Raw thrills revive GTI spirit in new Polo
PUNCHY NEW POLO CHANNELS SENSE OF FUN LOST IN GOLF’S DRIFT INTO LUXURY MARKET
The first-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI is a legend. In the early 1970s VW engineers created what they called a “sport Golf” from the company parts bin, and invented a whole new genre of car.
It was the hot hatch, marrying the practicality and compact size of an ordinary family hatchback with a high-output engine and sporting suspension.
The first Golf GTIs had a 1.6-litre engine and a power-to-weight ratio of 100kW per tonne. They were just 3705mm long and a little bit raw. Tiny terrors, in other words.
If you’re a purist, the current Golf GTI seems obese and profligate in comparison. It’s 4268mm long, ridiculously easy to drive and really quite expensive. Brilliant in so many ways, but more of a luxury express than a hot hatch.
If you’re really serious about capturing some of that original Golf GTI spirit, the new Polo GTI is a lot closer to the mark. It has a 1.8-litre turbo engine and a power-to-weight ratio of 110kW per tonne. It’s suitably tiny, with a length of just 3983mm. And it’s a little bit raw in a way that the current Golf GTI isn’t.
It’s also quite exclusive.
While everyone in your street probably has a Golf GTI, the latest Polo GTI is limited to 100 units for New Zealand.
This is the flagship version of the recently facelifted Polo. It packs 141kW and 250Nm — or as much as 320Nm if you opt for the manual-transmission version, which sadly we didn’t have for our test car. Still, the twin-clutch seven-speed Direct Shift Gearbox model is a rapid machine, hitting 100km/h in 6.7 seconds (the 1978 Golf GTI managed 9.2 seconds) and reaching a top speed of 236km/h.
The Polo GTI lacks the sheer composure of big brother Golf and that’s a good thing. The steering could do with more substance, but the scrappy chassis keeps the interest up regardless of road conditions.
The Polo GTI is not without driver-aid technology — it has VW’s XDS electronic differential lock up front — but the overall impression is of a car on the edge. It lacks just enough polish to keep life interesting: with a short wheelbase it moves around in fast corners and there’s enough power to overcome traction.
The GTI’s sports suspension rides 15mm lower than standard. For $1000 you can also have electronically adjustable suspension, although that seems like a tech touch too far. This is the kind of car that feels better when you keep it simple.
No need to feel guilty about the upsized engine. The 1.8-litre direct-injection turbo is Euro 6 compliant and returns 5.6 litres per 100km in the Combined cycle. It doesn’t have the sonorous tone of the Golf GTI’s 2-litre, but there’s plenty of punch.
It’s frustrating that VW didn’t provide us with the manual version, which is something of a hero model and ridiculously torquey. But the DSG automated transmission still provides sporting flavour, with super-quick shifts and nice double-declutch downchanges.
The DSG version is just as quick as the manual, according to VW. The gearing is different, there’s no power loss between ratios and the management computer always knows best. But still — this kind of car deserves three pedals.
The Polo GTI has cheeky styling that isn’t over-the-top — again, true to GTI tradition. It has unique bumpers and sills, discrete GTI logos and a red strip that runs from the grille through the headlights. Bright red brake calipers peek out between the spokes of the 17-inch alloy wheels.
Inside, things are a bit louder. There’s a flat-bottomed steering wheel, special instrument cluster and sports seats upholstered in a chequered trim that VW calls Clark, an homage to the lurid tartan fabric used in the original Golf GTI.
You can have the same in the current seventh-generation Golf GTI, but so many have leather seats these days. Says it all really.
PROS & CONS VOLKSWAGEN POLO GTI
ENGINE:1.8-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder, 141kW/250Nm, seven-speed automated dual-clutch transmission, front-wheel drive.
PROS: Hot-hatch heritage, cheeky dynamics, tartan trim.
CONS: Very understated looks, light steering.