CAPE TOWN – While the Volkswagen Polo GTI's arch-rival, the Ford Fiesta ST, has somewhat controversially downsized to a turbo-triple displacing just 1,5 litres, Wolfsburg has taken the opposite approach with its B-segment blaster. Yes, this fresh-faced, GTI-badged Polo draws its urge from a version of the 2,0-litre four-cylinder EA888 engine that has become exceedingly familiar to Golf GTI fans.
Steadily upsizing (interestingly, at the expense of CO2 emissions and claimed fuel consumption) from the 1,8-litre unit in the outgoing model and the twin-charged 1,4-litre mill before that, this new Polo GTI has been tuned to deliver 147 kW (as it did in the Golf 5 GTI) – an increase of just six kilowatts over its predecessor’s 1 798 cm3 engine. Sure, VW could have squeezed more out of its ubiquitous 2,0-litre turbo-four, but that would have seen it treading firmly on the toes of the larger, heavier Golf GTI … in reality, something it comes almost uncomfortably close to doing anyway.
Besides, it’s in the torque stakes that this new Polo GTI has taken its largest stride forward. Fitted as standard with a wet six-speed DSG transmission (as opposed to the old model’s dry seven-speed arrangement), the direct-injection powerplant offers the front axle a heady 320 N.m, besting the DSG-equipped version of the previous model by a considerable 70 N.m (note that while a six-speed manual is apparently in the works, VW SA suggested to us that it would likely not be offered on local soil due to a lack of demand).
The most obvious consequence of this added dollop of twist, which is spread evenly between a handily low 1 500 r/min and 4 400 r/min, is increased in-gear tractability, which both provides the hot hatch with additional zing when accelerating out of corners and lends it convincing ease-of-use in everyday driving conditions. What it hasn’t done, however, is improve the claimed 0-100 km/h time, which remains at 6,7 seconds.
Still, hot hatchery is about more than mere straight-line bragging rights; yes, when the tarmac turns twisty, an entry-level performance hatchback should really come into its own. Here, objectively at least, the new Polo GTI doesn’t disappoint, displaying impressive composure and body control through both low- and high-speed bends, thanks in part to the standard electronic differential lock and the R5 050 optional Sport Select suspension set-up (incorporating dual-mode dampers) fitted to our test unit.
Balancing dynamics and comfort
But while it’s exceedingly forgiving to drive fast, it’s not quite as amusing to hustle through a set of curves as, say, the outgoing (and particularly pointy) Fiesta ST. The flip side, of course, is that the Polo GTI is the more compelling everyday car, more content to settle down and absorb the stresses that accompany heavy traffic or family lugging. In this regard, it helps too that the five-door Polo GTI – which delivers a firm yet pleasingly absorbent ride in the Sport Select’s default setting, even on optional 18-inch alloys (R5 550) – is offered in dual-clutch guise from the get-go.
Left to its own devices in normal mode, the gearbox goes about its business with little fuss, shifting smoothly and doing a commendable job of mimicking something a little more, well, ordinary. With the sport setting engaged, cog-swapping becomes noticeably more urgent (and the exhaust note a little more gung-ho), although frustratingly the transmission’s built-in nannies will upshift well before redline even when in manual mode.
The Polo GTI has long been one of the more conservative offerings in the segment, and that tradition continues both in terms of its balance of performance and liveability and its understated styling. The roomier cabin, too, isn’t particularly shouty – the most noticeable additions here are subtle red stitching, comfortable sports seats and red facia trim (the latter curiously not available in conjunction with Flash Red, one of four exterior paint options) – but fit and finish is excellent. Options here include Discover Media navigation (R12 150), the second-generation version of VW’s superb active info display (R8 650), a panoramic sunroof (R10 550) and leather upholstery with heating for the front pews (R9 850).
And the price?
Remarkably, as we pointed out in our pricing scoop story late in May 2018, the new Polo GTI is slightly cheaper than its predecessor at R375 900, thanks largely to the fact that it’s now built at Uitenhage here in South Africa, rather than sourced from Spain as before. That sees it undercut the R392 900 Renault Clio RS 200 Lux and R459 780 self-shifting Mini Cooper S in an unusually quiet segment (the Opel Corsa OPC and Peugeot 208 GTi have long since exited our market), with VW SA bullishly aiming for 150 sales a month.
The long-in-the-tooth Ford Fiesta ST, of course, is still available locally (exclusively in manual, three-door form) for R329 200, with the untested next-generation, three-cylinder ST scheduled to touch down on SA shores only at some point in 2019. Whether this new version will match the outgoing model’s outrageous fun factor and class-leading dynamics remains to be seen.
But, until then, with an engine that has grown and a price-tag that has shrunk, the new Volkswagen Polo GTI looks destined to have things its own way. Some may decry its comparatively conservative demeanour and VW’s decision to favour the clinically quick over the outright visceral, but the fact that this refined Polo GTI has edged ever closer to the venerable Golf GTI – to within touching distance of its R548 600 bigger brother in terms of pace, space and usability ... but crucially not price – will only serve to further endear it to South Africa’s countless GTI fanatics. For now, at least, bigger is better.