Dave heads to Spain to drive the new 2015 Volkswagen Polo GTI on road and on track...
Having owned a second-generation 9N Mk4-based Polo GTI since 2006, the chance to trial the new 2015 Volkswagen Polo GTI at its international launch in Spain was an offer far too good to refuse…
I love my Volkswagen Polo GTI. I have since the very first time I hustled it through a favourite piece of winding road at speeds far beyond the sign-posted recommendations.
It entertainingly combines light-footed agility with unimpeded steering feel and one of the most neutral front-wheel-drive chassis I have ever driven. It’s also not shy of some lift-off oversteer either thanks to its 1190kg kerb weight and torsion-beam rear axle.
As an ownership ‘experience’, though, it hasn’t been perfect. I’m not thinking about that right now though. Right this second I’m focused on adjusting to driving a left-hand-drive car for only my second-ever time while trying to remember the layout of the 4km Ricardo Tormo racetrack in Valencia.
Here for a good time not a long time, we only have around three laps to party with the 2015 Volkswagen Polo GTI and its new 141kW turbocharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder.
Up 9kW from the third-generation Mk5-based Polo GTI and its (problematic) twin-charged 1.4-litre four-pot, the new petrol engine marks a return to my 9N’s setup – albeit with a completely different powerplant making its debut in the new GTI.
Ditching the outgoing GTI’s turbocharger and supercharger combo for a sole single-scroll turbocharger mounted (9N-style) off its rear, the new engine is the latest third-generation version of the EA888 – a 16-valve Audi-developed unit powering Volkswagen Group cars since 2008, including - in 2.0-litre capacity - the current Mk7 Golf GTI.
Rolling out of pit lane, our first taste of the heavily Golf-influenced Polo GTI is in a seven-speed dual-clutch-equipped three-door. My personal body style preference, local buyers will continue to be restricted to the five-door only once the baby hot-hatch arrives in the second quarter next year.
Speaking of being restricted, while much excitement followed confirmation that, after nine years, a manual gearbox would return as the standard transmission on the Polo GTI, all is not quite as it seems…
The first Polo GTI to be offered with two transmissions, the new fourth-generation – based on the freshly updated Mk5 Polo platform – sees significant variations between the pair.
Delivering its 141kW between 4200-6200rpm, the six-speed manual Polo GTI reaches its peak 1200rpm earlier than its DSG twin. With 320Nm on tap between 1450-4200rpm, the manual also gets a 70Nm peak torque boost over both its predecessor and its new DSG equivalent.
Again defaulting to 250Nm, the new automatic GTI’s grunt is now available 750rpm earlier in the rev range compared with its forebear and extends for 800rpm longer (between 1250-5300rpm). Volkswagen officially blames the transmission discrepancies on “technical differences in the design parameters of the gearboxes”.
Regardless of transmission though, the 1272kg (1280kg auto) GTI claims a 6.7-second 0-100km/h time – a 0.2sec improvement in the face of an 83kg (minimum) weight increase.
On track, the under-torqued DSG Polo GTI still punches strongly out of the twin Turn One and Two left handers, through the Turn Three left kink and out of Turn Four and Five’s double-apex complex. A pleasing engine note and gearshift pops are both proudly expelled from the GTI’s chrome-tipped twin exhaust, while a tyre lets out the odd squeal.
Starting out in ‘Normal’ mode, the track gives us the opportunity to properly test another first for the Polo GTI, its new ‘Sport’ mode.
Activated by pushing a centre stack-mounted button, the new function sharpens throttle response, increases torque of the new Polo’s electro-mechanical power steering and boosts the role of the in-car sound actuator system. In DSG-equipped vehicles, it also automatically switches the transmission from ‘D’ to ‘S’.
If you happen to live in Europe and are happy throwing another 285 euro at your new Volkswagen Polo GTI, it can also be paired with the sporty hatch’s latest and most advanced party trick: electronically adjustable suspension.
Dubbed ‘Sport Select’, the system revolves around electronically adjustable dampers – not to be confused with adaptive dampers used in the new Golf GTI.
Triggered by an electro-mechanical switching valve inside the damper, 'Sport Select' allows owners to shift between a hugely compliant and comfortable ‘Normal’/‘Comfort’ setting and a notably stiffer but no less well matched, sport-oriented one.
Impressive technology on its own, the system also proves legitimately beneficial to both vehicle dynamics and manners, whether on road or track.
The catch? Sport Select is not planned to be available – even as an option – for Australian buyers from launch. Surprised to learn of this decision (made by the German car maker itself rather than the local division), a key member of the Polo GTI’s chassis development team told CarAdvice that not presenting buyers with at least the option of having Sport Select was “senseless”.
Rounding the circuit’s 14th and final corner and getting onto its 650-metre-long main straight for the last time, things have noticeably warmed up.
Initially responsive to inputs from the sharp, accurate and consistent steering, the GTI’s specifically developed Bridgestone Potenza tyres – now fitted to slightly wider 17x7.5-inch alloy wheels – are starting to “exceed their maximum”, as one of the on-hand track instructors phrases it.
A street tyre connecting what is, in essence, a peppy city car to the road, the 40-profile Bridgestones lose their bite and begin to let the new GTI’s agile and fun chassis down. The GTI’s brakes – comprising 310mm ventilated discs up front, 230mm solid discs at the rear and red painted calipers all round – equally start to feel like they’re fast moving beyond their own ‘maximum’.
It’s a real shame too because apart from sitting lower (10mm front, 15mm rear) than the standard Polo, the new Polo GTI is fitted with the latest XDS+ electronic front differential lock. Intended to further enhance handling performance, it also features a thicker (up 1mm to 19mm) front anti-roll bar than the outgoing GTI and revised front anti-roll bar linkages and torsion-beam bushings.
Trading the track for a dash along some public Spanish roads, we get the keys to a manual GTI and scarper.
My first-ever time shifting cogs from the ‘passenger’ seat – adolescent automotive skulduggery aside – we head out to explore the roads between Godelleta, Turis and Picassent.
Knowing the heavily reworked – and 5.4kg lighter – EA888 was built to improve both performance and efficiency, we leave the circuit curious about how close the new GTI will get to its European combined cycle claim of 6.0 litres per 100km (5.6L/100km for the auto).
Nerd alert! When I say heavily reworked, we mean it. Key engine revisions comprise the addition of dual injection (a combination of direct and manifold injection), a water-cooled integrated exhaust manifold, a thin-walled crankcase (down from 3.5mm to 3.0mm), a crankshaft that is more than 1kg lighter, and variable valve timing with two-stage variable lift camshaft adjustment.
Mixing highway with tight and twisty rural back roads, our circa-150km run reveals several important factors.
The heated front bucket seats – finished in ‘Clark’ tartan cloth of course – are firm yet comfortable and highly supportive. The standard six-speed ‘box is a gem and feels every bit as good as the excellent unit found in the base Golf 90TSI. Interior quality and refinement is eerily close to Mk7 Golf territory but not quite there yet (see speaker surrounds and flimsy rear cup holder), and wind noise at 100km/h and above is prominent.
The trip computer on the new-look (read: Golf GTI-style) instrument cluster also ends the drive loop displaying an average fuel figure of 9.9L/100km – not bad considering we were still out ‘testing’.
A quick car swap and we’re into a septo-geared five-door fitted with the base, and non-adjustable, sports suspension… Around 120km later, we see a sightly reduced fuel figure of 9.6L/100km.
Albeit brief, our concluding stint in the GTI in question – the only car we drove not fitted with adjustable dampers – exposes the crux of the story.
Intended to be a balance between ride comfort and dynamic sporting ability, the standard suspension is strongly skewed towards the latter. Stiff and busy enough to make you aware of every bump, divot or minor imperfection beneath you, an agitated and almost constantly bobbing body suggests the firm setup is an imperfect match of tight damping with a too-soft spring.
Fun and flat once settled on some smoother roads later on, the standard suspension could prove choppy and harsh on poor quality Australian bitumen, but we’ll have to wait and see.
With clear advances in refinement, interior quality, performance and dynamics over the outgoing car, and with a starting price tipped to be below $28,000 – or around $1540 less than the current model's $29,540 list price – the new Volkswagen Polo GTI is sure to tempt many into a test drive.
Opting for the DSG will likely set you back a further $2500 though, and as cool as its distinctive GTI badging, honeycombed grille, black-tipped rear spoiler and new Golf GTI-style headlights with extended red grille strip are, challenges from the likes of the five-door Renault Clio RS and three-door Ford Fiesta ST are all but unavoidable.
How the standard sports suspension handles Australian roads will be a key factor once it arrives, along with final pricing and equipment specification – the latter expected to include an upgraded touchscreen infotainment unit with satellite navigation as well as parking sensors, a rear-view camera, LED headlights and a range of safety technologies.
However, a bigger question will be how the new Polo GTI – like many a Volkswagen product, including my own ’06 Polo GTI – fairs with reliability and quality control issues. And, perhaps more importantly, how Volkswagen Australia handles the public when, or if, they arise…