to make – a grin inducing noise in its sport setting. In fact there is an acoustic resonator in the engine bay that does most of the work.
Diamond cut 17in Milton Keynes alloys are standard, with 18in optional (€513). Performance tyres are very important with quick cars and the Polo GTi is shod with 215/45 section tyres. A mobility kit is standard but a space saver spare is optional. Our test cars were on 18in with Michelin sport tyres.
Inside the Polo GTi, €434 buys an upgrade to a fully digital instrument display much like Audi’s virtual cockpit. This gives the dash area a lovely integrated look. The classic Clark plaid cloth trim is standard on the GTi’s seats, and they’re wonderfully nostalgic.
Hot hatches were quick because they were light. The original Golf GTi weighed in at under a tonne but the memo didn’t get to the 1,355kg Polo GTi. Volkswagen quotes a high power to weight ratio of 6.78kg per horsepower.
A six-speed DSG automatic is the only transmission available at launch and while purists may lament the passing of manual control, the DSG makes the most sense. The shifts are quicker than a manual and DSG can be more economical too, even if fuel economy figures are quite far down the list of criticial data for potential buyers.
Reports of the hot hatchback’s death have been greatly exaggerated
The petrol engine’s power is delivered through the front wheels. Helping the GTI get the most traction down to the road is an XDS differential lock. Diff locks reduce wheelspin under power. A diff senses when traction is being lost by an individual wheel and reduces power to that wheel to keep as much grip as possible applied to the road. Wheelspin smoke may look dramatic, but is a waste of engine power and costs momentum, not to mention tyre rubber.
Cornering is where a diff earns its money and the Polo GTi is quite a spritely machine. Performance isn’t astonishing for a GTi but still a 0-100km/h time of 6.7 seconds is quick enough.
The joy of little hot hatches is that the sense of speed is exaggerated by the car’s compact size. In a hot hatch it is vital that drivers feel involved and needed. This car boasts a trio of pre-programmed drive modes, but there is also an individual setting option, allowing drivers tailor their selection from sport or normal for steering, throttle response and exhaust note. Sports select versions allow for suspension adjustment also.
The Polo GTi like so many good sports cars encourages you to get involved and puts a bit of added force into your right foot. Thanks to reassuringly grippy brakes, speed is scrubbed off quickly too.
Our drive in the Polo GTi included some surfaces that would put the worst potholes in Co Cavan to shame and the car was left wanting, the front suspension at times felt a bit crashy but then again we were on 18in wheels and low profile tyres.
Even on these bumpy roads, this little GTi is a real giggle and it is easy to make the differential earn its keep. Grab the car by the scruff of the neck and you can point and push it on with real gusto.
We took it to the 5.3km Ascari track near Ronda, Spain and its famous consistent, smooth and high-grip surface. Through the 23 bends modelled on celebrated circuits from around the globe, the Polo GTi was nimble and eager. What it lacked in outright performance compared to a 245hp Golf GTi that I tested back-to-back with it, the little GTi made up in feeling.
A more powerful electric power steering motor means that steering input has a quicker reaction with the road wheels. The Polo GTi suspension proved very flexible and, even when on the limit of adhesion, the car communicates with the driver’s backside.
The rear suspension set-up really impressed most here. Usually with hot superminis the rear reaches a point where its suspension set-up simply loses grip and lets go, but despite trying, I never lost control. Thankfully the Golf and Polo GTis are very different machines so there is space for both in the market. The Polo is fun at lower speeds while the Golf feels more mature.
Thanks to the Ford Fiesta ST and a few others there is heightened interest in compact pocket rockets. There is no denying the halo effect of having hot hatches in any range but unfortunately sales are invariably tiny despite the adoration and respect they garnish from true car fans.
With the Polo GTi, it is fair to say the reports of the hot hatchback’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Is it a Golf GTi beater? No, the Golf GTi is simply too good all round, but the cheeky Polo is nipping at its heels.
The Volkswagen Polo GTi is due in Ireland in July.
Lowdown: Volkswagen Polo GTi Price: €32,395 (€33,170 on the road)
Engine: 1984cc 4-cylinder
TSI petrol turbo
Top speed: 237km/h
Fuel economy: 5.9l/100km (47.8mpg)
CO2 emissions: 134g/km
Motor tax: €280
Verdict: Fun to drive and relatively affordable, there’s a lot to like.
PANEL: Volkswagen yet to decide on bringing Up GTi to the Republic
The Up GTi is surely the spiritual successor to the lightweight Golf GTI. The city car while slightly heavier than the 1976 Mark 1 Golf GTI and has the same 115hp output from its petrol engine and can sprint from 0-100km/h in a similar 8.8 seconds. Sadly the UK has oversold its allocation of right-hand drive Ups with more than 450 customers’ orders filled out of the 700 promised machines. This means that there is no right-hand drive production left for the Republic.
The city car category in the Republic is dominated by Hyundai’s i10 and Volkswagen sells roughly 300 Ups per year. We drove the Up GTi on the road and race track and simply loved it. The little car wears its heart on its sleeve and is a hoot to nip about the place in.
At a GTi event, showcasing all of Volkswagen’s hot hatch models at the Ascari race track, Paddy Comyn of Volkswagen Ireland said: “I think most markets were taken aback by demand for the Up GTI and in particular in the UK, which has been a massive market for the car. We are still looking at this car for Ireland, but at the moment, right-hand drive supply remains an issue. The critical acclaim has taken us by surprise and we will do our best to secure some supply but cannot promise anything at this stage.”