The new, smartened-up Polo GTI exudes class and sophistication, but while the peak outputs of its new 2.0-litre motor look impressive on paper, is Volkswagen's compact hot hatch more involving to drive than its rivals?
We like: Maturity, punchy engine, luxury feel, spaciousness, comfort, tech.
We don’t like: Not involving as rivals, costly extras
- For more fun and involvement: The Renault Clio RS18 F1 is an absolute rocket in terms of outright acceleration and handling, but it's perhaps too compromised as a daily runabout, because its ride quality is too hard and the gearbox/engine setup has to be in Race mode to be properly enjoyed. You can't beat the 162 kW and 280 Nm singing loudly out the standard Akrapovic pipes, however.
- Something a bit more flamboyant: A facelifted version of the Mini Cooper was recently released and in Cooper S guise, it's certainly a match for the Polo GTI in terms of performance, courtesy of its turbocharged 2.0-litre pumping out 141 kW and 280 Nm. Whereas the Polo GTI has gone with a digital approach to its cabin layout, the Mini opts for a funky setup. It's expensive, though.
- Sadly it's not coming: The new Ford Fiesta ST looked so promising, but the quality of South Africa's fuel is apparently incompatible with the newcomer's 1.5-litre 3-cylinder motor, which is why it won't be launched here. Perhaps consider the previous-gen ST200.
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What is it?
Given its position at the head of the Polo family, the GTI certainly looks the part
Volkswagen has substantially revised the Polo GTI's packaging: the boy racer image has (somewhat) diminished and in its place is a junior hot hatch – a playful executive, if you will. Some detractors have called the newcomer a "Golf GTI lite", which is a trifle unfair, the Polo GTI is, as a matter of fact, powered by a detuned version of the 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder motor from its "7.5" sibling. What's more, the Polo GTI also features its bigger brother's trick XDS electronic front differential, which should liven things up in the handling stakes.
Apart from the change in the engine (from a 1.8- to a 2.0-litre unit), this is a more mature, sensible and practical Polo GTI altogether. From an aesthetic point of view, the best way to distinguish this iteration of Volkswagen's baby hot hatch is to look for the intricate headlights that blend with the characteristic GTI red trim that underlines the grille. There are plenty of GTI badges (outside and in), a set of twin exhausts and bigger alloy wheels. Our test car being was fitted with the standard 17-inch wheels, but very attractive 18-inch 'Brescia' wheels are available at extra cost. Can a grown-up GTI still appeal, or should you look elsewhere for your junior hot hatch thrills? Perhaps this is the cut-price Golf GTI you've always wanted... Let's find out.
Space and luxury
The Volkswagen Active Info Display in the Polo GTI has a GTI-specific red theme.
By virtue of being based on a new architecture, the new GTI boasts improved cabin space. The MQB platform, which has been used for a host of VW Group products, has a sterling reputation for refinement and comfort, as well as good space utilisation. Indeed, the Polo GTI has grown up and expanded in all dimensions. The (once-pint-sized) hot hatchback's overall length has grown by 81 mm, it's now 69 mm wider and, despite its overall height reduction (by 8 mm), headroom has increased. The associated enlargement of the cabin is most apparent at the back, where legroom is now tolerable for adults. The luggage bay's capacity has increased to 500 litres with the rear seatback in situ.
The GTI's the flagship Polo derivative, so you'd expect it to be well equipped. Unfortunately, some of its nicest features are optional, but they're well worth considering, particularly the Active Info Display, which has been tailored for the GTI and features a handsome red theme. The dashboard sports a beautiful matte red finish, which, interestingly, it's not available on red cars. The cabin design feels appropriate; there are plenty of red touches to remind you that you're in a GTI, such as red stitching on the stylish flat-bottomed steering wheel and gear lever boot, plus metallic-finished pedals.
The cockpit of the Polo GTI. We hope you like the colour red...
That powertrain is a peach
The Polo GTI's new 2.0-litre turbocharged motor is the EA888 (those who are familiar with engine codes will recognise it as the Golf GTI's powerplant, albeit in a different state of tune than in the "7.5"). Compared with its predecessor, the newcomer's peak outputs have increased slightly to 147 kW and 320 Nm (from 141 kW and 250 Nm/320 Nm), but while these differences may seem small, the switch from a 7-speed dual-clutch (DSG) 'box to 6-speed dual-clutch unit has seen a reduction in sprint times, with claimed fuel efficiency improving fractionally (from 6.0 L/100 km to 5.9 L/100 km). Speaking of sprint times, the new Polo GTI is claimed to hit 100 kph from standstill in a 6.6 seconds, thanks to the provision of a launch control function.
While there is little in the way of theatrics, which is typical of virtually every Volkswagen product, the development team has imbued the new Polo GTI with some aural entertainment. The exhaust pops merrily when you lift off the throttle at high revs, but sadly there are precious few vrrr-phaas on upshifts, unlike its bigger brother. While the Polo GTI is available with a manual transmission overseas, it's unlikely that it'll ever make its way here. Besides, the DSG setup is just so good and perfect for both day-to-day as well as performance driving, only the most hardcore manual-gearbox fans (who are a dying breed) would insist on a 6-speed manual 'box. Long live the EA888 and DSG partnership, long live!
The ace up the Polo GTI's sleeve is its torque delivery. With 320 Nm available from reasonably low down in the rev range and a responsive transmission that's calibrated to fling you into the motor's powerband at will, the Polo GTI outguns all of its rivals when it comes to in-gear performance. Both the Clio RS18 and Mini Cooper S can only muster 280 Nm, giving the Uitenhage-built newcomer the rolling-run advantage.
Quick, wieldy AND refined
The standard 17-inch alloy wheels look smart, but if you really want to make a statement, there is the option of 18-inch wheels.
The MQB platform brings with it some playful handling and the XDS differential certainly furthers the Polo GTI's cause. The combination of a punchy engine and a relatively low kerb weight makes this the best Polo GTI to date in terms of the newcomer's sheer wieldiness. When the Drive mode is set to Sport, the steering weight increases, the throttle becomes dramatically more responsive and there's an excited energy about the car that makes you want to press on.
And once the traffic clears and you're presented with a challenging stretch of twisty blacktop to fully exploit the Polo GTI's abilities, the diminutive hot hatch responds to eager and enthusiastic driving inputs with aplomb. Thanks to its sporty suspension and bigger tyres, grip levels are high and even when you're approaching the car's handling limits, the Volkswagen's planted front-end warns you well in advance so that you can respond accordingly.
But the real strength of the Polo GTI is its vast array of abilities. Not only is it entertaining to drive in Sport, but arguably its major selling point is how comfortable and easy it is to drive in Comfort. Sure, the ride is a little firm, but that rings true for most hot hatches. If you opt for the larger, sexier 18-inch alloys, consider ticking the adaptive damping option – it is likely to soften the ride on poorer-quality roads.
Volkswagen has done a sterling job to differentiate the GTI from its lesser siblings. The GTI badge is displayed in many places.
Not as fun to drive as rivals
Despite an admirable powertrain and a dynamic chassis, the Polo GTI driving experience is not quite as engaging as some would have hoped. Sure, it's brisk in a straight line and corners with alacrity, but perhaps its inherent sophistication and allround refinement have rendered it incapable of providing as many driving thrills as some of its more-focused rivals. In its defence though, GTI has never been about outright performance, but rather a healthy blend of fun and day-to-day drivability. The new Volkswagen Polo GTI can cover large swathes of tarmac briskly, but there is a distinct "clinical, tame and predictable" feeling about it, which won't endear it to serious enthusiasts.
Expensive when well-specced
Despite Volkswagen SA launching the new Polo GTI at a cheaper price than its predecessor, we still wish there were more standard features. Our test car came with plenty of extras, some of which could be justified from a customer point of view. Extra items such as a panoramic sunroof, climate control, keyless entry, upgraded infotainment system, active info display, LED headlights and park assist all add up, and based on the VWSA's online configurator, our test car would retail at just over R450 000, a far cry from its R375 900 list price. R450k puts it in the same ballpark as the Renault Clio RS18!
Price and warranty
The Volkswagen Polo GTI has a recommended retail price of R375 900. Spec your GTI carefully and you should be able to sneak its asking price under the R400k mark. The new Polo GTI comes standard with a 3-year/120 000 km warranty, 3-year/45 000 km service plan and a 12-year anti-corrosion warranty. Service intervals are set at 15 000 km.
The claim that this new Polo GTI is a "shrunken Golf GTI" is arguably true, but why is that a bad thing? The two are uncannily alike in many ways, especially in terms of the driving experiences they deliver. The new Polo GTI is a superb offering and its skill set – in contrast with those of its rivals (of which there are now few) – is broad, which is the same that can be said of its bigger brother. Not only is the Polo GTI comfortable and refined, but practical (you could effortlessly load up you and your partner's luggage and take the hot hatch on a weekend getaway) and, for a performance hatchback, it is refreshingly forgiving around town, as well as the open road. Despite its performance-oriented GTI badge, it requires few compromises.
But the Polo GTI is nonetheless a hot hatchback, therefore we have to consider its performance credentials carefully. Despite its breadth of talents, we would not recommend this Volkswagen to serious driving enthusiasts... It may do everything else incredibly well, but for those looking for that ultimate driver involvement and visceral performance, it would be best to look elsewhere, like the outrageous Clio RS18, or a three-door Mini Cooper S. Fortunately, however, a liberal supply of performance driving thrills (and not much else) is not a deal-breaker for the majority of new car buyers. For those who want to flaunt their status with a sporty car endowed with a diverse list of talents, you'd be hard-pressed to match the Polo GTI as a daily driver.