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Not all manufacturers can lay claim to bringing about a whole new type of car. Yet, Volkswagen was arguably one of the first to develop the hot hatch: a car that teams great dynamic ability, with an easy to live with nature and an affordable price of entry. Most of all, a car that's fun to drive. Now, while the Volkswagen Golf GTI may have become bigger, heavier, and perhaps more refined in almost every conceivable way, the Volkswagen Polo GTI is the younger brother that still invokes the light-hearted spirit of the original hot hatch.
Although the 2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI weighs in at 1234kg (tare) - a far cry from the original Volkswagen Golf GTI’s kerb weight of 810kg - the baby GTI blends nippy performance with everyday usability, in a way that some manufacturers are still trying to emulate.
Arriving on to the scene mid last year, the updated Polo GTI found itself in a hotly contested market. You’re spoilt for choice if you find yourself in the market for a fun, sporty, and affordable hot hatch.
At $27,490 (before on-road costs), the Polo GTI boasts myriad standard equipment above and beyond what is offered by its competition. Highlights include cruise control, rear-view camera, 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, Bluetooth connectivity, and 17-inch alloy wheels. It’s also the first Polo GTI to be offered with both a seven-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic transmission and a six-speed manual transmission – "Praise be," exclaim the purists.
Even more impressive, though, is the first-time inclusion of electronically-adjustable dampers. Add it all up, and the amount of value packed into the latest Polo GTI easily puts some of its competitors to shame.
With our 'Blue Silk' metallic (a $500 paint option) six-speed manual-equipped Polo GTI coming in $2500 cheaper than its DSG equivalent, it slots in roughly mid-pack between the soon-to-be-updated $25,990 Ford Fiesta ST and the $30,000 Renault Clio RS200.
The Polo GTI brings a premium feel to the light hot-hatch game that none of its competition can match. Soft-touch dash and door-tops, auto-up/down power windows, and a red-stitched leather wheel from the Golf GTI are some of the hallmarks that really shout 'quality' where others shout 'mediocrity'.
Derived from the same EA888 engine family that powers the 2.0-litre Golf GTI and Golf R, the Polo GTI's turbocharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder produces up to 141kW of power and 320Nm of torque. Despite the DSG version having its peak torque restricted by 70Nm (to 250Nm), both variants nail the 0-100km/h sprint in a claimed 6.7 seconds. During its stint in the garage, our manual GTI averaged 9.1 litres per 100 kilometres, up from a claimed 6.1L/100km (5.7L/100km for the DSG).
Previously, we suggested the 1.8-litre engine was down on aural character compared to the old twin-charged 1.4-litre unit. While still true, after experiencing the sound from the outside, we found it to be a decent little grumbler - especially on the upshifts.
One of the biggest talking points of the updated Polo GTI's arrival was the addition of an all-new 'Sport' mode. Apart from stiffening up the newly added adjustable dampers, pushing the button changes all the usual parameters such as throttle response, steering weight, and exhaust noise.
In their firmer setting, the trick dampers help hunker down the little hatch when diving into corners, bettering body control and flattening cornering dynamics.
Retaining some of the original hot hatch charm of the first Golf GTI, the Polo GTI willingly gives its all when set upon some windy roads, being able to attack at what feels like a relentlessly quick pace. Yet, it never feels like you’re driving beyond your own, or the car’s, limits. It’s a tool that decisively goes about hammering through whatever is thrown at it.
Annoyingly, that dependableness is also one of its downfalls. We’re not suggesting that it should set the world on fire in terms of driving enjoyment; after all, it’s a $27,000 five-door hatchback. But its German nature does shine through. Fun it may be at times, it feels as though it was more built to do a job, rather than entertain the driver - particularly when compared with the likes of the Fiesta ST.
The electromechanical steering does well to quickly zip the car left and right, however, it lacks the feel and pinpoint accuracy of the Fiesta ST's. The engine pulls along well and has great pickup from low revs, yet, falls short of the theatre attached to the turbo 1.6-litre in the Clio RS200.
You can see where we’re going here. Although its competition might not be as polished as the Polo GTI as an overall package, each bring their own neat little aspect to the party – which they nail. As a driver’s car, the Volkswagen Polo GTI is a legitimate go-getter that's mostly good in all areas, but not exceptional in any one area.
Yes, its character may be lacking in terms of driving experience, but let’s not forget the entire story.
Around town, the punchy engine does well to place you where you need to be in traffic - it’s actually a hoot to nip around the city in such a small car with such an energetic engine. The issue of parking is done away with thanks to good visibility and a tight 10.6-metre turning circle, though, if you're after front and rear parking sensors, you'll have to fork out for the GTI's optional $1400 Driver Assistance Package.
Although not the last word in comfort when commuting, Volkswagen deserves praise for including the adjustable dampers as standard. And further, in 'Normal' mode, they help soften the blows that would be felt with force in any of the Polo GTI's rivals.
Speaking of comfort, cabin space is a bit light-on in the Polo GTI.
The GTI's trademark tartan sports seats are comfortable on the commute and supportive enough through cornering and when accelerating hard, however, if you’re beyond 6-foot tall, you’ll be experiencing the cramped space in a variety of ways.
If you're anywhere near my 6-foot-four, up front, you'll have trouble placing feet for heel-and-toe downshifts – best bring along your favourite driving shoes to minimise your footprint – and in the back, you'll find head room lacking and your knees digging into the soft-backed front seats. Understandable shortcomings considering the GTI is still in the light car segment.
In terms of infotainment, thanks to the updated inclusion of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, satellite navigation is now provided where there previously was none. And from the buttons flanking the 6.5-inch touchscreen, to the leather gear shifter and aluminium sports pedals, the Polo GTI's key controls feel high quality. That said, we were surprised to find ill-fitting and misaligned buttons above the central screen.
The 204-litre boot is just about big enough for one small-sized suitcase and an accompanying backpack, and underneath the floor, the car receives a space-saver spare tyre. If you experience anything worse than a flat tyre, you'll also be pleased by the Polo GTI's three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, three years roadside assistance, and six years capped-price servicing (with annual scheduled services every 15000km or 12 months, ranging from $420 to $711).
There’s not much you can trip up the 2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI on. It’s such a solid all-rounder that even manages to incorporate an air of quality above and beyond what its price point would ordinarily suggest. It also ticks the mandatory hot-hatch boxes of ability, practicality and price.
It might not evoke quite the same passions as the original Volkswagen Golf GTI, but it’s hard to imagine any modern car could – what with safety equipment and technology weighing down cars these days. So, if you’re after a born-again 1976 Golf GTI, you might be out of luck. However, if you’ve got your sights set on an affordable day-to-day performer with sporting performance to boot, then we'd still highly recommend a drive of the latest Polo GTI.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI images by Tom Fraser.