The skinny: When the new Polo GTI arrived in 2011 it lacked one vital element that purists long for - a manual transmission. With the 2015 update, not only is there a slick six-speed box, but a bigger, gruntier 1.8-litre turbo-four filling in for the previous twincharged 1.4-litre.
There’s also a bit of undercover assassin about the Polo GTI. Styling is more subdued than you might expect from a zingy little hot hatch; but don’t be fooled - Volkswagen’s pocket rocket has more than a hint of ratbag in its DNA.
We love the newer, bigger engine and the snug sports buckets. There is a lot of micro-performance car here for a sub-$30k pricetag.
Vehicle Style: Light performance hatch
Price: $27,490 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 141kW/320Nm 1.8 4cyl turbo petrol | 6spd manual
Fuel Economy claimed: 6.1 l/100km | tested: 7.3 l/100km
Much has been written by war historians about the Q-ships of the First and Second World Wars: heavily armed vessels with the outward appearance of merchant ships. (And there is a link there to Q Branch in Bond novels...)
So, the connection to the Volkswagen Polo GTI?
Well, to look at, you may not think much of the tame-looking white hatchback in this review, but its subtle lines hide some serious performance weaponry. Point it at a winding road, and you'll discover it's an absolute Q-ship.
Starting from a competent base, the Polo GTI adds a high-output 1.8 litre four-cylinder turbo engine, as well as sports suspension and a few interior highlights to cap it all off.
And for three-pedal enthusiasts, the 2015 Polo GTI re-introduces a manual transmission, something that’s been missing since 2011. That can only be good news.
- Sports front seats, tartan cloth trim, leather-clad steering wheel, gearshift and handbrake with red stitching, cruise control, single-zone climate control, auto headlights and wipers, underseat storage, sports pedals, trip computer, heated exterior mirrors, 17-inch alloy wheels.
- Infotainment: 6.5-inch touchscreen, six-speaker audio, Aux and USB inputs, Bluetooth phone and audio. MY16 versions also gain Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a reversing camera.
- Luggage capacity: 280 litres (seats up) 952 litres (seats folded)
Love them or hate them, Volkswagen’s GTI tartan seats are here to stay, and they’re the first thing to grab your attention inside the Polo GTI. Probably the last thing too, as elsewhere in the cabin the Polo is as reserved as you’ll find.
The rest of the interior is like run-of-the-mill Polos. That means a well-fitted, well-trimmed interior, with a quality look and feel to the dash and doors.
There’s also a neat, flat-bottomed, three-spoke, leather clad steering wheel with new multi-function controls that make navigating the audio, cruise control, and trip computer functions simpler than before .
Front seats offer chunky side-bolstering and offer catcher's-mitt levels of grip. Getting settled behind the wheel is quick and easy, and there’s no low-set 'boy racer' seating position to overcome.
The rear bench isn’t quite so sporting, a nice-enough but flat three-place bench back there. Headroom scores well, and even legroom isn’t poor, but the physical limitations of a car its size means the Polo is happier with no more than two in the rear.
There’s also the expected racey highlights, like leather trim on the steering wheel, gearknob and handbrake, and plenty of red contrast stitching splashed across those items as well as the seats.
Somewhat sporty, but restrained above all else.
Practicality is 'as per' the regular Polo range. Boot space measures 280 litres, but the folding rear seats expand that to a maximum of 952 litres.
There’s also a two-stage boot floor that can be used to hide smaller items, or dropped down for extra depth.
Inside the cabin, glovebox and door pockets are generous, but the centre armrest is a little tight-on for storage.
ON THE ROAD
- 141kW/320Nm 1.8 litre turbo petrol four-cylinder
- Six-speed manual transmission, front wheel drive
- MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear suspension
- Four-wheel disc brakes
- Electric power steering
- 17-inch alloy wheels, 2015/40 R 17 tyres
Continuing the interior’s subtle theme, the first impressions from behind the wheel are just as sedate. Slide the key into the ignition, give it a twist, and there’s no wild fanfare.
Instead the Polo GTI settles into a calm, quiet idle. Subterfuge is the secret here, because there’s a potential 141kW at 6200rpm, and 320Nm spread from 1450-4200rpm from the GTI’s 1.8 litre turbo four.
Those numbers, in this light little package, make this Polo a pointy little pencil.
It’s also a handy gain over the 132kW 1.4 litre engine it replaces, and also scores a lot of extra torque compared to the 250Nm of the DSG equipped automatic version.
Dig deep into the Polo’s reserves and you will be rewarded with a lightly brattish exhaust note.
The little GTI is also one of those lucky cars that can prove its mettle at law-abiding speeds, with a lively feel and plenty of poke. When overtaking, it is just a matter of pointing it at the hole, then fire.
For those chasing performance figures, a 6.7 second 0-100km/h sprint isn’t too far off the larger Golf GTI.
The engaging manual transmission is a delight to use. It features a well-defined gate, and a solid action. There’s no vagueness, and no missed shifts.
Clutch weighting carries the right amount of heft without being burdensome. It’s a gem to use on any flowing road, without being a chore in shuffling city traffic.
Steering feels alert, and solidly planted. The front wheels are quick to respond to driver inputs, and the XDL electronic diff-lock works really effectively to counter torque steer and understeer.
Firmer, lower sports suspension ties the front and rear of the Polo GTi down securely. There’s little in the way of body-roll through bends.
If you prefer a bit of looseness in the twisty stuff however, the buttoned-down Polo may disappoint.
So, while it isn’t showy, it rarely puts a foot wrong. The Polo GTI’s chassis electronics and handling package concentrate on grip and taut handling, and deliver in spades.
The Fiesta ST claims 134kW (with a 147kW overboost function) and manages to scramble from 0 to 100 in 6.9 seconds. Of those three though, none muster more than 290Nm, so the 320Nm Polo holds the advantage.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - this model scored 34.96 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: Six airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners with load limiters, active front headrests, ABS, brake assist, electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, and electronic stability control.
MY16 versions also gain a reversing camera as standard.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
Europe still turns out the best and broadest selection of light, fiesty, fun cars. Involving manual transmissions are the norm from the Peugeot 208 GTi and Ford Fiesta ST, which, like the Polo GTI, also both arrive in a three-door body.
For something with a bit more size but no less sizzle, try the Kia Pro_Cee’d GT (consider it a wildcard entrant). If practicality rules, there’s also the five-door, auto only Clio RS 200 for a different take on the rorty theme.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
You may also like to know, the car tested here is an MY15 version. Cars arriving in the country now wear an MY16 designation - that brings with it Sport Select adaptive suspension, a standard reverse-camera, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and MirrorLink connectivity.
That means that for the same starting price you get even more packed into the compact Polo. And the adaptive suspension brings new levels of comfort and dynamic ability.
Tapping the Sport Select button also brings changes to throttle response, steering weight and the sound actuator.
This is a very well-rounded performance package, the Polo GTI (and the extra equipment included on newer versions only enhances that).
It is comfortable enough for the daily commute, offers beautifully taut handling, but isn’t bone jarring, and is plenty of fun without being a scoundrel.
Secure roadholding and deceptive speed make the smallest member of Volkswagen’s GTI clan something of an undercover assassin.
And the move away from the problematic 1.4 litre turbo and supercharged engine to a member of the EA888 engine family (which can also be found in the Golf GTI) should remove some of the previous model’s reliability qualms.
It won’t suit all stripes, but for anyone shopping for a petite funster under $30k, the Polo GTI is certainly a neat way to fly.