THE FIRST POLO GTI was a disappointment. It wasn’t great to look at, and even worse to drive. The steering was lifeless, the manual transmission quite coarse and the old 1.8-litre turbo from the Golf 4 GTI had only 110kW and 220Nm of torque to play with. It was thoroughly thumped in a Topcar hot hatch shootout in 2007, coming last in a class that included the Mini Cooper S, Renault Clio RS, Peugeot 207 GTI and the Ford Fiesta ST. Fast forward four years and there’s a new Polo GTI in the Topcar parking lot. Has Volkswagen managed to get it right, and more importantly do justice to the illustrious GTI badge second time around?
The new Polo is a conservative design, aimed at the minds of the +30’s climbing the corporate ladder. Turning those flat sides and geometric designs into a sporty package that needs to stir the soul as well was always going to be a challenge. All the GTI design differentiators are employed, from the ‘love them or hate them’ 17-inch Denver alloys with the red brake callipers to the honeycomb air inlets in the front apron, two red trim strips on the radiator grille and the rear spoiler in body colour. The two chrome tailpipes and the GTI badge at the back reinforce the fact that this is the hot Polo. From the front the Polo could easily be mistaken for its bigger Golf GTI brother, but the excitement wanes as one moves around to the boxier rear. Competitors like the Renault Clio RS, Mini Cooper S, Alfa Mito and especially the Citroën DS3 are visually more appealing.
The Polo launches a massive return fight as soon as you open the door and get in. Few other small cars can match its interior quality. The standard sports seats are a good blend of Alcantara and leather trim that hug hips in a pleasantly reassuring way. The quality plastics and soft-touch surfaces are appropriately dark with brushed chrome surrounding the air vents and chrome accents on the control knobs. A flat-bottomed GTI-style multifunction steering wheel completes the package. It all feels very upmarket in here. The list of kit included as standard after you’ve handed your R259000 to Volkswagen is appropriately extensive and includes things like aluminium-look pedals, electric windows all round, electrically adjusted and heated side mirrors and ‘Climatic’ aircon. You’ll have to pay more if you want a panoramic sunroof, rear park distance control or curtain airbags – the only options available for the Polo GTI. There is an Aux-in port to connect your MP3 devices, but unfortunately no USB connector. Irritating.
The previous Polo GTI was a bit of a slug. This one isn’t. It’s quick, just as quick in fact as the larger and more powerful Golf GTI. It’s that magic power-to-weight formula which does the trick here. The Polo hits the scale at 1269kg. Combine that with a feisty 1.4-litre TSI engine and a lightning fast DSG (dual clutch) transmission and you have a mini hot hatch that will leave drivers of far larger and more expensive sports cars shaking their heads in embarrassment. No, it wasn’t an error; there really is only a 1.4-litre engine under the bonnet of the Polo. It’s the clever combination of direct petrol injection, a supercharger which boosts the engine until 3000rpm, at which point a turbocharger takes over that all turns this tiny engine into a force to be reckoned with. Power is up to 132kW and torque increases to a sizeable 250Nm, available from 2000rpm all the way up to 4500rpm. It offers big car performance, with the bonus of small car fuel consumption. Volkswagen claims 5.9 litres per 100km on the combined cycle. Our test route delivered a respectable fuel consumption figure of 7.3 litres per 100km.
Our testing panel all had similar comments in this department, ranging from solid and predictable to surprisingly fun. The steering is quick, aided by an electronic transverse differential lock to maintain traction through the corners. It’s the same system found on the Golf GTI, which prevents slip of the unloaded wheel at the inside of a corner by using brake intervention. This GTI sits 15mm lower than the normal Polo. Add 17-inch tyres, stiffer dampers and a tweaked suspension, and you would expect the Polo GTI to rattle your fillings the same way a Mini Cooper S or a Renault Clio RS would. It doesn’t though, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on which side of the hot hatch fence you sit. It’s not as involving or as communicative as the two competitors mentioned here, but the ride is more refined and comfortable. The fact that the Polo GTI is only available with the DSG transmission, and not the more involving manual shifter, adds to the more grown-up feel of the VW. Personally I would opt for the brilliant DSG box every day anyway.
The new Polo GTI is a vast improvement on its predecessor, better in almost every department. The testing team all had fun driving it, which is one of the most important boxes a small hot hatch needs to tick. It offers similar performance to bigger hatches costing R100000 more, with interior quality to match. Some may fault its rather conservative design; others might like the understatement it delivers. The same applies to the comparatively uninvolving but very refined drive. The Polo GTI has grown up, the same way we suspect its owners have. It’s a hot hatch for guys and girls that have sown their wild oats and are now looking for a car that delivers the best of both worlds.