Car reviews - Volkswagen - Polo - GTI
Precise steering, sporty handling, classic GTI appointments, relatively spacious interior, stronger bang for your buck than before
Room for improvement
Firm suspension tune, lacklustre top-end engine performance, on or off DSG shift patterns, LED headlights should be standard
Volkswagen sticks to established formula with bigger, quicker Polo GTI hot hatch
30 Aug 2018
THERE’S a sibling rivalry brewing at Volkswagen. The Polo GTI and Golf GTI are closer in size and engine outputs than before, but the former is about 32 per cent cheaper than the latter.
Despite the imminent arrival of the 180kW/370Nm Golf GTI, the 147kW/320Nm Polo GTI has just burst onto the scene, looking to tempt hot-hatch buyers with its lower price.
So, what’s the better buy? Has the Polo GTI surpassed the Golf GTI and become the default choice in Volkswagen’s well-regarded line-up of performance vehicles? Read on to find out.
Volkswagen clearly isn’t here to play games. It wants to make sure the Polo GTI is the real deal. Because it’s 2018 and manual gearboxes aren’t popular anymore (sorry, it’s an unfortunate truth), the Polo GTI has dropped its self-shifter option in favour of a six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission only.
This decision means the Polo GTI’s admission cost has jumped from $27,690 before on-road costs to $30,990. However, the hot hatch’s new cost is only $800 dearer than its direct DSG predecessor.
While the $3300 premium might seem a bit much on paper, Volkswagen has, of course, added the DSG as standard alongside a much longer list of standard equipment, although it might not go far enough.
Features extend to 17-inch Milton Keynes alloy wheels, an extended electronic differential lock, power-folding side mirrors, static cornering lights, front foglights, LED daytime running lights (DRLs), LED tail-lights, an LED registration plate light and rain-sensing windscreen wipers.
Inside, Bluetooth connectivity, two USB ports, a 12V power outlet, a monochrome multi-function display, keyless entry and start, LED interior lighting, a six-speaker sound system and dual-zone climate control are found.
Advanced driver-assist safety technologies include forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, driver fatigue detection, tyre pressure monitoring, a reversing camera, cruise control and six airbags. A pretty comprehensive list, then.
However, a quick look at the options list might deter some buyers. Volkswagen’s penchant for option packages is prevalent here. Desirable equipment such as LED headlights and the second-generation 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster can only be optioned as part of the $1900 Luxury and $3900 Sound and Vision packages, while adaptive cruise control requires the $1400 Driver Assistance package.
No matter how it is specified, GTI signatures are found everywhere. Specifically, the interior sees Clark tartan cloth upholstery cover the seats and armrests, while the red-stitched leather-trimmed flat-bottom steering wheel has paddle shifters. Matte Velvet Red trim is a new addition to the theme.
Outside, honeycomb grille inserts, red headlight trim, a bodykit, twin exhaust tailpipes and GTI badging complete the understated but sporty look. There is no denying the heritage of this Polo.
While the interior is spacious and about matches that of the Mk4 Golf GTI for size, it is let down by its lack of rear air vents and the hard plastics found on its upper and lower door trims. Lovely soft-touch materials adorn the dashboard but are missing elsewhere. Granted, the Polo GTI is a mainstream light hatch, but it’s still a pseudo-premium offering. A disappointing effort from an otherwise gorgeous cabin.
Technology lovers will be pleased by the inclusion of an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, although built-in satellite navigation is found on the options list as part of the aforementioned Sound and Vision package.
Measuring in at 4067mm long, 1751mm wide and 1438mm tall with a 2560mm wheelbase, the Polo GTI has decent rear legroom and headroom but limited shoulder-room with three occupants abreast, while cargo capacity is 305L – 46L less than the regular Polo due to packaging requirements. Aside for some wind noise over the side mirrors at highway speeds, everything else goes well inside.
Nonetheless, the big story here is the Polo GTI’s new heart: Volkswagen Group’s renowned 2.0-litre EA888 turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine. In this application, it is tuned to produce 147kW from 4390 to 6000rpm and 320Nm from 1450 to 4390rpm. As such, power matches that of the Mk5 Golf GTI, while torque is 40Nm more.
Compared to its 1.8-litre forbear, the Polo GTI is 6kW and 70Nm more potent. Needless to say, the latter is a significant gain. However, despite its promise, the larger unit fails to deliver once its thick wad of peak torque comes and goes, albeit over a wide band.
Truth be told, this version of the EA888 – to state the bleeding obvious – feels like it’s running a soft tune. Compared to its 180kW/370Nm Golf GTI and 213kW/380Nm Golf R siblings, the Polo GTI runs out of puff when approaching its redline, while they have much more to give.
Thus, the challenge presents itself to keep the Polo GTI in its optimum performance window. A quick revisit of its outputs reveals that the mid-range is where it’s at. Challenge accepted. Stab the throttle and occupants are firmly shoved into the front of their seats while it keenly bursts off the line.
Make no mistake, the Polo GTI has a lot to give … at the right engine speeds. No pressure on the DSG, then. The six-speeder is thankfully free of most of the issues that plagued its early iterations. Gear changes are unsurprisingly quick and uncharacteristically smooth, but the shift patterns could be improved.
See, the Polo GTI comes with five driving modes – Eco, Comfort, Normal, Sport and Individual – that allow the driver to alter engine, exhaust, DSG, steering and suspension settings, among others, while on the move, with the chosen mode dictating when exactly the ratios are swapped.
Select Comfort or Normal and the DSG will aim for fuel efficiency, keeping engine speeds below 1400rpm when cruising. It will still respond to heavy throttle applications, but not with the same vigour that Sport – or Individual if you so choose – adopts.
Sport is a different animal. It raises engine speeds to above 2500rpm when putting along and looks towards the horizon, even with modest applications of the throttle. Hence, there really is no happy medium, as the DSG is either on or off. We feel its default shift pattern should be geared towards – pun intended – more balanced driving, which would better suit the GTI brand.
Either way, buyers are likely to be charmed by the Polo GTI’s characterful exhaust note, which really bares its teeth in Sport. Subtle crackles and pops underscore the bass-heavy soundtrack. However, a word of warning: most of it is fake noise pumped into the cabin. Oops.
For what it’s worth, Volkswagen claims the 1285kg Polo GTI can sprint from standstill to 100km/h in 6.7 seconds, while fuel consumption on the combined cycle test is 6.1 litres per 100 kilometres and carbon dioxide emissions are 140 grams per kilometre. We impressively managed 7.1L/100km.
This is a Polo GTI after all, so it must handle well, right? You bet! Throw it into a corner and all remains relatively flat. Volkswagen has fitted the hot hatch with its Sport Select suspension that lowers ride height and adds adaptive dampers that are controlled by the aforementioned modes.
The good news, however, is that handling is quite good no matter what mode is engaged. The Polo GTI is one of those hot hatches that can be pushed a lot harder than you’d think. This is partially thanks to the decent levels of grip offered by the standard 215/45 R17 Michelin Primacy 3 and optional 215/40 R18 Bridgestone Turanza tyres.
Another reason for this success is the Polo GTI’s precise power steering. For an electric set-up, it is very, very sharp, with driver inputs quickly sent to the front wheels. It is also well-weighted, with the right amount of heft for sporty driving. Sport enhances this, of course, but in a positive way. It is, however, not as communicative as a hydraulic system. As such, feedback is somewhat lacking.
If the Polo GTI handles well, then its ride must be compromised, right? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. The suspension’s tune is overly firm, meaning comfort is sacrificed for sportiness. On buttery-smooth roads – a rarity in Australia – all is well and good, but this only lasts so long.
Tackle potholes, speed bumps or unsealed roads and every impact is felt by the occupants. To the suspension’s credit, it rebounds extremely quickly, settling back in before being disturbed again. Would we be able to live with it every day? Probably. Would it become tiresome? Most likely.
So, is the Polo GTI now a better bang-for-your-buck proposition than the Golf GTI? Given their $14,500 price difference, it’s hard to discount the former. It offers about 90 per cent of the latter’s performance for a fraction of the cost. How could you say no? Traditionalists be damned.
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