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First drive: VW’s updated Polo GTI is six steps forward

Popped collar: Featuring a detuned version of the same engine found in the Golf GTI, the new Polo GTI will make 141kW and sprint from zero to 100km/h in 6.7 seconds.

Volkswagen plugs six-speed manual, sweet Golf GTI-derived engine into new Polo GTI


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8 Dec 2014


VOLKSWAGEN’S Polo GTI hot hatch has followed in its more pedestrian siblings’ wheel tracks, scoring a midlife update that not only heralds the return of a manual gearbox option but also whips the covers off a new engine heralding the introduction of a raft of clever features that will roll out across the VW engine line.

While final pricing is yet to be determined, VW Group Australia officials have indicated an entry price of around $28,000 in manual guise.

Available in Australia as a five-door-only proposition from the second quarter of 2015, the Polo GTI will be powered by a scaled-down, teched-up version of the Golf GTI’s EA888 engine.

The 1798cc four-cylinder – still known internally as a EA888, according to Volkswagen engine expert Ralph Schirmer – sports a new steel block that has been put on a diet, with 3.0mm walls that are half a millimetre thinner than those on the 1998cc version.

A plastic oil pan and aluminium bolts contribute to weight savings of 5.4kg over the outgoing twin-charged 1.4-litre four.

The alloy cylinder head is sophisticated, too, featuring two valves per cylinder. A combination of direct fuel injection (for power) and indirect injection (for combustion chamber cooling and part-throttle operation) improves both economy and performance.

A smaller-capacity turbo is mated to a direct-mount manifold that uses the same cooling circuits as the cylinder block to lower air charge temperatures, while a clever thermostat control can completely block the flow of coolant through the engine to bring it up to operating temperature far more quickly.

The result is a strong little engine that has negligible lag, a very linear power curve and, in the case of the manual gearbox version of the car, plenty of mid-range punch. Power output is rated at 141kW between 5400 and 6200rpm – we are told the car will not be detuned for Australia – while torque values vary according to the transmission you pick.

The seven-speed DSG variant is rated at 250Nm of torque across a band of 1250-5300rpm, while the six-speed manual delivers a far healthier 320Nm, albeit across a slightly narrower band of 1450-4200rpm.

Fuel economy numbers also benefit from the raft of updates. The GTI is said to return 5.6 litres per 100km on the official combined cycle with the DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox, and 6.0L/100km with the manual.

The GTI sprints from 0-100km/h in 6.7 seconds in both transmission configurations.

Inside, the Polo benefits from the upgrades already seen with the release of the cooking model cars in September. The three-tube dash display is new, while the centre console has also been tweaked with the addition of buttons and the relocation of the hazard switch to an easier-to-reach central location.

The distinctive Clark chequer-pattern sports seats are standard, as is the new leather-wrapped, flat-bottom tilt-and-reach-adjustable steering wheel. Black headlining and chrome trim separate the GTI from its more humble brethren.

The five-door car sports 60/40 split-fold rear seats that fold almost (but not quite) flat. With the seats up, there is a usable 204 litres of luggage space behind the rear pews, which blows out to 882 litres with the seats down. We were able to cram in a week’s worth of luggage for three grown lads in the diminutive space with little fuss.

A space-saver tyre hides under the boot floor.

Rear-seat room is surprisingly generous with the front seats properly located, even for my 187cm frame, thanks to scalloped front seatbacks, a squared-off roofline and decent toe room. The manual-adjust front seats are narrow but supportive, while the fat gearknob and chunky steering wheel impart the right note right off the bat.

The Polo GTI’s chassis has also come in for a makeover. Up front, stiffer steering arm linkages and a stiffer anti-roll bar have augmented the MacPherson strut arrangement. The rear torsion beam has been tweaked as well, with redesigned mounting bushings providing up to three times more stiffness in side-to-side (lateral) loading, without affecting the vertical compliance (ride comfort, in other words).

The GTI rides 10mm lower up front and 15mm lower out back when measured against its stablemates.

The key chassis tweak, though, is the introduction of two-stage adaptive dampers as an option – a first for the Polo GTI.

Made in conjunction with renowned damper builders Bilstein, the hydrostatic shocks are linked to up to four other adjustable driving parameters, including steering feel, throttle map, DSG shift mode and the noise augmenter when you option the Sports Performance kit.

Press the Sport button on the centre console, and things get firmer, more responsive and louder. Keep the Sport button depressed for three seconds, and the GTI will raise the limits of the stability control gatekeeper, as well as switching off the traction control system entirely.

VW engineers have also upgraded the electronically controlled LSD with a torque vectoring function (or XLD+ in VW-speak).

It works by applying a bit of brake force to the respective inside front calliper to help the car turn, but it does not cut the ignition like some other systems.

Wheels are now 17x 7.5-inch – a half-inch wider – and fitted with custom-designed Bridgestone Potenza 215/45 R17s. The tyres, according to chassis expert Haris Karahodzic, have a shallower shoulder and a compound that offers its peak grip instantly, even at low ambient temperatures.

The front brakes are based around huge 310mm rotors and sliding callipers up front, with 230mm rotors on the rear. Interestingly, the handbrake is still a good old-fashioned cable-actuated type.

At this stage, VW Australia has indicated that the car will not initially be offered with the option of the adaptive dampers, but “we’re looking at it very hard”, according to public relations manager Karl Gehling.

Over some 250km of road (and 10 laps of track) testing, the updated Polo GTI reveals itself to be a zesty, lively hot hatch, especially in manual gearbox/adaptive damper spec.

Its new electro-magnetic steering is feelsome and direct, and communicates loud and clear just what the bespoke Bridgestones are doing.

There is no doubt that the extra 70Nm of torque afforded by the manual gearbox option adds a lot of sizzle, especially in the first couple of gears. Even without the trickery, the 1.8-litre four is a characterful, linear and well-mannered powerplant with a nice exhaust note in its own right.

In standard mode, the adaptive dampers give a notably more mature and controlled ride than the single-tune stockers, while the anti-roll bar and bushing mods have tightened up both ends of the car.

The regular-spec dampers are adequate and well matched to the chassis package as a whole, and their busier ride quality is in keeping with the more sporting intent of the GTI over a more pedestrian model – but once you’ve driven with the adaptive dampers, it’s very hard to go back.

In the eyes of some pretty talented competition, this facelift has pushed the GTI into the realms of a being a properly fast, thoroughly competent hot hatch.

While it may give away some two-door street cred to the Fiesta and the Clio, it’s an eminently more practical proposition than either of them.

Giving consumers a choice of transmissions – with the added bonus of 70Nm more torque in the manual variant – is also worth a tick in the GTI’s favour.

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