Polo GTi all grown up but boasting a youthful soul
Ahead of the arrival of the new Volkswagen Polo GTi in SA in June, Michael Taylor drove it in Spain
Some people argue the Golf GTi has become too big and stolid to be a Golf GTi anymore. There’s an answer for that, and it’s the Polo GTi and it’s stunningly good.
Volkswagen hasn’t traditionally thrown a lot of coherent thought into developing a performance sub-brand, like Benz’s AMG, Renault’s RS, BMW’s M or Audi Sport. There have been six generations of the Golf GTi and some smaller models, too, but they have always been hit and miss and, to those outside their cult, they’ve often seemed hideously expensive for sometimes-modest upgrades.
The latest Polo GTi, which will arrive in SA in June, is a very good car all by itself. It just fits better and more logically as the middle child of a family that is bookended by the Up GTi (not coming to SA) and the eponymous Golf GTi.
It helps that the latest generation of the Polo is the best the badge has ever been, moving on to the junior version of the Golf’s MQB chassis, giving it a lower centre of gravity and a whole suite of safety, strength and in-car entertainment features the Polo GTi never had before. VW worked on this for three years and it’s more integrated into the family than it’s ever been. And that shows in the way it feels.
It’s lighter than the Golf GTi by 32kg and the angry-ant Golf GTi Performance outpunches it by 180kW to 147, but even with the extra urge it only outpaces the Polo to 100km/h by half a second. Otherwise, it’s the same engine as the stock Golf GTi, but with a slight detune. It’s smaller than the Golf, with the sixth-generation Polo finally crossing the 4m barrier, at 4,053mm long, and it scores a unique grille and twin exhaust tips, plus signage on the side.
There’s added stability, too, thanks to a 92mm stretch in the wheelbase, and it’s 69mm wider. All that gives it a bigger footprint, which is just the thing for a car that wants to be flung around, but stable while it’s doing it.
The engine is a tough little cookie, too, with 147kW of power from 4,400r/min to 6,000r/min, while its 320Nm of torque arrives at 1,500 revs and hangs around until the power takes over the job.
That same no-gaps attitude is found everywhere in the car. There are no weak points and there’s nothing it doesn’t do at least well. Even the expected jump in price is deceptive, because the sixth-generation Polo offloaded the old three-door bodyshell and moved strictly to a five-door shape, plus there’s no longer the entry-level manual version. The Polo GTi only runs a six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
It’s big in its character and it wasn’t long ago a 0-100km/h time of 6.7 seconds was pretty special for this size of car. Hell, it probably still is, and so is a 237km/h top speed.
It does everything like it was born to do it, not converted to do it. Handling, for example, is smooth, effortless, agile and sharp, but in a way that lets you know there’s a level of security underpinning it all. And there is, with autonomous emergency braking going forwards and backwards, with grown-up cruise control, with advanced skid control and the list goes on.
It’s actually more advanced than the Golf GTi in some areas, though it can dull its on-track performance. We found it grabbing the brakes and nudging the steering across whenever we went deep under brakes at the Ascari private racetrack in Spain, where the Golf GTi just let you go your hardest.
It’s more nimble than the Golf GTi, whipping through low-speed corners with an alacrity that paces the bigger hatch and only slightly falling behind it in high-speed bends and out of corners in a straight line.
It would be an interesting fight, putting a Golf and Polo GTi head-to-head on a road that was just second and third-gear bends with shortish straights. My money would be on the Polo, especially if it was well driven.
The differences to the stock Polo are stark, then. It scores a thicker rear torsion beam, stiffer suspension bushes, different geometry on both axles, lower roll centres and new front suspension knuckles. It’s lower, too, and has optional Sport Select dampers that switch between two preselected compression and rebound settings.
On a road, the stiffer Sports setting is frankly unworkable, but it’s cheerfully sharper on the track. By contrast, the default setting is liveable every day, on just about every road, while remaining on-point for turning, stopping and going.
It has exemplary body control, too, and the ability to adjust its stance, on the brake or the throttle, as many times as you need on every corner. It’s a very easy car to drive quickly and smoothly and a very easy car in which to combine both skills.
Its gearshifts are crisp and clean, though they get clunkier if you’re shifting in sport mode without bothering to put much energy into it. Flat out shifts, sure, but light-throttle shifting is best left to the default mode.
There’s a problem here, though, because even in its manual mode it doesn’t lock out enough of the override stuff. It automatically shifts up at about 6,000r/min, which is a long way shy of the 6,500 redline on the tacho, and the kickdown clicker at the bottom of the accelerator pedal’s travel will still change down a gear, which is annoying on long corners.
It helps everything that it does (including its 5.9l/100km claimed consumption figure) that it’s relatively light (at 1,355kg, it’s 32kg lighter than a Golf GTi) and way stiffer in the body structure of its predecessor. It helps even more (for most people, anyway) it’s so good inside.
There are faster hot hatches out there, but there aren’t any with the Polo GTi’s combination of comfort, liveability, speed, assurance and dignity under pressure. At least, not until you move to a Golf GTi.