When a Polo Cup car’s 1.6-litre diesel engine is spinning at its ‘heady’ 5000rpm limit, you’re listening to what sounds like a pair of robots getting intimate. Trust me, it’s a terrible noise and because there’s no sound deadening on the inside, the cabin sounds like a Ganesh visarjan-meets-Diwali do. From the spectator stands though, a Polo Cup race sounds like 20 punctured balloons rushing by, and this is a bit of a problem. A race series that has a lot of rookie drivers in mechanically equal cars should be spectacularly exciting to watch, but the fans are complaining. They say it’s like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie — lots of fun, but no sound.
It got us thinking. Exactly how much fun would a diesel race car be against its most exciting road-going petrol cousin? One day, two Polos and one sweltering racetrack is how we found out.
Adjusting the Cup’s driving position isn’t as easy as in the Polo 1.6. In the road car, you simply tug a lever and slide your backside fore and aft. In the Cup car, you need spanners. Spanners to remove bolts, lift the seat, drop it into the desired slot and then tighten bolts. In the road car, you slide into the seat. In the Cup car, you lift a leg, slide yourself over the roll-cage and drop down into a race seat that’s an ant’s hair off the floor. Don’t forget to carelessly bump your head on the roll-cage on your way in.
Unlike the road car’s three-point seatbelt, strapping into the Cup’s four-point harness demands patience and a sucked-in stomach. You are now in a position to have the most fun you can have in a Polo. Flick toggle switch, twist key, and the robots go at it again.
I’m not used to seeing a Polo in its undergarments. There are no carpets, no passenger seats, no roof-lining — it’s all bare metal and exposed cables. And though it does have central locking and power windows, this is no Polo Cup Comfortline. And damn, it’s hot in here! There’s no air-con and Chennai’s weather is already giving me blisters.
This is the revised Cup car I’m driving. Among the list of improvements is a freer-flowing exhaust, enhanced engine cooling and reduced lift at the front and rear. It’s also got a six-speed manual gearbox mated to a Vento-sourced engine making 129bhp, 25kgm of torque and lots of turbo-whistle.
Anyway, clutch out and whoa! There’s lots of lag before the surge kicks in. The intimate-robots soundtrack is accompanied by the slick tyres picking up and hurtling small stones on the underside of the car, and there’s plenty of whooshing from the 1.6-litre diesel’s turbo. The stiff chassis sends every blemish on the track straight to the seat and I’m sweating fiercely.
But it’s an instant smile as the turbo comes on and the torque kicks in. Snap up another gear, and then another, and then one more. Of the six speeds available, the Sriperumbudur track only demands the first four. For sheer acceleration, the Cup car whips the road car, naturally. It is three seconds faster to 100kph and a staggering five seconds quicker to 120. But even this isn’t as impressive as how the Cup goes around corners. The 200-section slick tyres, FIA-approved roll-cage and the Sachs adjustable suspension give it limpet-like grip and almost zero body roll.
Then there are the brakes. The first few laps in the Cup, I have to force my brain to allow late braking because I’ve slowed down waaaay before the corner, having to then (embarrassingly) accelerate upto it. Lack of ABS means there’s lots of locked wheels and tyre smoke along my learning curve.
And then I get into the road car and scare myself silly at the first corner — it’s so much more wayward than the Cup car. When we tested the Polo in Mumbai, we thought the 1.6 handled decently, but on the track, it feels like jelly, and the brakes aren’t half as strong either. Corner the 1.6 after the Cup car and you know what the view from the leaning tower of Pisa is like. You’ll also wonder why the steering feels so light. And, attempting Cup-car speeds through the same corners will have the 1.6 heading straight through the run-off areas, the 185-section tyres squealing like girl fans at a boy-band concert. Frankly, on the track, the petrol Polo’s only saving grace is that it revs a lot more and is much easier on the driver’s ears. It may be nice on the road but on the track, it is comprehensively beaten.
It’s not fair to compare the track times — one’s a purpose-built weekend racer, the other is fun for the whole family — but we couldn’t resist. Narain Karthikeyan’s lap times indicate that the Cup car is a massive 17 seconds quicker than the Polo 1.6 over a fast lap, and this is despite the racer weighing 110kg more than the road car. Our VBOX tells us exactly where the Cup is quicker, whichis everywhere.
On a flying lap, the Cup is 11kph faster through the first corner, a staggering 24kph faster down the back straight and 14 seconds ahead by two-thirds distance. It then makes up three more seconds over the last third of the track, so the difference between the two cars is like night and day.
The Polo Cup is, to quote Narain Karthikeyan, “a proper race car.” If only it sounded better. So come on, VW, how about adding a couple of loudspeakers playing howling V12 or growling V8 noises? I’m sure the spectators would appreciate it.