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Can the new Polo GTI close the gap to its legendary bigger brother?

Like an earnest younger sibling desperate to mimic the successes of an over-achieving older brother or sister, imagine the weight of expectations placed on more youthful members of Volkswagen’s growing GTI family. As the venerable Golf GTI celebrates its 41st year of continued success, its smaller Polo-based clan member has struggled to find a balance between playing to its segment-related strengths and doing justice to a badge lauded for its inherent poise and modern-day hot-hatch versatility.


It’s not that the first two Polo GTI attempts sold in our market (the Mk4 and Mk5) weren’t good cars in their own right. It’s just that neither quite managed to match the same levels of all-conquering roundedness associated with the GTI badge.

Unlike the previous two versions, the planning for the latest GTI derivative began at the developmental stages of the sixth-generation Polo. Harnessing the strengths of Volkswagen’s MQB AO platform, the new flagship GTI model has been introduced early on in the Mk6 Polo’s lifecycle in order to better complement the rest of the range as it evolves.

 

Built for the first time in SA at VW’s plant in Uitenhage, the newest GTI distinguishes itself from other Polos via suitably upgraded garb, including the red-badged Polo’s bespoke body kit stretching the car’s profile by 14 mm, distinctive 17-inch alloys, signature red highlighting and a honeycomb grille. There is a notable under-the-skin revision, too: an uprated sports suspension (including new anti-roll bar and damper settings) that lowers the ride height by 15 mm.

 

Complementing class-leading levels of perceived build quality, the flagship Polo’s interior gains snug sport seats, neat red highlighting and a leather-bound, flat-bottom steering wheel lifted straight from the Golf GTI’s parts bin. Of the optional extras fitted to our test unit, we’d forego the Luxury Package (climate control and keyless entry) in favour of the similarly priced (R8 676) second-generation Active Info Display replacing a traditional instrument cluster with a crisp, highly configurable digital display screen.

 

Where large sections of our two previously published Polo 6 range tests (here and here) were dedicated to managing the complicated intricacies of VW’s latest-generation 1,0-litre TSI drivetrains – our feelings remain that the outgoing 1,2 TSI offered a better blend of performance and refinement – there are no such considerations with the GTI. Bucking the global trend towards downsizing, the new flagship Polo has been fitted with the brand’s familiar EA888 turbo-charged 2,0-litre engine mated exclusively with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission (VWSA is unlikely to offer the manual version here). Tuned to offer 147 kW – as per the Golf 5 GTI – there’s also a healthy 320 N.m of torque available between 1 500 and 4 400 r/min.

 

While the claimed 0-100 km/h sprint time of the new car is the same (6,7 seconds) as the outgoing 141 kW/250 N.m 1,8 TSI Polo GTI, on our test strip the Mk6 recorded a best time of 6,65 seconds compared with the 6,97-second figure achieved in a road test of the older model.

 

More significant than this straight-line figure, though, is the way VW has managed to mimic the delicate balance between performance and everyday usability which has earned the Golf GTI its stellar reputation. Building on the already more accomplished underpinnings of the new Polo (including a longer wheelbase), the GTI gains both wider tracks front and rear, and the XDS electronic differential from the standard Golf 7 GTI.


Together with new front-suspension knuckles and a stiffer rear torsion beam, we’d go so far as to say that the optional two-setting damper control (R5 044) offered in our market is unnecessary. Its firmest setting will likely prove tiresome; the default setup strikes an already impressive balance between everyday comfort and astute body control. Here, the fast Polo impresses with sharp turn-in and a corresponding lightness at the rear that lends it a more playful nature than before.

A welcome inclusion in the menu of drive modes is an individual setting allowing for the configuration of the car’s various driving modes through steering weight, throttle response and (should it be fitted) damper settings.

 

If we have one complaint, it’s an exhaust note with both a tendency to drone at cruising speeds in sport mode and which doesn’t offer quite the same levels of aural satisfaction with each gearshift as it does in the more powerful Golf derivatives.

TEST SUMMARY

As we've come to expect, each version of the new Polo we've encountered has managed to improve on the already impressive (and class-leading) model it has replaced. And the latest GTI continues this trend.

 

Surefooted in its dynamics and well built, the new car takes a giant step forward as a bona fide member of the GTI family, coming closer than ever to matching the virtues exuded by its more famous bigger brother. That its local assembly means its cheaper than before is merely a bonus.

 

Also, built on a modern platform and using a drivetrain we know from experience can handle more, you have to wonder if VW might launch an even more focused Polo GTI package to pre-empt a potential change of heart from Ford SA, which will not be launching the new Fiesta ST locally.    

 

*From the September 2018 issue of CAR magazine

 

ROAD TEST SCORE
Polo Volkswagen GTI
81 / 100
  • Price: R398,400
  • 0-100 km/h: 6.7
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 147 KW @ 4400-6000
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 320 N.m @ 1500-4350
  • Top speed: 237
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 5.9 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 134 g/KM

The range-topping Polo Highline derivative proves Volkswagens celebrated small hatch isn’t quite perfect...


Its often the case that, even before you drive a vehicle, you have a fairly good idea of how the road test will turn out. This may be based on a colleague’s feedback from said vehicle’s international launch a few months prior, or it could be because we’ve already sampled another derivative in an earlier test. Both instances apply in this case.

However, life, as they say, is full of little surprises.

 

We’ll get to that, but first a recap on what we know. This, of course, is the latest-generation Volkswagen Polo, a car which, in 1,0 TSI Comfortline manual guise, we evaluated in a first drive at the start of 2018. That 70 kW derivative received a resounding thumbs-up from the CAR team, scoring 82/100 in the magazine test (February 2018) and garnering praise for its refined ride, excellent fit and finish, class-leading interior design and infotainment tech, and frugal habits. Basically, it’s a vehicle that, rather than exhibiting a generational leap, has seen marginal gains over its predecessor in just about every area. It’s now more of a mini-Golf than ever and surely that can only be a good thing.

 

Until the arrival of the 2,0-litre GTI model, the subject of this test is the current range-topper, the 1,0 TSI Highline. Whereas all models in the current Polo range share VW’s 999 cm3 turbopetrol engine, the version in the two Highline derivatives is tuned to deliver an extra 15 kW and 25 N.m. This more powerful engine is – like the 70 kW DSG – mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

 

Externally, there’s little to distinguish this top-spec Polo other than the 16-inch Las Minas alloys. That said, look carefully at the rear wheels and you will notice disc brakes, as opposed to the drums on the lesser models.

 

Apart from the engine upgrade, it’s inside where the Highline’s superior status is apparent, with some extra spec over the Comfortline model. This includes cloth-trimmed “sport seats” (Art Veloru leather trim is an option) and a front centre armrest with storage box and cupholder at the rear. Highline also gets you an upgraded Composition Media infotainment system with a bigger eight-inch display (as opposed to 6,5 inches), app connect functionality and voice control. Ambient interior lighting is standard, as is cruise control with a speed limiter.

 

Our test unit also came equipped with blind-spot assist, parallel-park assist, a rear-view camera, park assist with PDC, and Climatronic air-con – all options adding round R25 000 to the sticker price – as well as the metallic Energetic Orange paint (R950).

 

Finally, then, to the drivetrain and essentially the crux of this test … and the little surprise alluded to earlier.

 

Any three-cylinder engine is going to draw immediate comparisons to Ford’s benchmark 1,0 EcoBoost. A multiple World Engine of the Year winner, the Ford’s punchy little unit has set the standards for refinement and efficiency. As noted in our test of the Polo 1,0 TSI Comfortline’s 70 kW version, VW’s unit isn’t quite as smooth and, now mated to the DSG ‘box, this characteristic has only been amplified.

 

At a normal application of throttle input, the transmission selects the next ratio at between 1 500 and 1 800 r/min. For this three-cylinder unit, those are revs that, to the ear, instinctively sound too low and the engine appears to labour. It gives the drivetrain a rough quality and is likely a calibration chosen for better fuel consumption, but unfortunately at the expense of driveability. Regardless, it was an attribute immediately picked by all in the CAR team and highlighted on our test-feedback sheets. All preferred the previous, smoother 1,2-litre turbopetrol.

 

The Highline does come with a sport drive mode you can access via a button next to the gear selector offering eco, normal, sport and individual modes; these alter steering weighting (marginally) and throttle/transmission mapping. Sport mode for the throttle/transmission can also be accessed by pulling the selector itself down one notch further. Sport mode does allow the DSG ‘box to hold onto a ratio for a little longer and it was the preferred setting for all who tested the car.

 

However, plant your foot and our performance testing indicated it makes no difference what mode you’re in; in-gear acceleration times to 140 km/h in sport and normal were identical. To put it into context, this 85 kW 1,0-litre Polo was just under a second quicker to 100 km/h than its 70 kW manual sibling (11,05 versus 11,88 seconds), and 2,5 seconds brisker to 140 km/h (22,06 versus 24,56 seconds).

 

Helped by its rear disc brakes, the Highline’s 100-0 km/h time is an impressive 2,79 seconds, taking an average distance of just 37,44 metres to come to a halt. However, there were a few testers’ notes that highlighted the brakes as being  overly sensitive.

TEST SUMMARY

This test of the top-spec Highline Polo has shown our new Top 12 Best Buys winner is not quite perfect. Whereas its supple and refined ride, excellent damping and balanced, neutral handling keep it a step ahead of the competition, as does both the excellent fit, finish and contemporary ergonomic design of its interior, the drivetrain does let it down. Simply put, the DSG transmission doesn't feel properly calibrated to the engine and tends to highlight the VW 1,0-litre's weaknesses. And this does leave the current king-of-the-hill Polo vulnerable to what, by all accounts, is an excellent seventh-generation Ford Fiesta... 

 

*From the April 2018 issue of CAR magazine

 

ROAD TEST SCORE
Polo Volkswagen hatch 1.0TSI Highline
77 / 100
  • Price: R292,800
  • 0-100 km/h: 9.5
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 85 KW @ 5000
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 200 N.m @ 2000-3500
  • Top speed: 200
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 4.7 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 107 g/KM

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