16 Oct 2018

Volkswagen Polo GTI 2018 new car review

A more convincing but more expensive hot hatch
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Polo has long been pricey to play, but it hasn’t always been this expensive to steer a Volkswagen Polo GTI.

The 2018 Polo GTI now starts at $30,990 plus on-road costs – and plus options. Fully loaded, the light hot hatchback tested here adds $8600 to that pricetag for the sort of coin typically reserved for small hot hatches from the segment up, such as Volkswagen’s own Golf GTI.

It may seem like big dollars, but then today’s Volkswagen Polo is a big lass.

Example? The Polo GTI tested here has 18-inch alloy wheels and 320Nm of torque from its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, from $31K. A decade ago the Golf GTI had 17s and made 280Nm from a same-sized engine, while asking $42K as a five-door automatic. This GTI may be pricier than models past, then, but could it actually be better value than ever?

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Vehicle Style: Hot hatchback

Price: $30,990 plus on-road costs

Engine/trans: 147kW/320Nm 2.0-litre turbo 4cyl | six-speed dual-clutch automatic

Fuel Economy Claimed: 6.1 l/100km Tested: 8.2 l/100km

OVERVIEW

The new-generation Polo GTI is a six-speed dual-clutch automatic-only proposition in Australia, despite being available with a six-speed manual transmission overseas. That’s disappointing, mostly because light hot hatches should excel at affordability and attainability, while their typically effervescent personalities usually gel with rowing your own gears.

On the other hand, this ‘light’ Volkswagen now stretches over four metres from tip to toe (4053mm to be exact) and it boasts a 305-litre boot volume barely adrift of a Mazda3 from the next segment up. Check the Options Fitted section below, and note the swathe of technology newly fitted to this model, highlights of which include a panoramic sunroof, premium audio, heated front seats, auto reverse-park assistance and adaptive cruise control.  

Fully loaded, at $38,190 (plus orc) as tested, this Polo GTI surely needs to be more than just fleeting fun – it’s targeting a bit of luxury, with a wad of technology, and newfound space.

At this point it certainly is a world away from the similarly new, and rather excellent, Suzuki Swift Sport that costs between $25,490 and $27,490 (plus orc) with manual or automatic.

THE INTERIOR | RATING: 4.0/5

Standard Equipment: Keyless auto-entry with push-button start and electric-folding door mirrors, automatic on/off headlights and wipers, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, and power windows and mirrors.

Infotainment: 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring and eight speakers.

Options Fitted: $3900 Luxury Package (part-leather trim, heated front seats, LED headlights, 18-inch alloy wheels, panoramic sunroof and tinted rear windows), $1900 Sound and Vision Package (colour driver display, satellite navigation and 300-watt Beats audio), and $1400 Driver Assistance Package (adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert and auto reverse-park assistance).

Cargo Volume: 305 litres.

It feels as though, from a value perspective, the three option packages available in the Polo GTI should be reduced to two. For $31K, arguably equipment such as satellite navigation and LED headlights should be standard, while even ticking the Luxury Package fails to add proper leather trim or electrically adjustable front seats – there’s still only manual-adjust.

For $38K-plus as-tested, this Volkswagen’s interior otherwise appears comprehensively specified but also a bit cheap. The blue exterior colour of our test car contrasts neatly, almost in a Mini’s Union Jack kinda way, with the metallic red applique that enlivens the dashboard.

There’s also the terrific, high-resolution 8.0-inch touchscreen and second-generation colour driver display complementing each other nicely, whereas the first-gen item of the latter in the Golf GTI is too low in resolution and its graphics appear dated. Being able to zoom in and out of a map ahead of the driver is superb, too, sealing the Polo GTI as ergonomically ideal.

Indeed, one of the only exceptions is wireless smartphone charging that proved fickle to use – jump over a speed hump and the phone will shimmy off its pad and fail to connect, for example. The Beats audio system is decent, but no more, the sat-nav lacks proper voice control and a digital radio is unavailable, though this is more critique than criticism given that the inclusion of integrated nav and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto results in plenty of options.

There is, however, also considerable evidence that this light hatch started life as a sub-$20K entry-level model. While the dashboard is mostly soft-form plastic, the door trims are entirely hard and scratchy, especially for back passengers whose doors even miss cloth trim inserts.

Such rear riders also miss out on overhead roof grabhandles, a centre armrest and air vents, although the amount of legroom on offer is the most generous in the segment by some margin. In a Swift Sport, or Renault Sport Clio, passengers three to five will be squished.

Neither of those rivals can quite off the capacious boot of this Volkswagen, either, though it’s worth noting that extra exhaust hardware pushes up the boot floor of this GTI only, reducing capacity from the standard Polo’s 351L to just 305L.

ON THE ROAD | RATING: 4.0/5

Engine: 147kW/320Nm 1.8-litre petrol 4cyl.

Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic, FWD.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front and torsion bar rear.

Brakes: Ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes.

Steering: Electrically assisted mechanical steering.

Almost a decade ago, a Golf GTI was criticised for its ride quality when the standard 17-inch alloy wheels were optioned to larger 18s. It became jiggly, it was said. Now, however, the Polo GTI arrives with standard 17s and optional 18s as tested here, but with two-mode adaptive suspension also included for the price, no matter what size of alloy has been chosen.

 

What it means is that this ‘baby’ Volkswagen rides authoritatively, but with a nicely rounded comfort level, at all times. Choose these better-looking 18s with confidence, then, because the GTI rides like it should whether around town or on a country road – although the alternative Sport mode should probably be left to smooth twisty roads or a racetrack, really.

Despite being ostensibly comfortable, the Polo also has a slightly different personality to the Golf, which is exactly as it should be. It does feel a little tighter, firmer, more buttoned down and agile. There’s never the sense that it has become too big or weighty, which is great.

There is, however, the sense that this light hot hatch has become very fast. Maybe a touch fewer sound deadening measures than its small hot hatch brother helps here, but the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder sounds quite raspy and adds to the impression of speed. The claimed 6.7-second 0-100km/h feels if anything conservative, given how well the engine responds to a flattened throttle pedal from either a standing start or when overtaking.

Although there is no manual (boo, hiss) the six-speed dual-clutch auto did improve in our estimations over this week-long test. Okay, you do need to ‘drive around’ its flaws. In regular ‘D’ mode it slurs to the tallest possible gear, making the engine feel flat and throttle doughy. Conversely the alternative ‘S’ mode can be too frenetic for urban driving, yet it isn’t aggressive enough for properly sporty driving. What is required is somewhere between the two for around town, and something more aggressive for country roads, but alas it isn’t so.

Instead, as with a manual, predicting your next traffic move is essential. Bump the transmission lever down once to engage ‘S’ before going for full throttle, and the Polo GTI will be primed to deliver the sort of performance few rivals, or bigger cars, will match. That gap in traffic? It’s all yours.

The Bridgestone Turanza 18s just manage to scrabble, rather than chirp, off the line in response to full throttle, but 320Nm of torque from 1450rpm does highlight the lack of a limited-slip differential (LSD – now standard in Golf GTI) when exiting tight bends. Patience is required, or understeer wash will occur.

Handling-wise, this smallest GTI is at its best maintaining corner speed on entry, where it feels close to unflappable and then nicely balanced beyond that point. It feels pointy, agile, as it should. The only other caveats concern otherwise sharp steering that lacks some meaningful tactility, plus a 1285kg kerb weight that means the Polo never feels as light on its feet as a 970kg Swift Sport, for example.

Even so, the Volkswagen delivered 8.2 litres per 100 kilometres on-test, which isn’t much for its significant performance returns.

SAFETY

ANCAP rating: Not tested.

Safety Features: Six airbags, ABS and ESC, forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), rear parking sensors and reverse-view camera.

WARRANTY AND SERVICING

Warranty: Three years/unlimited km

Servicing: Annual or 15,000km servicing intervals cost $410, $613 and $475 for each of the first three check-ups.

RIVALS TO CONSIDER

The three-door 208 GTi is not long for its world, but it goes out with a manual - and LSD- equipped farewell edition from $33,990 driveaway – it’s an absolute blast for that cash.

Meanwhile the similarly auto-only RS Clio is feeling its age, and while it has better steering than the Polo, its drivetrain isn’t as strong and it lacks cabin finish and kit by comparison.

The real surprise packet of this segment is the Swift Sport, which is just the lightest, most fruity ball of fun to drive and all for sub-$26K – it can’t match this GTI for refinement and technology, but its myopic focus on the driver stays true to the classic hot hatch formula.

  • Peugeot 208 GTi
  • Renault Sport Clio
  • Suzuki Swift Sport

TMR VERDICT | OVERALL RATING: 4.0/5

In some ways the Polo GTI still feels like an entry-level light hatch tarted up, and in this case with pricing extended right up into small hot hatch territory. Thankfully, however, what it uses as its base is terrific, with the space and (optional) technology to shine even at this cost.

Indeed, Volkswagen is giving buyers two clear ways to spend close to $40K – on either a run-out three-door Golf GTI Original with less equipment but a higher standard of finish, even sweeter dynamics and similar performance; or this Polo GTI, feeling a bit smaller and cheaper but absolutely loaded to the hilt with kit. The choice is yours.

With this particular model, though, some options should be standard (such as sat-nav and LED headlights) while a manual transmission would help avoid the need to drive around the slight issues with the existing dual-clutch auto.

In the greater scheme of things, though, they’re small issues for this now not-so-small hot hatch, which really does merge classic fun with newfound comfort and tech to make for a broader personality than before.

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