First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Polo GTI

First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Polo GTI
 

When the GTi badge first appeared in 1976, it started a dynasty of models and not just for Volkswagen. Over the years it has also adorned some iconic Peugeots but it is most famous for being the three letters that signify a performance Golf.

For decades, VW was reluctant to put the famous badge on its high-selling Polo, even very quietly putting the name on a third generation Polo that was only available in Germany around the turn of the century and which featured a relatively paltry 88kW motor.

Then in 2006 the company went all in, finally releasing a genuine and global version of the Polo wearing the famous GTi badge. It had 110kW and a 0-100km/h time of 8.2 seconds but it was clearly second fiddle to its bigger brother in the power and performance stakes.

Then in 2015 a 141kW version was released which combined power with fantastic handling, particularly in the rare manual models which were proper little go-karts with serious controllable power that provided more than enough of the essential fun factor. The Polo GTi had arrived.

Fast forward to 2018 and the latest generation Polo is certain to continue the success of those that went before it. The same is true of the new GTi which we drove in the Western Cape and which has evolved into a performance hot hatch all of its own.

On paper it is much closer to its big brother than before, which is not surprising considering it now gets the same EA888 engine. In the Polo it pumps out 147kW and 320Nm, enough to punch it to 100km/h in 6.7 seconds and on to a top speed of 237km/h. With the Golf delivering 169kW and 350Nm and hitting 100km/h just three-tenths quicker at 6.4 seconds and topping out at 248km/h, the little guy is definitely nipping at the heels of its big brother.

Here’s the real crunch though, because the Polo GTi costs R375 900 compared to the R548 600 of the Golf GTi. That’s R172 700 to get to 100km/h three-tenths quicker. Obviously there is much more to it than that — the Golf has more space, more technology and more status by virtue of being a Golf GTi but the Polo is not the quiet sibling it once was.

The Polo GTi is now also built in SA, which the company says has translated into the new model being more than 10 grand cheaper than the previous imported version. Spec for spec we are not totally convinced but it looks good on paper.

It also looks good in the metal, with a proper GTi facade that includes Polo specific LED daytime running lights. There are also unique wheels in 17 and 18 inches. The 18s did make the ride a little firm but it’s much cooler to say you have 18-inch Brescia wheels than 17-inch rims named after the UK concrete jungle of Milton Keynes.

We know that lots of F1 teams are based close to the town but seriously, saying you have Milton Keynes wheels is about as cool as saying you have a Nissan Tiida.

I digress, so back to the GTi. The interior can be specified with proper GTi cloth inserts. Leather will be an option from August, although only in SA because no-one in the rest of the world wants leather in the model. You can also have red trim although not with the red exterior body colour because that would just be too much. You can also have the optional Active Info Display which we recommend, particularly for resale value.

Another option is the Sports Select suspension and Driving Profile Selection, which allows you to switch between Eco, Normal, Sport and Individual. No comfort mode though.

Sports suspension is standard on the model as is the big news item that the GTi now features an XDS transverse differential lock for the front wheels. It’s an electronic affair that brakes one of the wheels to keep you heading in the right direction in a corner and which allows the six-speed DSG box (manual only overseas) to put the power to the road with less fuss. That does not mean a total lack of torque-steer, but what it does mean is more control, particularly if you like a bit of cheeky lift-off oversteer — in a front-wheel drive car.

Power delivery is excellent although the burble and bark noises between gear changes have all but disappeared. Play with the revs and you can get a bit of sound, but this area was rather disappointing. The steering is great too and the little GTi goes exactly where you want it to with almost no fuss.

Is it better than the Golf GTi? Tough call. The Golf has certain qualities that the Polo does not, including that interior space and more solidity. For now the Polo GTi has its big brother pinned in a sibling scrap but the new Golf is waiting in the wings and with it a new GTi that will undoubtedly turn the fight around. – Mark Smyth