The hot hatch market isn’t just warming up. It’s getting red hot, and now, VW is all set to take it past boiling point. With the Fiat Punto Abarth stealing the hot hatch crown from the Polo GT TSI, the German brand wants to be top dog again and is bringing in the ultimate version of the Polo, the one that wears the legendary three-lettered moniker – GTI. We first broke the news that the Polo GTI was due for an India launch at the beginning of 2015. Volkswagen will launch this hot hatch in India by the end of the year.
This nascent segment seems to have caught everyone’s fancy of late. After Fiat set the ball rolling with the 147hp Abarth Punto, other manufacturers too want a piece of this tiny but piping hot pie. Maruti is also readying the Baleno RS which is set to hit showrooms early next year. What’s more, even the Tata Tiago is likely to get a “Sport” version in the near future.
But is there a market for pumped-up versions of an everyday hatch? The launch of the Abarth Punto reverberated through cyberspace with fanboys rejoicing like it was the best thing since internal combustion; but how many Abarths has Fiat managed to sell? The figure is in minuscule double digits.
The truth is that hot hatches in India never sell because when it comes to signing on the dotted line, buyers eventually vote with their wallets and not their hearts.
However, VW is not interested in numbers, something that’s quite obvious when you consider two things the company has done that could limit sales to a very exclusive few. Firstly, the Polo GTI won’t be a regular five-door but a three-door. It’s a risky strategy because India has no history of three-doors (except for the 2003 limited-edition Zen Carbon and Zen Steel) because there’s never been any demand for them. But the biggest deterrent could be the eyewatering price – the Polo GTI is expected to cost upwards of Rs 20 lakh. How many people will plonk that kind of money for a hot hatch?
Hardcore (and rich) enthusiasts will know that the Polo GTI isn’t just another hot hatch. It signals the entry of VW’s performance badge into India, which has a long history of turning regular hatchbacks into ones that will make you want to wake up at 5am to drive. I certainly would and I’m already plotting a 4:30am departure to Mahabaleshwar when I get my hands on the India car. But today, it’s a cold winter day at the Chobham track outside London where I get my first taste of the Polo GTI.
The grip on the Polo GTI is ceaseless, the fat 17-inch tyres don’t give up and there’s hardly any body roll. Equipped with a electronic differential lock that’s hooked up to the stability control system, the Polo GTI is remarkably neutral. I have to push really hard to break traction, at which point, the Polo gently understeers. The chassis is so well sorted and the handling so predictable that you end up attacking corners at astonishing speeds. To top it off, the steering, which is completely different from a regular Polo, is quick, accurate and nicely weighted. If there’s something lacking, it’s a bit of feedback or feel at your fingertips – like in most VW Group cars, the steering feels like you are driving with gloves on. Also, the Polo GTI feels a touch nose-heavy and doesn’t eagerly dart into corners. The chassis is tuned to be surefooted and confidence inspiring, which makes the Polo GTI effortless to drive quickly. This meant a transformation of the regular Polo’s setup – the GTI gets stiffer anti-roll bars, beefier suspension, a wider track and a lower ride height. Looking at the Polo’s pointy chin, the reduced ground clearance may be of concern in India and speed breakers will have to be treated with respect. However, despite the sportier suspension setup, ride quality hasn’t suffered greatly and the Polo GTI feels surprisingly pliant. The true test will be on our broken roads but knowing how well VW judges its suspensions, expect the Polo GTI to feel stiff but not harsh.
A price upwards of Rs 20 lakh is steep, but the Polo GTI is something you buy with your heart, not your head.
If there is one thing that can tempt you to part with your savings for the GTI it’s the 1.8 litre turbo-petrol. It’s essentially the same EA888 engine that powers the Octavia but in Polo guise, it’s even more potent, cranking out 192hp. And unlike the Octavia, the 1,272kg Polo GTI is significantly lighter, so if you do the math, this hatch has got a power-to-weight ratio not far behind an Audi TT.
According to VW, the Polo bolts from 0-100kph in a remarkable 6.7 seconds which is over 2 seconds quicker than the Abarth Punto. But that’s not all, top speed is rated at 236kph which makes it quicker than many luxury sedans. Interestingly, VW quotes identical 0-100kph times for the manual and DSG automatic versions and whilst it’s the six-speed manual I’m driving in the UK, India will get only the twin-clutch DSG gearbox-equipped model.
Also, my test car is a five-door which won’t be coming to India, so the specs are not quite the same as the India-bound car's but close enough to give an idea of how the Polo GTI drives.
What surprised me was the minimal turbo lag, something I didn’t expect from an engine that I’ve known well from the Octavia. The Polo GTI pulls strongly from low revs and once you get into the meat of the power band, there’s a brawny shove that doesn’t ease until 6,400rpm redline. On the Chobham test track, 200kph was a breeze and the power delivery is so linear that it masks how fast the Polo GTI can go. Adding to the sense of disbelief is the fact that the GTI doesn’t look very different from a normal Polo.
Yes, it’s far more low-slung than the Polo we know, and the wheel arches are more muscular to accommodate the fatter tyres but there are no changes to the body panels. All you get are the GTI cues like the honeycomb grille that merges into the lights, red accents all over the car, the flat-bottomed steering wheel with the GTI logo and tartan seats which, again, is very GTI. However, we doubt the cloth seats will make it to India and most likely, VW will have to cover the insides in as much leather or fake leather as possible to justify the price tag.
The truth is, you can’t justify the price for a car that asks for so many bucks for the bang. But what a bang it is! In real world conditions, it’s power-to-size that matters and no car optimises that ratio as well as the Polo GTI.