The revamped Volkswagen Polo 6 GTI promises to be more Golf-like and more authentically 'GTI'. But does it make for a better compact hot hatchback? Or a properly affordable one?
There are a few good arguments that the all-new 2018 Polo 6 GTI – as it's officially called – might well have dispatched bigger brother Golf GTI as the key anchor point in Volkswagen’s fun hatchback family. That's because the once poorer and merely ‘cheap’ compact segment GTI looks to have come of age. And if our first-drive impressions from its local launch are any proper measure, the newest flagship Polo has lifted its game in a great many areas, becoming more desirable to a broader church of buyers, including buyers eyeballing go-fast Golfs.
One key pitch is purely conceptual. At a touch over four metres long and 1.8 metres wide, at 1355kg kerb weight and powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder producing 147kW, the hot Polo broadly replicates the still much-loved Mk V Golf GTI formula that essential cemented the GTI legend in all the right places. If you want to tap into what originally made GTI so appealing, the new Polo embodies it.
Of course, Golf GTI has grown and matured and become more sophisticated and refined since, but it’s also, at a $45,490 tip-in point, more expensive. This new Polo 6 GTI is, at $30,990 list price fitted with DSG as standard, two-thirds the price of a new Golf GTI. Affordability and value, then, looks the big dangling carrots.
Then there’s heat. Volkswagen spent three solid years ensuring the new Polo has more genuine GTI integration than either of its predecessors. And it promises to offer more of a ‘true GTI’ character because of it.
And, of course, there’s maturity, a predictable and expected trait from any small Volkswagen, be it hot or not. That more convincing GTI integration is applied to much improved new-gen Polo DNA: from the more sophisticated MQB-based platform, and associated lift in active electronic architecture, to specifics such as a lower centre of gravity, and vastly more rigid structure.
If the old Polo GTI seemed the more multidimensional, liveable, adult-oriented alternative in a segment filled with tiring, one-trick firecrackers – as fun as they are – then this new version promises to lift the holistic goodness up a notch or three. More enticing from broader buyer perspectives? Most certainly.
However, there is some counterpoint to the all the gushing enthusiasm once you dig through details. Right off the bat, for one thing, don’t get too excited if you’re hankering for a conventional manual gearbox. The Polo 6 GTI is six-speed dual-clutch only.
While there’s a lot of nice stuff on the equipment menu, a lot of it is an added sting. Want LED headlights or proper GTI-look ‘Brescia’ 18-inch wheels rather than the otherwise standard halogens – disappointing at this price point – or the undercooked ‘Milton Keynes’ 17s? You’ll need to tick the Luxury pack box ($3900). Trust us: for looks alone you’ll want the larger rolling stock.
Fancy the slick Active Info Display digital driver’s screen bundled with proprietary sat-nav that comes standard on the vastly more affordable ($22,490) Polo Beats? They’re only available with the ($1900) Sound And Vision option, though factor in the 300-watt audio system and it’s quite a good value bundle. And you won’t get adaptive cruise or safety gear such as blind-spot monitoring or rear cross-traffic alert unless you splurge on the ($1400) Driver Assistance package.
Volkswagen Australia had both lightly and fully optioned vehicles to sample at its Aussie launch, the latter (as pictured in this story) we spent the most time driving, lobbing in at a not-so-buck-banging $38,690 before on-roads. Or, of course, close to Golf GTI money. Indeed, a nicely specced version suddenly doesn't look all that buck-bangingly affordable.
If there’s a key shortcoming in the menu, it’s that Polo really needs those 18s to look like a bona-fide GTI, but you lose the time-honoured Tartan trim for less authentic and frankly unappealing microfibre-trimmed seats that rob more than a little from the otherwise ‘heritage’ vibe. There's certainly a sense of occasion in the Luxury-spec cabin, it just doesn't feel all that GTI authentic.
The overall cabin effect is upmarket, though it is a mixed affair: standard frosted red dash and door inserts add a bit of flash, the regular analogue gauges are clean if a little uninspired, and you get a beautifully finished flat-bottom wheel that's surrounded by mishmash of material execution, with nice soft-touch dash top and fascia surfaces countered by cheapo shiny hard plastic door skins we whinged about even in basic Polo variants. Very neat, though, is the full LED treatment for both strip 'mood' and reading lighting, which is a nice premium touch.
The (optional) second-generation digital Active Info Display is crisp in resolution and clear, the fonts and graphics matching the infotainment screen nicely, and is a worthy added splurge... if you conveniently forget for a moment the same digital instrumentation comes standard in a $22,490 Polo Beats. There’s no proprietary navigation in this base Composition-level infotainment system, though all GTIs do have comprehensive smartphone mirroring.
The front seats are good, not great. They're manual-adjustment type with decent bolstering for reasonable lateral support if a little flat in the seat back, though they’re relaxed enough in shape for decent long-haul comfort. With pronounced contouring in the second row seating, like regular Polo, it’s a compact with proper four-adult accommodation and, given there’s no three-door offered, you get five-door practicality whether you like the body style or not.
With the car's battery relocated to under the temporary spare wheel, boot space drops from 351 litres to 305L, though given the volume lost is all under the floor there's ostensibly no less practical boot space.
Most crucial to Polo GTI’s success is where the action is and shoehorning a big turbo 2.0-litre engine into a compact body, portly 1355kg or not, is inspired in an era when some hot hatches a segment larger are plying trade with less capacity. The enthusiast hook here is that you get yesterday’s Golf GTI stonk in what’s essentially today’s Golf GTI engine – albeit detuned – producing a healthy 147kW and a class-dominating 320Nm. Yes, 40Nm more than the old Mk V Golf with which it broadly shares weight and size.
It’s that torque that underpins a convincing premium driving experience. Response is immediate and lusty, acceleration robust and wheelspin off the mark is a twitch of the right foot away. Dual-clutch transmissions, particularly of Volkswagen/Audi stock, always respond more cleanly and faithfully when plied with a fat layer of torque, in this case from 1450rpm through to 4390rpm, where peak power arrives, and surprisingly early at that.
Premium yes, but this is clearly understressed and mildly peppered tuned and if there’s something lacking in the mix it’s an assertive top end and convincingly rorty character when chasing what the instruments advertise as a 6500rpm redline, regardless of the neat if slightly synthesized pops and crackles when switched to Sport powertrain mode. It’s a flat delivery, with strong lows and mids and tapered off highs, an engine encouraging at least what seems like short shifting to return maximum pace, and it won’t be pleasing to some hot hatch traditionalist's tastes.
It is, however, hugely driveable and mostly satisfying. VAG’s turbo four-DSG powertrain calibrations are ever improving, with more flexibility in Normal mode and less hyperactivity in Sport and, again, the big-engine/small-package formula does Polo GTI many favours. But it’s not perfect, the former mode still chasing 1000rpm a little too keenly, the latter holding onto higher rpm more ardently you’d like at pace below ‘flat out’.
It’d be nice to tap the engine’s Sport response with the transmission’s Normal calibrations but you can’t, despite being able to dig in Individual personalisation and tweak six different parameters (Steering, Drive, ACC, Air-con, Engine sound and Sport Select suspension damping). We only sampled this powertrain at brisk road pace – it may well transform wrung out on track – but it’s also worth noting the DSG will upshift on its own accord, somewhat shy of the engine’s 6500rpm ‘target’, even in full Manual mode.
Some effort has gone into the GTI suspension tune over the regular Polo, including different geometry front and rear, and the standard fitment of two-mode Sport Select damping is an excellent inclusion at this price point. But it does use a torsion beam rear design: par for the compact hatch course, perhaps if a less-sophisticated application than a properly independent format.
The good news is that torsion beam rear is not a tangible anchor to GTI’s handling abilities. In holistic dynamic character, the mega Polo points obediently, sits flats and remains impressively composed when thrust through back country curve. At speeds that won’t risk your licence, it’s safe as houses and well tied down, particularly at the rear, and favours a more benign than frisky transit.
Thus pedaled, it really does present a Junior Golf GTI experience faithfully, but what’s lacking from the mix is that lively feistiness and razor-like pointiness found in, say, a Fiesta ST or Clio RS. Even without rivals in present company with which to compare, the Volkswagen seems to clearly favour a more rounded and more even on-road experience that some describe, accurately or otherwise, as a kind of maturity.
In either of the suspension’s two Sport Select modes – two switchable states of tune, though not real-time ‘adaptive’ per se – the bump and rebound characteristics are impressively resolved. It’s just bloody firm. In a smooth environment the ride of the chassis is hard to fault, but on the third-world byways of country New South Wales, where road maintenance seem wholly reliant on black chewing gum, the softer Normal mode can get quite fidgety, the Sport mode downright tiresome.
The caveat here is that I canvassed many other – usually younger – journos on launch and I was definitely the outlier when judging ride comfort. “It’s fine,” said the majority. But if you’re expecting plush company and intend to spend the majority of ownership tooling around town at 60km/h, don’t say I didn’t warn you…
The larger sidewalls of the 17-inch Michelin Primacy rubber takes a little brittleness out of the ride compared with the Bridgestone Turanzas fitted when opting for 18s and, yes, neither are close to heroic performance rubber in compound or design, both plying a modest 215mm of width to Mother Earth. But the level of road-holding available is very impressive. The only time we found the rubber begin to falter in grip was diving way too hot into hairpins or pinning the throttle flat through a fourth-gear sweeper.
As an all-round initial impression, the Polo 6 GTI really is surprise free if expectations are that of a modestly downsized hot Golf experience. Against its predecessors, this compact five-door is certainly a little more Golf and a little more convincingly true GTI. But, realistically, was it going to be anything else?
Well, yes, perhaps it could. Today there are growing expectations that small hot hatches should be properly fast and all-round accomplished, whereas the compact hot hatch fills a more affordable slot that prioritises fun and delivers large in an on-road forum at legal pace. Initial impressions suggest the compact Polo 6 GTI wants to push harder into small territory than many of its segment rivals, which will please some buyers immensely, yet potentially deter others. That's no criticism, mind, but purely observation.
At least, that's the observation of what is currently a single launch version offered with three preset packages (rather than individual options). I can’t help thinking this isn’t the pinnacle a Polo GTI could be for some buyers, even by somewhat superficial measures.
It starts with the silliness of not being able to opt a version with big wheels and Tartan trim, yet extends to areas where ride could be somewhat tamed and the engine could harden up a bit. There could be a choice of manual transmission. And that $30,990 buy-in point looks less like a killer bargain when the equipment list is fully dissected.
With Volkswagen Australia having already offered myriad variations of a fast Golf theme in its generation’s short lifecycle, you can bet a house the variety of choice in Polo 6 GTI will expand in future despite the limited pickings for variation in the last generation. While this new generation is certainly hugely impressive in many areas, perhaps its best is still to come.