MOTORING: Volkswagen Polo GTI: The real McCoy

The GTI designation is one of the motoring world’s most iconic badges. It promises spirited, engaging driving from an otherwise unassuming hatchback. But does the current Volkswagen Golf GTI still express the essence of that badge? Or is the smaller, nimbler Polo version closer to the GTI truth?

The original Volkswagen Golf GTI was a blockbuster of a car: compact, nimble and rapid, with just enough go-faster power to entertain. The classic, Giugiaro-designed shape remained largely unaltered, with only slightly bigger wheels and that badge suggesting something more than normal Golf motoring. The real differences were where it mattered most: under the skin. More urge, tauter suspension, a rortier exhaust, quicker steering: the ingredients were classic go-faster, but done just right. Add tartan-trimmed bucket seats, a small and grippy steering wheel, resolutely analogue dials for speed and rev count (and that classic golf ball gearshift lever) and you had an interior perfectly expressing the GTI’s dynamic intentions. No wonder that this first, Mark 1 Golf GTI offered a slice of hot hatch heaven – not necessarily in sheer performance terms, but because it always delivered more than the sum of its parts. Everything looked, felt and sounded just right – including the modest asking price. That was a long time ago. Now in its seventh generation (and the eighth just around the corner) the Golf GTI has become an altogether more sophisticated, more competent, but also a more bloated and more expensive beast. From a traditionalist perspective, it’s lost its purity of purpose, placing as much emphasis on comfort, safety and convenience as on get-up-and-go. And while it’s a much faster car in every respect, you also need to drive it with a lot more intent to discover its inner GTI mojo. What does all of this have to do with the latest VW Polo GTI? Well, the fact that it too wears the hallowed GTI badge is enough to demand a comparison with its bigger brother. But does it deserve that badge in the first place? The package looks promising enough. It’s based on the latest, sixth-generation Polo, arguably the best yet. Confidently compact and crisply sculpted, it’s the epitome of modern hatchback design, expressing style and sass in equal measures. For its GTI role, the Polo gets a sportier treatment. In cosmetic terms, that treatment includes an angrier face, thanks to a deeper bumper with hungrier air intakes and a prominent spoiler lip, gloss-black detailing, and a honeycomb radiator grille dissected by a crimson trim strip. Snazzy 17-inch wheels and fat rubber do a good job of filling the wheel arches, but once you’ve seen the 18-inch option alloys, you won’t want anything smaller. The proportions just look more convincing, and the Polo adopts an even more athletic stance. The sporty theme continues at the rear, where dual exhausts jut from a gloss black-trimmed diffuser, while the extended roof spoiler is highlighted by a contrasting matt/gloss black finish. Add the wedged shoulder line, deeper-drawn sills and bright red brake callipers, and the Polo GTI’s performance intentions are made abundantly clear. There’s something else to consider here: the Polo GTI is significantly more compact than the current-generation Golf, which benefits the GTI persona: the entire package just looks more alert, more primed for action. Step into the Polo GTI’s cabin, and you’re confronted with a space that’s aeons removed from the original GTI’s simple, slightly quirky (and cramped) cabin. But while it’s fancier, it’s no less focused: this is a GTI driver’s natural domain. Witness the leather-trimmed, thick-rimmed steering wheel, the red-drawn dials, the sculpted seats dressed in suede-like velour, the alloy-studded pedals … it all adds up to an inviting cockpit. Vitally, it’s also ergonomically convincing: finding a comfortable driving position is easy, and once ensconced behind the wheel, there’s a commanding view of the instruments, and the surroundings. Of course, the cockpit shares the latest Polo’s more pragmatic virtues: intelligent packaging, high-quality materials, and an extensive list of standard kit. There’s an array of options, of which the Active Info digital cockpit is the most tempting, despite adding almost R9,000 to the asking price. Our test car also featured a panoramic glass sunroof, satnav, LED headlights (another must-have), keyless entry and starting, climate control, and park distance control, which explains the extra R65,000 added to the base price. But let’s get to the bits really matter in a car like this. Volkswagen has opted to endow this latest Polo GTI with an old favourite: a 2.0-litre turbocharged mill punching out a useful 147kW of max muscle and a meaty 350Nm of twist. Those figures aren’t groundbreaking by any means in hot hatch terms, but given the relatively low weight of the Polo, it still translates into a keen power-to-weight ratio, which makes for rapid responses, succinct overtaking and plenty of all-round brio. Adding to the accessibility of the Polo GTI’s performance potential is a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox with paddle shifts. It’s the high-tech alternative to the good old manual transmission, and arguably not as engaging, but it’s more efficient – and you can run it in full auto mode. This six-speeder is not the best expression of the dual-clutch gearbox art, especially at low speeds, where it can be recalcitrant. But at speed, the rapid shifts and sheer intuitiveness of the cog-swapping process adds to a grin-inducing driving experience. And that’s really the secret to the Polo GTI’s appeal: it’s a real driver’s car that engages with its enthusiasm and competence in almost every situation – from a quick trip to the corner café to a long-distance cross-country haul, and everything in between. There’s an inherent balance and poise to this GTI that allows its dynamic virtues to be explored and enjoyed without having to go a million miles an hour: it’s a zest machine that makes short work of the daily commute, while making you look for reasons to extend the journey. Even in standard trim, the Polo is a fine-handling machine, but the GTI takes that talent a few steps further, with a suspension that’s firmer, but not uncomfortably so, and a steering that defies the curse of electric assistance by offering reassuring heft and feel, especially when driving with some intent. You can tailor the car’s responses to throttle and steering input by choosing between preset driving modes, or customising the individual settings to suit personal preference. And in sport mode, there’s a welcome rortiness to the exhaust – if not the quite the crackle-and-pop soundtrack that’s become a Golf GTI hallmark. The Polo GTI is a car made for mountain passes. There’s an agility to the way it carves through corners that’s both entertaining and confidence-inspiring. This is a car that you think as much a drive through the twisties: the combined feedback from chassis and steering is unequivocal, and when you need them, the disc brakes provide plenty of surefooted stopping power. Ride refinement won’t be high on the list of the typical Polo GTI buyer’s priority list, so the compliance of the chassis, even on undulating surfaces, comes as a welcome surprise, and contributes to the car’s overall poise. So, does the Polo GTI deserve that iconic badge? Absolutely. In fact, it’s closer to the true essence of GTI than its fancier, more advanced Golf GTI sibling. Without some of those expensive extras, the Polo GTI’s pricing reflects superb value: in fact, it’s actually cheaper than the model it replaces. That’s a rare occurrence, given that the new Polo GTI is also significantly better in every respect. Make no mistake: the Polo GTI is no Golf GTI. But put it this way: you get more GTI for less. And that really says it all: it’s the real McCoy. DM PROS The most authentic expression of the GTI ethos in many years CONS Extras can load the price, and dilute the value factor VITAL STATS

Volkswagen Polo GTI 2.0 TSI DSG
Engine In-line four cylinder, 1,984cc, turbo
Power 147kW @ 4,400 – 6,000rpm
Torque 320Nm @ 1,500 – 4,350rpm
Power-to-weight ratio 108.5 kW/ton
Gearbox Six-speed DSG dual-clutch, FWD
Wheels/tyres 18-inch alloy, 215/40 R18 tyres
0-100 km/h 6.7sec
Top speed 237km/h
Fuel tank capacity 40 litres
Fuel consumption (claimed/tested) 5.9 / 7.3 litres/100km
Operating range (claimed/tested) 678 / 548km
CO2 emissions 134g/km
Retail price/as tested R381,500 / R446,850