If you had to sum up the VW GTI in one word, it would be “quick”. While there obviously is a lot more to it, the quickness stands out like Helvetica on a page of Times New Roman. On straights, around bends, up mountain curlies, down B-roads, VW’s latest just powers on. It isn’t surprising, considering the car is pulled by 192 horses and weighs just 1273kg, but it certainly is hair-raising.
My rant, I am sure, fails miserably at painting a clear picture of the GTI, so let’s take a step back and deconstruct this hopped-up hatch.
What is it?
The ‘GTI’ tag on the grille, flank and boot informs you that while this may look like an ordinary Polo, it is actually a feral, adrenaline-rush-inducing machine. These three letters first adorned a VW grille way back in 1975, and they have left behind a trail of rubber marks ever since. GTI is to VW what AMG is to Mercedes or Abarth to Fiat, a shot in the arm of sorts that transforms ordinary vehicles into rubber-burning and air-splitting speed machines.
So what does it mean when these three letters are slapped onto a regular Polo? For starters, the car loses the ‘Polo’ tag, to become the VW GTI in order to clearly distinguish it from its more mundane sibling. More importantly, though, the engine bay is filled by a four-cylinder, 1.8-litre turbocharged petrol engine, essentially the same one that can be found under the Skoda Octavia’s hood, tuned to belt 192hp and 250Nm of torque. Then, a electronic differential lock is strapped on and hooked up to the stability control system to make it difficult for the car to misbehave. If that weren’t enough, the anti-roll bars are stiffened and suspension beefed up.
The India-spec GTI also gets the seven-speed dual-clutch DSG gearbox, which means that upshifts are executed in 8 milliseconds with bare minimal torque losses, and rides on larger and wider 215/45 R16 wheels for that extra grip when you take a corner at speeds you really should not have taken it with.
That the Polo GTI is understated is an understatement. In many ways, it looks just like a regular Polo. True, it, sits on larger wheels, comes with just three doors instead of five, features slick LED headlamps and redesigned tail-lamps and bears a differently designed grille, but these are nuances that will be missed by those who don’t scrutinise automobiles with stalker-like obsession. The cabin too is very Polo-like, except for the flat-bottomed steering wheel with it red cross-stitching and ‘GTI’ logo and tartan racing seats.
Also, to our disappointment, the India-spec GTI does not get the reduced ground clearance or increased track of its European counterpart. That, combined with the 16-inch wheels (the European GTI gets 17-inchers as standard; these are optional in India) takes away from the aggressiveness of the GTI, though both of these characteristics are bound to be appreciated on our bad roads and monster speed breakers.
What is it like to drive?
The GTI’s appeal really unravels when you slide into the driver seat, tip the gearstick into ‘S’, wrap your hands around the steering wheel and flex your right leg real nice. There is a slight hesitation when you depress the accelerator, before the car really takes off. This is because when the car is at a standstill, the DSG gearbox engages the second gear with one clutch and pre-selects the reverse with the other (the first gear and reverse gear are on the same shaft, and hence cannot be selected by the same clutch, making the selection of the second gear an acceptable compromise). When the car is in kickdown, the first clutch plate deselects the reverse gear and engages the first, causing the slight hesitation; after this, power flows like water through the sluices of a post-monsoon dam. Turbo lag is barely noticeable and peak torque kicks in as early as 1,450rpm, ensuring that the car pulls well enough in the lower rev range. As you climb higher into the rev band, and you do so rather quickly, you notice that the power delivery is meaty but linear all the way from mid-range until the 6,400rpm redline. What is most striking though is the responsiveness of the engine and throttle. Gently nudge the accelerator at any given point of time and the GTI eagerly lunges forward.
Equally sensitive are the brakes. The all-round discs have plenty of bite, so much so that many will find it a task getting used to them. Acclimatise yourself to them though, and you find out how adept they are shedding speed or bringing the car to a complete standstill.
The kinetic experience is augmented by the auditory performance – the exhaust note spat from the twin exhausts round the back is not particularly loud, but it is crisp and sporty. Under hard acceleration, every upshift is accompanied by a satisfying snort and every downshift by a bassy ‘bop’.
The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic DSG gearbox feels like a perfect match for the engine. It is eager and aggressive, upshifting in mere milliseconds, and downshifting willingly (though with a bit of shift shock) when the throttle is depressed hard. In ‘S’ mode (I highly recommend you stick to this for maximum grins), the gearbox obstinately holds revs until the redline and drops ratios quite happily. In ‘D’ mode, upshifts are executed slightly earlier and the sensitivity of the throttle is reduced, to make the car more amiable to drive in tighter spaces such as parking spots and traffic. The algorithm underpinning its ECU is adaptive in nature, which means that the gearbox adapts to your style of driving and changes ratios accordingly. In fact, the DSG does such a great job that you don’t miss the engagement offered by a manual box.
The engine and the gearbox work together to create an impressive repertoire of numbers – 0-100kph is achieved in a claimed 7.2sec, and the speedo needle will spin to a lofty 233kph.
Punching out power is one thing; putting it to the roads is a whole different ballgame, and one that the Polo GTI plays well. Enter a corner at high speeds and you will be surprised by the amount of grip offered and containment of body roll. The nose is a tad hesitant to point into a corner, but beyond that, the Polo GTI goes round bends with remarkable neutrality. It feels composed and tight, gripping onto the road like a barnacle onto a sea-washed rock. In fact, you have to try very, very hard to make the GTI depart from the line you have selected.
The steering adds to the great handling – it is quick, accurate and well-weighted, offering adequate feedback, and while there is a bit of torque steer, it is quite well-contained, especially when you consider the power being belted out by the engine.
The GTI’s handling is complemented by its suspension. While on the firmer side, it is surprisingly pliant. Its sporty setup may have been softened up slightly to deal with India’s poor roads, and while an enthusiast may dislike the absence of a properly taut ride, the ability to tackle bumps, lumps and crests will definitely be appreciated over time. The ride is reasonably absorbent at both low and high speeds, though I did feel the car unsettle a bit when driven over bad roads at a faster pace.
What is it like on the inside?
The GTI’s cabin can be accessed by just two doors, each of which is relatively wider than what Indians are used to. In fact, the doors require more than usual space to open, a characteristic that might prove tricky in tight parking spaces. On the inside, the GTI feels distinctly hot-hatch-ish. You get tartan racing seats (with underseat storage) – a GTI staple – that are large and supportive in every manner, and hold you snugly when you are cornering hard. You face a dashboard that will be familiar to Polo owners – the basic layout and much of the switchgear is similar if not the same, though the touchscreen infotainment system and differently designed instrument cluster are new. The rear seats are accessed by pulling a lever mounted conveniently on the front seats at shoulder level to flip them down. The rear feels claustrophobic mainly due to the smaller windows and poor front visibility on account of the large front seats, but rear kneeroom is actually more than the regular Polo because the back of the front seats has been cleverly scooped out to create a hollow.
For a car that costs Rs 25.99 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), the GTI comes with a relatively shorter equipment list. Features such as keyless entry, an engine start/stop button, rear camera, electronically folding external mirrors, navigation and auto headlamps and wipers are conspicuously missing. On the flip side, you do get paddle shifters, auto start/stop to improve fuel efficiency in traffic, six airbags and the aforementioned touchscreen, with Apple CarPlay.
While it is true that the interiors feel slightly Spartan when you consider its price tag, the GTI’s cabin delivers a true-blue hot hatch experience, what with the three-door layout, fabric racing seats, bright red highlights, flat-bottomed steering wheel and even the exposed-rod seatbelt anchors.
Should I buy it?
After spending some time with it, you realise that the GTI is a driver’s car, and one of the best ones at that. It is meant purely for the joy of driving.
While I could go on and on about how great a car the GTI is from behind the wheel, it is a bit much from behind the wallet. Yes, this is a CBU, so the build quality is European and the high price also ensures exclusivity (along with the 99-unit batch size), but do you get value for your money? It’s difficult to say.
But that’s the thing: the GTI is not about value propositions or rational economic decisions. The GTI is about emotions and feelings. It is a car you buy with your heart and not your head. It makes little sense to purchase as a primary car, but if you are is looking to buy a second car to enjoy driving and money is not a concern, there is little to rival the GTI. The Mini Cooper S matches its performance, but is priced at even more of a premium, and the Merc A-class and Volvo V40 are better for conspicuous consumption, but don’t offer the same go. It is a car for those who want to enjoy it, not enjoy showing it. It also helps that it manages to strike such a great balance between performance and comfort.
Before you write the GTI off as just another rich man’s toy, know that when everything is said and done, every minute spent behind the wheel of a GTI will be a minute of grinning from ear to ear.