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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Polo - GTI 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Value, fun, performance, cabin, ESP, economy
Room for improvement
Steering not quite dart-like enough urban roads reveal harsh ride, no five-door or auto available

14 Dec 2005

WHAT makes a great hot hatch exactly?

Defining what it is not might make the answer easier to understand.

As the fast but disappointingly mundane 140kW Toyota Corolla Sportivo proves, it is not just a quick turn of speed.

Nor is it excellent handling and roadholding on their own, for the 100kW Peugeot 206 GTI runs rings around most rivals here... yet leaves its driver feeling surprisingly tepid.

Yet these ingredients are vital in the successful composition of a great hot hatch – or, at least, the feeling of flying and entertaining steering are.

The answer, it appears, has to do with intangibles like ‘fun’, ‘spirit’ and ‘soul,’ blended in just the right way with practicality and more than a little dose of value for money.

Because beating the bigger boys with their more expensive toys is just as satisfying a part of the great hot hatch experience as anything else.

So welcome Volkswagen’s new Polo GTI, the latest hot hatch offering.

Visually VW deserves kudos for transforming its bumpkin baby into a sizzling little Cinderella, courtesy of a by-the-book GTI for Wallflowers makeover.

Saucy five-spoke alloy wheels, a black honeycomb goatee of a front grille, a lower and musclier road stance, and a roof spoiler with the obligatory bee-sting antenna place the Polo on the hot hatch radar.

Indeed, it takes more than a mere moment to differentiate Polo GTI from the high-riding big-brother Golf GTI – so striking is the newfound family resemblance.

It is the sort that actor Randy Quaid might wish he had with brother Dennis, as well as one that instantly elevates the Polo to serious hot-hatch contender.

VW has also been busy transforming the Polo underneath, with a brake upgrade (288mm at the front and 232mm at the rear), 15mm-lower ride height, retuned suspension components and a 205/45R16 rated wheel and tyre package.

The sense of sporting spirit spills into the cabin too.

Love the tartan sports seats, which manage to look great and keep you firmly ensconced. The fabric also graces the accommodating rear split/fold bench.

Alloy pedals, backed up by metallic trim on the dash, stubby little gear lever, and door sills, a sprinkling of red stitching and bespoke instrumentation calibrations – which mange to look both upmarket and very grown up – aid in making the GTI feel more special inside.

They build upon the regular Polo’s smart and functional interior, with its tactile plastics and fabrics, ample front and rear space for four adults (five at a pinch), excellent ergonomics and overall feeling of solidity and quality.

Standard ESP stability control, a useful and informative trip computer function, cruise control (are you listening, Focus XR5 chiefs), tyre pressure monitors and side airbags, are features you may wish for but do not expect to find in a $27,000 light car.

This is especially true when you consider how rapid the Polo GTI really is.

There probably isn’t an Audi or VW that hasn’t offered the company’s 110kW 1.8-litre, twin-cam, 20-valve four-cylinder engine lurking below the Polo’s snubby little snout.

Packing a KKK Model K-03 turbocharger with a maximum boost pressure of 165kpa, a normal operating pressure of 65kpa and a maximum impeller speed of 128,000rpm, this mature engine is very much the heart and soul of the Polo.

Acceleration response is impressively strong, if not explosively instant like the old 205 GTI’s, courtesy of 210Nm of torque that is willing, ready and able from a low 1950rpm. Just tickling the throttle elicits a snarl. Press down harder and acceleration rises suddenly and exponentially.

It is in the sound as well as force of the wallop forward that compels you to keep revving the 1.8T time and again.

Hit the midrange, and it just does not let up. This engine will happily keep spinning beyond the 6500rpm redline (to just over 7000rpm) with singular force and determination.

Honestly, the GTI feels faster than official 8.2-second 0-100km/h-sprint time, while the stated 216km/h maximum speed is completely believable.

So that’s the straight-line stuff sorted. You have to keep reminding yourself how much performance you get for your $27K.

Through sweeping turns the VW continues to impress keen drivers with its fluid handling and capable roadholding, partly down to the Polo’s exceptional body control afforded by solidly weighted steering and expert suspension tuning.

Get into tight corners and zig-zagging switchbacks however, and the Polo’s steering doesn’t cross the magic threshold that sorts the hot-hatch gods from the rapid-hatch boys.

The issue here is that it just is not as chuckable, as pin-sharp, as hypersensitive, as you expect from something wearing a GTI.

In all honesty there is absolutely nothing wrong with the way it is set up in the Polo – eager, responsive, beautifully weighted, not prone to torque steer.

However, expectations dictate more synaptic levels of instantaneousness from it.

A ride that can sometimes feel a little too hard is about the only other issue we have with this little cracker of a hot hatch. On certain surfaces it elicits the occasional rattle from the dashboard as well.

However, with steering that is 90 per cent there, the Polo will never beat the class-defining Renault Clio Sport, because it is that final ten per cent that brings greatness to a hot hatch.

It is a close-run thing though, and the Polo GTI’s all-round civility, safety and capability probably make it a better car to live with everyday anyway. A perfect example is the standard inclusion of stability control.

Furthermore, we would go as far as saying that no light car feels as refine and composed when barrelling down an open road. Maybe VW should call this baby grand tourer the Polo GT.

So we fully understand if you run out and buy one. For the money it is extraordinary value.

However, we would rather spend the extra $12,000 on the brilliant Golf GTI. And we still prefer the Clio, even if it costs $6000 more.

For a first serious attempt, the Polo GTI comes scintillating close – but it just isn’t quite the definitive hot hatch.

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