Drive Thru: Volkswagen Polo GTI

Volkswagen Polo GTI

Volkswagen’s GTI badge has enjoyed a renaissance of late, thanks largely to the exploits of the Mk5 Golf GTI. The subsequent and still current Mk6 Golf GTI has maintained the momentum with poise and class, as well. So what of its new baby brother, the Polo GTI, can it live up to the renewed heritage of the GTI name?

The previous model (9N3 2005–09) was powered by a 1.8 litre turbo offering 110kW/210Nm. By the time its life cycle had ended replacing the much loved 1.8T was well overdue. Similarly, the chassis of the fourth-generation Polo GTI didn’t reach any great heights as far as the critics were concerned. Mind, while we’ve never driven a 9N3 GTI we’ve seen enough anecdotal evidence to suggest its handling prowess is far better than its reputation. So much so, that, unusually for a Volkswagen, it was the car’s interior which was perhaps its weakest point.

Visually, the fifth-generation 6R Polo GTI hits the spot. We reckon it looks fantastic. The standard Polo provides a good base, of course. But the GTI version, with familiar styling cues filtering down from its bigger brother, follows the hot hatch style guide to the letter. Even the woeful looking and embarrassingly out of date 17″ Denver alloys seem to, somehow, look perfectly acceptable.

Volkswagen Polo GTI

Volkswagen Polo GTI

Inside, too, Volkswagen has upped the ante. While the previous model looked a bit cheap, if we’re being harsh, the new model could easily pass as a first class interior in the next market segment up. It’s only the seats which don’t look up to the task; is there enough support for the driver when the road gets demanding?

Under the bonnet Volkswagen has also raised the game. While a 1.4 litre may sound underwhelming, the addition of a supercharger for low down grunt and a turbo for upper end polish shows the car means business. This is supported by the 132kW/250Nm on offer.

On paper, purists will bemoan the fact the Polo GTI is available only with a 7-speed DSG box. That’s right, there’s no manual at all for this GTI. Although, the car tips the scales comfortably under 1200kg and the slick-shifting transmission helps it along to 100km/h in 6.9 seconds. Exactly the same time required in the Golf GTI.

By choosing to replace a more advanced rear suspension setup with a relatively crude solid beam axle it could be argued Volkswagen has made a backward step. Let’s hope this is not the case.

One of the Polo GTI’s trump cards, ironically for a performance hatch, is its fuel economy. Play nice on a daily basis and Volkswagen reckon it’ll use only 6.1l/100km. On the highway you should be seeing low 5s. This is a good thing, too, as there’s only a 45 litre tank.

Before a key is turned, then, Volkswagen appears to have this nailed, albeit with a few caveats. Still, plenty of manufacturers, least of all VW, have got the GTI-by-numbers theory right in the past, only to fail in practice.

Heading from the city to the well proven AUSmotive mountain test route it’s soon apparent the Polo GTI is a competent car. There’s a feeling of quality that is likely to reassure buyers long after the novelty of delivery day has passed. That said, it’s not without its faults.

At times the drivetrain can feel a little cumbersome, agricultural almost. And from rest the DSG suffers from the now common delay when the accelerator is first pressed. It’s a feeling you don’t fully understand until you experience it first hand and while it would never be a deal breaker it is a slight negative worth noting. Mind, switch off the ESP at the lights and plant your foot as hard as you can when they go green and you’ll have no reason to doubt the claimed acceleration figures. The seamless efficiency of the gear changes is a great example of what the DSG does brilliantly.

Volkswagen Polo GTI

Volkswagen Polo GTI

Joining us on our test drive was another Polo GTI. This one, though, has seen a few aftermarket modifications, including lighter 17″ OZ alloy wheels, KW H&R coilover suspension and an APR engine tune. Before sampling that car we wanted to see what baseline would be set by the showroom model.

On our test route, with its mix of tight and open corners, coarse and smooth tarmac, steep rises and falls, the Polo GTI provided a near perfect hot hatch experience. On straight uphill sections it felt like the Pogo could do with more power, yet these were quickly forgotten at the very next corner. Here the GTI turns in with competence and encourages you to throw it in even harder at the next turn.

Steering mounted shift paddles ensure you can find the right gear at all times. Gone into a corner a bit too hot? Simply change down a gear and use engine braking to your advantage. This goes against all the rules in the book and would unsettle many cars, but the DSG-equipped Polo GTI laughs at those rules and quietly goes about the work of changing gears and getting on with business.

Overall the handling of the Polo GTI is composed, beautifully balanced and inspires confidence. Even the period-inspired tartan cloth seats manage to hold you in place better than first thought.

It’s a contradiction in some ways, but the Polo GTI has a clinical charm that leaves you marvelling at the pure driving enjoyment a sub-$30K hatch can provide. Want to know what hot hatch motoring is all about? Here is your answer.

Volkswagen Polo GTI

Volkswagen Polo GTI

After discovering what a stock standard Polo GTI is capable of we were desperate to see what the modded Pogo could do. Unfortunately, the quickest lesson learned was regarding wheel offsets. While the stance provided by the OZs and lowered suspension is great to look at, pushing the wheels closer to the guards while reducing suspension travel made attacking this mountain pass totally pointless. On Canberra’s smooth roads this is unlikely to present a serious issue for daily driving, but on a twisty road, which should be hot hatch heaven, it just didn’t work. Rubbing at eight tenths, rubbing at six tenths; there was even rubbing when giving in and just cruising along at little more than commuter pace.

On the positive side the ride quality of the H&R suspension felt very good. Surprisingly, though, the APR tune, which on paper offers a 17kW/52Nm increase, wasn’t immediately noticeable in our back to back test. However, given the disappointment of the drive in a general sense we wouldn’t read too much into our comments. Generally speaking, APR and their competitors, offer great bang for buck.

Volkswagen Polo GTI

When framing this review we were in two minds whether to share our thoughts on the modded car. However, we thought it served dual purposes which made it worthwhile. The first, obviously, is to ensure you carefully consider the effect any changes you make will have on the overall driving experience. Clearly, this is down to each individual’s preferences and driving style and it’s not for us to preach any particular approach. Secondly, our back to back sample of the two Polo GTIs proved that Volkswagen has actually done a fine job with the car and buyers can look forward to plenty of smiles with the car left in standard trim.

At the start of this review we wondered if the new 6R model had advanced the GTI cause sufficiently from the previous 9N3. In short, the answer is a resounding yes. And it does so with equal parts finesse and raw thrills. Indeed, this is no longer a car lost in the shadow of its bigger Golf GTI brother. The Polo GTI has a genuine character all of its own and now sits proudly alongside its more mature sibling.

With lead times for the Polo GTI currently around 12 months it’s both a blessing and a curse. As a value proposition there’s few, if any, equals in its price range. But could you really wait a whole year for a sub-$30K hatch? (Note: we hear VW Australia is working hard to remedy availability issues, see comments from Richard below.)

Ignoring that for a moment, let’s go back to the genesis of the hot hatch and the GTI badge. The Mk1 Golf GTI broke new ground in 1976 when Volkswagen took an otherwise mundane hatchback and gave it new purpose. We’re not the first to say it, but it is now the Polo GTI, not the Golf GTI, that retains the hallmarks of Volkswagen’s very first hot hatch. Today, as then, Volkswagen has taken a platform not really cut out for performance motoring and made it come alive. You can’t really put a finger on any one aspect to prove that statement beyond doubt. And it’s in the beauty of that mystery that the GTI tradition lives on.

Volkswagen Polo GTI