2015 Volkswagen Polo GTI Review

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You asked for it and they delivered: the Volkswagen Polo GTI manual is back!

Five years after switching from offering its pocket rocket exclusively with a manual gearbox to selling it solely with a dual-clutch automatic (DSG), Volkswagen has released the facelifted Polo GTI with the choice of transmissions as it attempts to satisfy every potential buyer.

The decision makes the 2015 Volkswagen Polo GTI unique in the baby hot hatch segment, where rivals have gone all-in with a single gearbox: the red-hot Ford Fiesta ST and the sports-luxury Peugeot 208 GTi opting for manual, and the racy Renault Clio RS200 targeting the PlayStation generation with its dual-clutch auto.

One benefit of the new six-speed manual transmission is the effect on the Polo GTI’s starting price: at $27,490 before on-road costs, it’s the cheapest current-generation Polo GTI ever offered in Australia, undercutting even the discontinued, pre-facelift three-door variant. In fact, the new manual five-door GTI is just $500 more than the previous-generation Polo GTI manual that was last sold here in 2010.

In the context of the competitors mentioned above, the Volkswagen Polo GTI manual now costs just $1500 more than the three-door Fiesta ST, as well as $2000 less than the cheapest Clio RS200 and $2500 below the 208 GTi. Volkswagen also continues to offer the Polo GTI with a seven-speed DSG, which is now priced $450 higher than before at $29,990.

Another advantage of the manual ’box is its drastically higher torque threshold compared with the DSG, which is capped at 250Nm.

This means the self-shifting transmission can’t exploit the full potential of the GTI’s new engine – a 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol motor (from the EA888 family that gives us the Golf GTI and Golf R 2.0-litre turbo engines), which replaces the old turbocharged and supercharged 1.4-litre unit.

So while the 2015 Polo GTI DSG produces 141kW and 250Nm for an increase of 9kW over the old model, the engine in the Polo GTI manual achieves the same 141kW while pumping out an extra 70Nm for 320Nm in total – a figure that humbles the 208 GTi (275Nm) and embarrasses the RS200 and ST (both 240Nm).

Surprisingly, Volkswagen says there’s no difference in the 0-100km/h acceleration ability of the pair, with both claimed to stop the clock in 6.7 seconds (0.2sec quicker than before).

The difference is tangible from behind the wheel, however, where the torquier manual is more reactive to your throttle inputs and pulls more intensely and with greater zeal. The manual shifter slots into gear with precision, and the clutch pedal has a light and easy feel.

It’s unfair to suggest the updated DSG-equipped GTI has been dudded entirely with the update, however, as its peak power and torque bands (5400-6200rpm and 1250-5300rpm respectively) are now much broader than before (6200rpm and 2000-4500rpm respectively). The result is greater responsiveness early in the rev range and better staying power at the top end.

The new 1.8-litre engine sadly lacks the aural character of the old 1.4-litre, however. Say what you will about its unnecessary complexity and questionable reliability, the ‘twincharger’ was wonderfully light and zingy and a joy to rev to its redline, where this new motor sounds generic in comparison.

One benefit of the slick DSG is the exhaust parps it belches when shifting gears with the transmission’s Sport mode engaged, adding some much-needed mongrel to the mix.

Another advantage is the DSG’s superior fuel economy. At 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle, it’s almost 7 per cent more efficient than its predecessor, despite featuring a bigger engine. The manual is marginally thirstier at 6.1L/100km, though still satisfyingly frugal.

While the Golf GTI has long been the sweetest-riding hot hatch on the market, its baby brother has never hit the same highs, and unfortunately the updated Polo GTI does little to close the gap.

The suspension is very firm, making it fussy and unsettled over less than perfect surfaces, and causing it to thump over larger bumps. It’s a set-up that becomes tiresome after extended periods behind the wheel or as a passenger.

Disappointingly, Volkswagen Australia has decided not to offer the 2015 Polo GTI with the Sport Select adaptive suspension that’s available overseas and allows drivers to switch between comfort and sports set-ups.

One healthy step forward is the GTI’s steering. Where the old hydraulic system was too heavy at low speeds, the new electromechanical system is much lighter, making it easier to live with around town. Importantly, it remains direct and predictable when you’re pushing a little harder through some back road bends.

The launch drive gave us few opportunities to properly test the GTI’s handling capabilities. It’s enormously grippy and stable, requiring more speed than we were able to generate in between road works and traffic in our little taster on some roads through the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. A more thorough test is required to ensure the Polo GTI is still as sensational to drive hard as ever (poor Tim, what a hard life!).

Inside, Volkswagen has addressed some of the most glaring oversights of the previous Polo GTI. Automatic headlights and wipers are now standard, while the old model’s awful, tack-on Bluetooth pod is replaced by a proper phone and audio streaming system that’s integrated into the 6.5-inch touchscreen media unit. In Volkswagen’s attempt to keep the centre stack clean, the CD player has been relegated to a near-unusable position within a hutch at the bottom of the glovebox that is out of the driver’s reach, though at least the USB port is easily accessible beneath the climate controls.

It’s poor form that Volkswagen still hasn’t equipped the Polo GTI as standard with rear sensors and a reverse-view camera, instead forcing customers to pay $1700 for the Driver Assistance package that adds them along with front sensors, satellite navigation and a driver fatigue detection system.

The newly available LED headlights are only offered in the $3300 Luxury package, which also brings LED daytime running lights, panoramic sunroof, heated comfort front seats, and alcantara/leatherette upholstery – though in my opinion you’d be mad to option out the iconic ‘Clark’ tartan cloth trim, that injects a much-needed dose of personality into a cabin that is otherwise largely undistinguishable from the regular Polo.

The quality of the Polo GTI’s materials and finishes remains top notch, giving it a feeling of maturity beyond its class. The sports seats are supportive and broad enough to fit bigger bodies, and while rear legroom isn’t class leading, the angled base provides good under-thigh support to make it one of the most comfortable benches for backseat passengers.

A repositioned battery – in the pursuit of improved weight distribution – robs the GTI of 76 litres of boot space compared with the standard Polo, measuring in at a tiny 204L. Fortunately, the 60:40 split rear seats can be pushed forwards to open up 882L of cargo space.

The Polo GTI is covered by Volkswagen’s three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty and capped-price servicing program, with services scheduled every 15,000km/12 months and averaging a little over $600 per year for the first 60,000km/four years of ownership. In good news for owners’ wallets, the new engine is happy drinking 95-octane petrol rather than the pricier 98-octane demanded by its predecessor.

The return of the manual transmission to the Volkswagen Polo GTI will seal the deal for a number of purists who shunned the old self-shifting model. The great wallop of extra torque it delivers over the DSG-equipped model is the cherry (and cream and ganache) on top of the added driver engagement that comes with having a H-pattern stick and a third pedal.

While it’s still not the all rounder its big brother is, suffering due to its busy ride, lack of expected standard features, and small boot, the Polo GTI’s nice new steering, more versatile engine and improved tech helps it take positive steps forward.

A shoot out with the reigning pocket rocket champion, the riotous Fiesta ST, awaits…