Can the spirit of the original hot hatch – Volkswagen’s Golf GTI – be distilled into a smaller, nippier, cheaper package? That’s been the goal of the performance Golf’s little brother, the Polo GTI, for over twenty years. The thing is, the Polo has never drawn that close to the Golf on key metrics like refinement, comfort or clip – until now. The 2019 Volkswagen Polo GTI is the most convincing pacey pocket-rocket VW have ever built, thanks to two substantial upgrades: the refined chassis shared with the new Mk 6 Polo range, and the shunting of a big two-litre turbo – a detuned Golf GTI engine – under the bonnet. But this more muscly Polo doesn’t just do a good miniaturised Golf GTI act – it has its own entertaining persona as well.
Chasing Cars attended the national launch of the Mk 6 Polo GTI on the New South Wales North Coast this week and found much to like in this handsome new hot hatch, which sports a 147kW/320Nm tune of Volkswagen’s well-regarded ‘EA888’ 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, which directs power to the front wheels through the six-speed wet clutch DSG automatic gearbox that has scored our approval in vehicles like the outgoing 169kW Golf GTI, and the larger Passat 206TSI midsizer. No manual is offered on the Polo GTI at launch, and prospects of a stick-shift coming later are slim. Like in the 2019 Golf GTI and Golf R lineup, it’s DSG or nothing.
The lack of a manual is a pretty niche concern, in our books. The six-speed wet-clutch is the best DSG Volkswagen make – better than the newer seven-speed – and once you understand the quirks and intricacies of its operation (and there are a few), you can drive the Polo GTI hard and fast without the gearbox getting in the way. The tuning of the dedicated Normal and Sport gearbox modes still isn’t perfect, but the failure to secure a manual won’t keep Volkswagen product planners awake at night. Should one come along in future, though, it would certainly add another element of driver involvement in exploiting the pearler of an engine.
Ditching the old 1.8-litre in favour of the beefier 2.0-litre used in the Golf GTI and Golf R – albeit with less power, the 147kW matching the late-2000s Mk 5 Golf GTI, and 320Nm of torque eclipsing that car – is an inspired choice. Delivering a 6.7-second 0-100km/h sprint, the new Polo GTI feels fast and has a very impressive mid-range, making light work of 80-120km/h pinned acceleration runs. In this small, sub-1,300kg package, the EA888 engine is an inspired inclusion. Efficient, too – a whole day of hard driving consumed just 8.5L/100km.
It sounds good, too – and here, the Polo GTI has its own character, eclipsing the Golf GTI’s more subtle exhaust note with a meaner burble at idle, increasing to a rorty crescendo in the higher reaches of the tacho. There is some induction noise and turbo whistle that doesn’t go astray, and if you like it even louder, the stereo can pump in a bit more noise through the speakers – but this addition is deactivated by default.
But the way the Polo GTI handles harks right back to this car’s aim of recreating Golf GTI vibes at a $15,000-lower pricepoint. Find a curving set of switchbacks and punt the Polo’s crisp front-end into it, and most of the hallmarks of the Golf GTI’s dynamics can be easily distilled. There’s similarly quick and communicative steering, a delicate chassis balance that is easily disrupted and adjusted with some trail braking and aggressive pedalling, and an overall feeling of lightness. When you find a brilliant piece of road, the Polo GTI strings together a set of corners in a fashion that is a close (but imperfect) facsimile of its bigger brother.
Only the Polo’s inferior torsion beam rear suspension – in place of the multi-link independent rear of the Golf – dilutes the comparison. The Golf uses its rear end to much aplomb in fast cornering, and the Polo’s fixed setup means it’s slightly less easy to predict and manipulate at will. This is slim pickings, though, as many drivers will not approach the ten-tenths driving we subjected the car to in the corners around Byron Bay.
But the big problem with the Polo GTI’s dynamics is an easily fixable one: the standard tyres. By default, the GTI rides on 17-inch 215/45 size Michelin Primacy 3 rubber. Put simply, it’s under-tyred. Given the high limits of the Polo GTI’s impressive chassis, the Michelins cannot keep up, generating big wash and understeer, especially in uphill cornering where you have less recourse to the brake pedal to correct the angle by gently tipping the back-end around.
These are the optional wheels and tyres you’ll really want.
Thankfully, a $3,900 Luxury Package that adds not only a few additional creature comforts (a panoramic sunroof, LED headlights, and heated seats), but also better wheels and tyres. The included 18-inch ‘Bresica’ wheels look far more serious and roll in 215/40 Bridgestone Turanza T001 tyres – still not a high-end performance tyre, but several degrees more capable than the Michelins. On the Turanzas, the Polo GTI was a far better partner on a mountain pass. Oddly, the lower-profile tyres also slightly increased the Polo’s compliance.
That compliance is just okay. The plushness of the everyday Mk 6 Polo models – the sub-$20k Trendline and Comfortline – disappears on the Polo GTI, which sports standard two-mode adaptive dampers. The ‘Normal’ ride setting is bearable but a little choppy around town, though it retains a bit more body roll at higher speed which you can use to your advantage in a car like this. The second ‘Sport’ setting is just too thumpy and crashy.
Equally, overall noise, vibration and harshness is good for the light car class, though a member of that class the Polo remains. A Golf (or an i30, an Astra, et cetera) from the size class above have more hushed cabins, and the hard plastics, lack of grab handles and slightly vibey nature of the Polo on hard surfaces remind you that this car starts life as inexpensive transportation. At $19,990 it’s good, though at $30,990 – as here – you’d have to be into your hot hatches to accept the just-acceptable refinement.
The aforementioned harder plastics aside, there is little to complain about inside the five-door-only Polo GTI. The dash-top is soft, at least, and overall the cabin is excellent, logically laid out, simple and attractive to the eye. The GTI lifts the conservative colouring of its range peers by adding lots of red trim pieces and Volkswagen’s chunky ‘performance’ steering wheel, replete with red stitching. Aluminium pedals are included and the standard tartan seats look great and offer lots of support – with lumbar on both front seats. Sadly, the Luxury Package that brings a much-needed tyre upgrade removes the tartan seats, replacing them with nondescript monochrome versions.
The technology offer in here is class leading, with a very crisp standard 8-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The lack of integrated navigation is a bit nickel-dimey; it’s part of a $1,900 Sound and Vision Package that adds a suite of great options: the second-generation Active Info Display digital driver gauges (which now lets you see a properly full-size map in your line of sight), wireless phone charging, and a powerful, bassy Beats-branded stereo that sounds good.
The back seats are roomy and easily accessed, with exposed Isofix points for two baby seats. But bigger people fit, too – despite measuring little more than 4 metres in length, the Mk 6 Polo is brilliantly packaged, with generous headroom and legroom for six-foot adults. Best keep it to four here, though, as this is a narrow car with only a tiny perch for a middle seat. There are five seatbelts provided. What isn’t provided is air vents – even on this $31k vehicle – or a flip-down armrest. That’s not good enough when a base-model Golf, at $23,490, at least has rear air. A 305-litre boot is well-sized and fits a pair of medium suitcases without fuss.
The safety offer is good. Full forward autonomous emergency braking (across low and high speeds) is standard, as is forward collision warning. For another $1,400, you can add adaptive cruise control with stop and go, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, automated parking, and automatic folding mirrors – a fair tarrif.
The Polo GTI also benefits from the circumstances of its rivals in the present market. The Ford Fiesta ST is currently absent, in between generations, and the Peugeot 208 GTi is feeling a bit ancient and is running in its final edition form. That said, there are vehicles from the class above worthy of considerations – lead by the best of the warm hatches, the 150kW/265Nm Hyundai i30 SR (from $25,950 with a six-speed manual).
Ultimately, though, we feel the Polo GTI will attract the sort of buyer after the image and subtle refinements of a Volkswagen product without having to stretch to the Golf GTI, which now sits above $45,000. In this manner, the $30,990 Polo GTI – or $34,890 with the Luxury Package that is a good idea if you want better tyres, and like niceties such as a panoramic opening roof and the cool LED headlights – makes sense. Towards the limit the Polo GTI offers many of the Golf GTI’s thrills but at an effective ten-grand discount. It looks the part, it has a smart and tech-packed interior, and the Mk 6 Polo is generously sized for carrying things and people. Add the swift engine, rorty exhaust, fun handling and super-desirable GTI branding and the Polo GTI is a hatchback that’s hard to resist.
Key specs (as tested)
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