2018 Volkswagen Polo GTI performance review

Uncorking VW’s brand-new Polo GTI on local soil

2018 Volkswagen Polo GTI performance review

If this car launched just over a decade ago we’d be asking Volkswagen why it mistakenly has put Polo badges on a Golf GTI.

That’s because this ‘little’ GTI now puts out figures that would beat a Mk5 Golf with the same legendary moniker. Its turbocharged four-cylinder develops a peak of 147kW, the exact same as its ancestor. Then its 2.0-litre EA888 series engine, the first ever in a Polo, goes further with a class-leading 320Nm.

This power is pumped from a turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder more commonly found in, as you might guess, a Golf GTI. When Renault Sport has shrunk the Megane’s capacity to 1.8 litres, Ford has deleted a cylinder from the Fiesta ST, Wolfsburg’s decision to upsize from the old turbo 1.8-litre seems unusual.

But the power injection seems less dramatic when you run a measuring tape over the new Polo’s sharp lines and stretched surfaces. It’s grown in width, wheelbase, and length. And now that these increases unlock more shoulder space, leg room, and luggage space, VW says some of these gains make the Polo comparable to cars a segment larger.

While the new Polo GTI is bigger and more powerful, it also brandishes special equipment reserved for luxury cars, like adaptive dampers and digital dash screens. It all ups weight to 1285kg tare and when loaded with fuel and driver that easily hits the 1355kg kerb weight on the aforementioned Golf GTI’s spec sheet.

But driving the all-new Polo GTI across North-East NSW’s best and worst roads hints it hasn’t lost the giant-killing factor of past iterations. In fact, engineers have pushed its performance envelope wider. A six-speed manual will be built for cars overseas, yet VW Oz believes its arrival is unlikely. It reasons buyers won’t crave a manual like before as this six-speed dual clutch DSG variant gets every one of the 320 torques the manual does.

While the Australian Polo GTI offers one powertrain flavour, that’s no bad thing. The DSG handles the car’s muscly outputs with ease. It smoothly dispatches shifts mid-corner and matches wide ratios to the car’s thick power band. Admittedly, it robs you of the true autonomy with manual ’box, as it automatically upshifts at its 6000rpm redline no matter what mode you’re in and the kick-down switch is too easy to hit under full power.

Nor does it feel much faster than before. The new Polo GTI, despite gaining 15kW and 40Nm hasn’t dropped its claimed 0-100km/h. Although its EA888 is dialled down from the viciousness delivered in a Golf R, it starts pulling hard in the Polo at 2750rpm and doesn’t relent until redline. The speed delivered during the powerband’s linear climb across its rev range also makes light work of overtaking. And there’s plenty of grunt to overpower the front-axle from a stand-still, traction on or off.

Such front-wheel drive hooliganism fades away in the bends. The car’s diff-by-brake tech quells wheel spin with smooth, but noticeable, operation, to help the Polo dig in under traction, rather than scrabble from corners. With unique suspension geometry, links, and a stiffer setup to match its adaptive suspension, the Polo responds well when driven hard.

That outside front tyre doesn’t relent as you barrel into decreasing radius bends. This poise, too, helps the Polo’s more even spread of grip hold the road with tenacity. Astonishingly, it does this with Michelin Primacy 3s, instead of Europe’s Pilot Sport 4s, and thinner tracks than the model before. Combine that with a crisp steering rack that’s been massaged with the same precision, and insulation, as the current Golf GTI’s electric system, and the Polo emerges as truly confidence inspiring.

And at least across terribly kept public roads, it backs its talents up with an unflappable ride in both its Normal and Sport adaptive suspension modes. Its torsion beam based MQB-platform does feel firm at first, tending to fidget over most imperfections. Press on, though, and it finds genuine compliance as if its dampers always have some travel up their sleeve.

The only thing we can tell you about the optional 18s that use the same 215mm footprint but drop the sidewall profile from 45 to 40 on its Bridgestone Turanza T001s, is that they are a bit busier over really rotten roads, but unless you commute over multiple cattle grids then there’s not much in it.

We can’t tell you if its brakes are up to retarding the extra energy the Polo throws around since we didn’t use a racetrack. And for that, we can’t comment on whether the Polo GTI can cut loose with its ESP switched to Sport either. And despite having an innate friendliness and accessibility, the stability system remains undefeatable.

At least on ride, handling, and comfort, the Polo GTI is a more resolved. The new cabin, too, drops the seat height to a much lower level, for a better driving position, and feels roomier. The amounts of cost-saving plastics also seem appropriate. The high resolution 8.0-inch touchscreen is nicely integrated into the centre stack. The standard tartan-draped seats also hug and support you well.

At $30,990, or $3500 than before (or $1000 more than the old DSG), the Polo’s gains in tech, comfort, space, and handling seem like a very reasonable ask. Although that value equation easily diminishes the pricier it gets. And that’s easier to do with its options list adopting Audi’s package-focused mentality. Thankfully, none of them hide the essence of this car’s appeal.

We’d find the standard fit Apple Carplay system, adaptive dampers, and analogue dash more than acceptable. But if you’re particularly image-conscious, 18s and fake suede seats reside in the pricey $3900 Luxury Pack. The safety minded will zero in on the radar cruise in the Driver Assistance package for $1400. Meanwhile crisp 300w audio and sat-nav await in the $1900 Sound and Vision pack.

Fully optioned this new Polo GTI can reach $38,190. While that’s not a first in this mini hot-hatch segment, we vividly remember Volkswagen’s three-door Golf GTI Original for $37,990. And although this Polo GTI feels like a mini Golf GTI more than ever, with the same complete appeal, it rivals the i30 N, Megane GT, or Focus ST on that price

Stick to the basics, we say, and the Polo GTI will be a blast. Even if on paper it’s a little bit like one from the past.

 5-door, 5-seat hatch 
Drive: front-wheel
Engine: 1984cc inline 4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/Stroke: 82.5 x 92.8mm
Compression: 9.6:1
Power: 147kW @ 4400-6000rpm
Torque: 320Nm @ 1500-4400rpm
Power-to-Weight: 108kW/tonne
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch
Kerb Weight: 1285kg (tare)
Suspension: struts, A-arms, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f); torsion beam, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
Length/Width/Height: 4067/1751/1438mm
Wheelbase: 2549mm
Tracks: 1522/1496mm (f/r)
Steering: electronically assisted rack-and-pinion
Wheels: 17.0 x 7.5-inch  (f/r)
Tyres: Michelin Primacy 3 205/45 ZR17 (f/r)
Price: $30,990 (est.)

Likes: A compliant, grunty, and polished little beast
Dislikes: It’s not so little anymore; we haven’t driven it at a racetrack

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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