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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Polo - hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Extraordinary value, advanced powertrain, fun handling, classy cabin, great economy
Room for improvement
Hard ride, some road noise, 98 RON premium unleaded requirement

26 Nov 2010

FIVE and a half years ago, Volkswagen released a car that captured the spirit of the times just as surely as the Subaru Impreza WRX managed in the 1990s and the BMW 3 Series did the decade before that.

Whether it was perfect timing or just plain dumb luck, the MkV Golf GTI nailed it for Volkswagen, sending it on a path that may one day lead to global domination. Getting just one single model spot-on can do that. Its afterglow permeates the entire range.

Now we don’t actually believe the new Polo GTI is going to do the same this time around. It’s too philosophically similar to big brother for that, and – more to the point – not quite that brilliant either.

Basically, it’s a suspension thing. The Golf GTI has an advanced multi-link rear end (like BMW’S Mini), and that helps elevate the dynamics to new heights. But the Polo persists with a torsion beam rear end. Great for saving money and space, not so fantastic for ride comfort when low-profile rubber is fitted.

The junior GTI employs 17-inch alloys shod with 215/40 R17 tyres. Combined with firmer shockers and springs, the ride is simply too firm on our rough and irregular roads. Basically, the suspension crashes over bumps with a thud. And you hear as well as feel it. Too bad there’s no damper adjustment setting as offered in the Golf.

In contrast, the suppler Citroen DS3 DSport is a dream – albeit one that adds $8K to your bottom line. Ouch!

We’re not impressed by the Vee Dub’s road noise insulation either. Coarse chip surfaces are particularly vociferous.

But that’s really about it for the bad news.

Take the 136kW 1.4-litre Twincharger and standard seven-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox – together they make a ripper little drivetrain duo, providing strong, smooth and spirited acceleration in Sport mode, singing while it is zinging along.

A pair of paddle shifters help keep the powerplant on the boil, and for the most part they make up for the lack of manual gearbox. Personally, we would prefer to see a gear stick and clutch, just because there’s more interaction with the vehicle.

On the other hand, while there are times when the DSG7 hesitates for a moment when all you want is forward thrust, for the most part the unfettered pace and refinement are matchless in this class. Too bad 98 RON premium unleaded petrol is required, though.

The flipside to the firm ride is fast, reactive steering for instantaneous handling and excellent roadholding. The GTI seems to have more feedback than the regular Polo, too.

The launch program included a treacherous hill-climbing event, yet the Volkswagen felt right at home skimming across the tight narrow path, and was utterly controllable under braking. In such conditions the XDS – extended electronic differential lock – comes into its own. Only the occasional bump-steer from the hard suspension upset the driver’s chosen line through some of the wider turns.

Back in the real world, the GTI would make a salubrious little city runabout, since the cabin feel-good factor is first class fare for a light-car player. Plus points include excellent tartan seats, a fat little leather-clad steering wheel and the solid, quality ambience – evident from the second you open the hefty door. Being based on a popular B-segment hatch, all the practical stuff is in place to make your life easier too.

Rear seat space is light-car tight, but you weren’t expecting anything bigger, right?

Which brings us to the best part of the GTI equation – the price.

Until the current shape materialised early this year, Polo was a byword for overpriced and underdone. No longer.

We would hate to have to flog a competing product, because Volkswagen has pulled something out of the hat when it comes to the pricing: $27,790 for the three-door, or $28,990 if you want two more doors. Bargain.

Need proof? The GTI’s direct rivals – Alfa Romeo Mito QV, Citroen DS3 DSport, Renault Clio RS 200 Cup and Mini Cooper S – cost $34,990, $35,990, $36,490, and $40,500, respectively. Now consider the Polo’s price again: $27,790 – with DSG7.

Or you can look at it this way. In the UK the same Volkswagen GTI costs $29,587, versus the Mito Cloverleaf’s $28,772, DS3 DSport’s $25,743, Clio RS 200’s $28,673 and Cooper S’ $27,684. All prices are approximate, by the way.

We’re sure the rival importers will come up with a million excuses to explain away the price chasm in Australia, and spec levels do vary from country to country. But the bottom line really is the bottom line: either the Spanish-made Polo GTI is far too cheap Down Under or the competition is fleecing Australians.

Whatever, the hot little Volkswagen is outstanding value for money. If you want an inexpensive performance hot hatch, make sure you take all five aforementioned contenders for a long drive and then just try justifying the price differences against the deliciously complete Polo.

If this sort of manufacturer benevolence catches on, maybe the Tenties’ zeitgeist will be with the new Polo GTI after all.

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