It was only a matter of time, of course. With the Golf growing bigger with each new generation, more sophisticated and more powerful, it has moved beyond the means of most middle-income South Africans. And when it comes to the iconic Golf GTI… well, that is but a dream car for most locals these days. Still, sales of the Golf GTI have remained strong, even though the clientele is significantly more affluent these days. But all of this has convinced the brand's product planners that a proper Volkswagen Polo GTI could be a lucrative opportunity. Now it’s here, and already there’s a not-so-orderly queue forming at the local VW dealership. Should you join in?
Subtle, but sporty looks for Volkswagen Polo GTIAs with its Golf bigger brother, and unlike most other “junior” hot hatches, the Polo plays a subtle, “less-is-more” game when it comes to communicating its performance prowess. Like the original Golf GTI, there’s a dash of red lipstick on the grille and, er, a subtle tailgate spoiler and 16-inch alloys. You may also notice some darkened sections in the head- and taillamps. But that’s it. The result is a car that seems to be only visible to fans of the legendary moniker, and most road users are blissfully ignorant of its presence. The five-door bodyshell provides further mainstream camouflage. If this sounds like criticism… it’s not. GTI has come to mean sophistication and class, in addition to performance, so the aesthetic subtleties are both expected and admirable.
The interior of the Volkswagen Polo GTI will be largely familiar to all Polo owners. To differentiate it from its lesser brethren, look out for special Tartan-patterned cloth upholstery and some red stitching here and there. The standard Polo cabin already boasts an attractive, well-executed facia of excellent perceived quality, so Volkswagen certainly had a good base to work from. The driving position is superb, as we’ve come to expect from Volkswagen, and is made possible by the fitment of a steering wheel of a very nice-to-hold thickness, and which boasts generous rake and reach adjustability. The driver’s chair can also be vertically adjusted. Seating comfort is not so good in the rear, though, because the legroom is relatively limited (compared with rivals). The boot is nicely sized and shaped for a small family’s luggage and houses a full-size spare wheel, too.
The GTI specification list may not drip with nice-to-haves such as satellite navigation or park-distance control, but it certainly ticks most of the must-have boxes. Included are electric windows all-round, air-conditioning, electrically adjustable (heated) side mirrors, a radio/CD player and, on the safety side, four airbags.
Grip and gruntThe Volkswagen Polo GTI's 110 kW and 220 Nm are delivered by a 1,8-litre turbocharged, four-cylinder petrol engine that is coupled with a five-speed manual transmission. The maximum torque figure is already available under 2 000 rpm, promising good low-down grunt. The raw performance figures are certainly good enough – the Volkswagen Polo GTI will sprint to 100 km/h in just over 8 seconds and reach a top speed of 216 km/h. What the figures don’t tell you is that the engine’s flexibility is impressive too, resulting in good overtaking acceleration. Furthermore, once it’s past the slight initial lag at very low revs, the power builds in a linear and very progressive fashion, and the engine remains responsive to throttle inputs across a wide rev range. This is just as well seeing as the transmission is neither particularly slick nor fast, with a typically Volkswagen, “chunky” shift action. Oh, and if you want your hot hatch to announce your arrival, then move on, because the Volkswagen Polo GTI is not very talkative through its exhaust.
The current Polo exhibits very good, stable road manners, and a comfortable ride quality. The emphasis during development was certainly on suppleness and safety. Consequently, the Volkswagen Polo GTI rides in a similarly refined manner, but never really engages the driver. The steering is reasonably well-weighted and precise but almost entirely devoid of feel, and understeer is inevitably the name of the game. This in itself is to be expected, but unfortunately the reality is that most rivals manage to at least “feel” more agile before their limits are reached. The Volkswagen Polo GTI is fast, certainly, and there’s good grip in the chassis even though the body roll may appear to indicate otherwise, but it just fails to entertain.
Volkswagen Polo GTI - VerdictIn many ways the Volkswagen Polo GTI is exactly as we expected – reasonably fast, well built and superbly comfortable to drive. Think of it as a upwardly mobile youngster’s executive express, and you won’t be inaccurate. But there’s a problem. You see, a few years ago, this is exactly what the Golf (4) GTI was about too. But Volkswagen itself has moved the game on recently with the fifth-generation Golf GTI, a car that is all those things, but agile and entertaining, too. Volkswagen has shown it can do fun and sophisticated at the same time. It has, however, failed to do so with the Volkswagen Polo GTI.
- Quality interior
- Body roll
- Lack of emotion
Engine: 1,8-litre, four-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 110 kW @ 5 800 rpm
Torque: 220 Nm @ 1 950 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Wheels: 16-inch alloy
Top speed: 216 km/h
0-100 km/h: 8,2 seconds
Fuel economy: 7,8 litres/100 km
- Ford Fiesta ST: A real live-wire hot hatch that wears its heart on its sleeve... With its boy-racer looks the Fiesta ST is the more extroverted car, but it’s got the capability to back it up. The normally aspirated 2,0-litre engine delivers great power, and the underpinnings are pin-sharp too. Hard to beat.
- Seat Ibiza 1,8T Cupra 3-dr: While Spain’s Seat still has to take root, this is one of the VW-owned brand’s more convincing offerings. The Cupra offers lots more power than the Polo and is dynamically also sharper. Can’t match the VW’s cabin, though.
- Mini Cooper S: Demands a premium, of course, but is worth considering if you can afford it, because it is a properly entertaining little hatch that also has bags full of charm. The interior isn’t terribly practical, but it’s certainly not boring in there.