You might find the idea of a hot hatch behaving in 'grown up' fashion to be an incongruous one, and in part I would agree. But the 2019 Volkswagen Polo GTI makes a convincing counterargument.
Owners of rivals such as the Renault Clio R.S, Ford Fiesta ST and Suzuki Swift Sport might wear plastered-on smiles after some wheel time, but they also need to make concessions to comfort, space and cabin presentation, respectively. Not so much, for those who buy the VW.
Likewise, while warmed-up versions of a bigger car such as the Hyundai i30 SR (now called ‘N Performance’ confusingly) and Kia Cerato GT indeed offer more space, they’re not the live-wire that the smaller Polo is. Nor are they that much more practical, as we will show.
The sixth-generation Polo's status as a 'miniaturised Golf' has been noted so often that it has become cliché, and yet the fundamental Golf-ness of the package is striking, meaning its knack for balancing dynamism with comfort, price with quality.
At the same time, while its bigger brother becomes more and more a tech showcase, the little Polo GTI does maintain the kind of (comparatively) stripped-back alacrity and a fun ethos that in many ways makes it the more ‘GTI’ choice. Graded on a curve…
On the other hand, 'character' may be hard to quantify, but to paraphrase a famed expression, 'you know it when you see it'. As ever, the VW's talents outweigh its charms. But that's subjective.
Just for fun, let's look at a comparison between the 2009 Golf GTI (Mk 5) that sold for $42,990 at launch, and the 2019 Polo GTI that, at the time of testing, wears a sticker of $31,990. We hope it's not unreasonable to think that the sort of buyer who once bought the former might now be wooed by the latter, much to the detriment of VW's margins.
Both have 1984cc engines making 147kW, and both use six-speed DSG transmissions. The Polo is two-tenths faster to 100km/h (6.7sec) thanks to its lighter weight and extra 40Nm of torque (320Nm), yet 25 per cent more fuel efficient (6.1L/100km, claimed). Even dimensionally there aren't huge differences: the Polo's wheelbase is only 18mm shorter, its overall length (4067mm) 149mm lower, and its 305L boot in the same ballpark.
It's also pretty heavy, though. Its 1285kg kerb weight is almost 300kg heftier than the Swift Sport.
Hopping into the cabin, a few elements grab you immediately. The luminous red plastic inserts on the dash, transmission tunnel and door handle surrounds will polarise (my two cents, the quality and visual impact are both most welcome), the tartan bucket seats are iconic, and the red-stitched leather steering wheel is made for the tactile.
Moreover, the quality is typically Teutonic. For example, the centre console is bolted to the floor so well that a draught horse couldn't make it wobble. And while the Polo GTI is in fact built in South Africa, the doors still have that typical resonant, Germanic thunk when closing.
The plastics mounted lower down are built to a cost, but major contact points are generally soft-touch or fabric. The sizes of the console, cupholders, and door bins are above average for the segment.
Standard fare includes a smartphone-style 8.0-inch screen that you can swipe, reverse camera, LED cabin lights, keyless access, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing windscreen wipers and aluminium pedals. In lieu of sat-nav, you need to plug your phone in and use either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, though given modern data plans and cell coverage, this isn't such a bugbear.
Safety-wise, you also get city AEB and a driver fatigue monitor, plus a handy tyre-pressure monitor. Built into the driver instrument display is a novel lap timer, though a 0–100km/h reader would be a cooler addition.
There are a few options on offer, starting with the $1400 Driver Assistance package that was fitted to our car. It adds adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts, park assist and Volkswagen's proactive occupant protection system to the mix. We're still at the point where charging extra for this tech in a relatively cheap car is acceptable.
The other option packages are less desirable to this writer, but may appeal to many. The issue is, once you tick the boxes, you're giving the entry-grade Golf GTI a nudge...
These include the $1900 Sound & Vision package that brings the Active Info Display (fully digitised instruments) for the driver, higher-spec Discover Media navigation infotainment system, Qi wireless charger and a 300W Beats Audio sound system. To be honest, the regular six-speaker system is fine, and the analogue gauges augmented by a centre-mounted digital speedo are crisp enough to suffice.
Meanwhile, the $3900 Luxury package gives you Alcantara/leatherette upholstery that's infinitely less charming than the tartan cloth, heated front seats, LED headlights and daytime-running lights, 18-inch 'Brescia' alloy wheels (17-inchers are standard), a panoramic sunroof (which adds weight, and reduces both head room and body stiffness) and tinted rear glass. Metallic or pearlescent paint is a $500 option across the range.
Read all about the pricing and specs here, as it's more detailed.
The back seats are pretty good for the segment, with decent head room and leg room for two 180cm adults, and ISOFIX anchors. The boot is more than 300L, which makes it closer to cars a whole segment up, though 46L shy of the lower-grade models with lower floors.
VW's claims really sell the point. The GTI has more head room and rear shoulder room than the (soon-to-be-replaced) Mazda 3, more front head room than a Hyundai i30, and a bigger boot than the new Toyota Corolla.
The spare wheel is a temporary speed-limited space saver, which saves weight and is better than a can of goo used to patch up punctures.
So, how does it drive? The EA888 2.0-litre turbocharged engine is closely related to that used in the Golf GTI, albeit with tempered outputs. The 147kW power peak is up 6kW over the outgoing Polo GTI, while that class-leading 320Nm peak torque figure is on tap between 1450 and 4390rpm. In other words, tractability is not really an issue.
The sole transmission is the six-speed double-clutch DSG automatic with paddles (that aren't nearly as lovely to hold as the Clio R.S's column-mounted units), which like it or lump it is what most buyers want today. Naturally, it's front-wheel drive.
Key to any GTI-badged product is flexibility. Put the car in Eco or Comfort modes and the throttle is deadened, the DSG shifts up gears earlier, and the steering and sound actuator/enhancer are rendered numb and quiet. Flick it to Sports mode, though, and the twin pipes get rortier, the sound-enhancing greater, the throttle snappier, and the DSG waits longer to upshift (though the ECU self-preserves and overrides you eventually).
The DSG generally behaved itself around town, though as ever you need to modulate your throttle inputs from standstill lest you chirp the front tyres.
The only real issue we experienced was a small apparent bug in the integration between the start/stop system and DSG. If you time it right, you can floor the throttle just after said stop/start system kills the engine, and if you get it 'right', the car gets bamboozled.
Case in point, which I flagged with VW Australia, was found on an on-ramp to Melbourne's Monash Freeway. The green light lets one car onto the freeway at a time. As such, I crawled forward, and almost the millisecond after the stop/start engaged, I got the go-ahead and hit the throttle. The car seemed unsure how to handle it, and just sat there until the car behind honked. Hmm...
On the subject of little bugs/features, the front parking sensors are typically sensitive, engaging (and dulling the audio) when you're still some distance from an object in car parks,. A small gripe, but after a while you'll be yelling at them to just calm down a smidge.
The driving modes also control the electronically controlled active dampers (albeit with only two settings), adding a little extra pliancy or stiffness to the ride, and subsequently sharpening or loosening the body control, depending on your mood. The differences are subtle, but the ability to take the edge off sharp hits like cobbles and potholes until you really want to get 'stuck in' is a blessing.
On the other hand, you can preset the Individual mode, which I did. In my case for average commutes, I had the suspension set to soft and everything else (including the adaptive cruise-control option) set to their most aggressive modes. Obnoxious? Yes. I'll take the wrap.
Dynamically, the GTI proved impressive. Our versions compared to base GTIs overseas get a larger front anti-roll bar, firmer steering rods and a 15mm lower stance, added to the familiar strut front suspension and twist-beam rear axle, replete with integrated anti-roll bar and separate springs.
Observations, after driving the GTI in isolation, are that while it's not as aggressively razor-like as the super-stiff Renault (though some moderate lift-off oversteer is allowed by VW's excellent ESC tune), or as nimble as the featherweight Swift, it's a hard-to-fault balance that gives you a modicum of comfort no matter what, an unusually 'planted' feel, and tied-down body control.
Meanwhile, the front brake-torque-vectoring system tames understeer unless you're driving at 12/10ths, and assists turn-in, though don't mistake it for the Golf GTI's proper front diff.
From an ownership perspective, Volkswagen has finally come to the table and made a five-year warranty permanent. There's also capped-price servicing with 12 months/15,000km intervals. The first three visits and the fifth visit cost $391, $524, $485 and $391, which is reasonable. The fourth service (four years/60,000km) costs $1243. Eep!
Nevertheless, to say I'm impressed with the Polo GTI (aka Mini Golf) is an understatement. Proverbial 'boy racers' may prefer a Clio, Swift or Fiesta's character – a side-product of each car's flaws – but the Volkswagen is the best pocket rocket to live with every day from a ride and handling perspective, and still delivers fun in spades.
Throw in class-leading cabin ambience and quality, great infotainment, plenty of safety tech and a veneer of sophistication and maturity, and it is objectively hard to look past. Unless you're truly a heart-over-head type of person.