The sixth-generation, MQB platform-based Polo GTI is out. With fingers crossed about its India launch, Sergius Barretto heads to Spain for a drive of this hot hatch.
What is it?
Grand Touring Injection or GTI has served as the Volkswagen performance moniker for over 40 years now, with its first model, the Golf GTI widely credited with starting the ‘hot hatch’ segment. The car's ensuing success meant that, pretty soon, other VW cars bore the GTI moniker, including the Polo. And that’s where India got its GTI introduction; in November 2016 Volkswagen launched the fifth-generation Polo GTI, imported in the three-door format. And now, with the Polo GTI moving into its sixth-generation MQB platform, we head to Spain to see just how much of a step ahead it is.
What’s it like on the outside?
The new Polo GTI has a few changes but it still looks pretty much the same as before. The headlights remain horizontal units with twin beams, the grille gets the same honeycomb pattern and the fog lights are in the same place. At the rear, too, things are quite similar, with the tail-lamps remaining square-ish, the numberplate set into the bumper and the twin pipes offset to the left.
The changes then really are in the proportions and contouring differences, which gives the new car a more rounded look, and also in small details, like a double-creased shoulder line, the lower of which runs around the back, and the red pinstripe that's now at the centre of the front grille instead of the bottom. Also new are the 18-inch alloys with their sharply cut angular spokes finished in steel and black look massively better than the rims of earlier car sold here.
What’s it like on the inside?
In the older car, the highlights were the traditional chequered seats and the flat-bottomed steering wheel with the 'GTI' logo and red stitching. The dials, vents, doors and dash were a pretty bland affair. Thus, the bar was set very low. The new car's interior, however, is pretty neat. The steering is carried forward; which is great, but the rest of the dash is new, the styling is sharp and angular, and there is a large swathe of red across its entire length, which gives the cabin good character and does not look over the top. The look is very modern and sporty, and what I really like is that the dash and centre console are tilted slightly towards the driver, giving you a feeling of being in a cockpit. In fact, the outer edge of the centre console is higher than the inner one, further accentuating the driver-focused cockpit.
The instrumentation and infotainment system, which is now all digital, has taken a big step forward. You get a nice, large touchscreen that's set higher up in the dash and a digital panel for the driver instrument display that – like Audi’s Virtual Cockpit – has customisable views, including navigation display. Quality of controls and switchgear is typically Volkswagen and everything feels wonderfully damped; even the AC vents have just the right amount of resistance to help you adjust them precisely and easily.
Having one car allocated to each journalist meant I spent all my time driving, just as I suspect would every owner. The front seats are nice and deep with enough side bolstering, and, despite my narrow frame, they held me well in place even during hard cornering on the laps we had at the Ascari race track. As far as space in the cabin goes, there's more than enough head- and legroom for my 5ft 8in frame. Moving to the rear, with the MQB, VW has been able to build the Polo bigger and it's quite telling here; there's more than enough legroom for those seated here, even if there's a slightly tall driver at the front.
What’s it like to drive?
It is a hot hatch and so quick pace and sharp handling is something you would automatically expect, and, to that effect, VW has endowed the Polo with a lot of extra bits over the previous GTI or even the regular new Polo. For starters, it gets the larger 2.0-litre turbocharged direct-injection petrol motor from the Golf GTI, tuned to produce a lower 200hp and 320Nm of torque, (245hp and 370Nm of torque in the Golf).
There is also an electronic diff, what VW calls XDS, which on a turn, brakes the inside wheel tricking the regular differential into sending more power to the outer wheels; the result is a crisper turn-in. Also, thanks to the MQB platform, the chassis is now 28 percent stiffer than before, and aids handling stability.
Driving it out of the airport and in and around the village we were put up at, the car was very drivable, unlike other hot hatches that can feel a tad over eager. VW claims a 0-100kph time of 6.7sec, and while we couldn't test that, it did feel sufficiently fast out on the motorway and the track.
One aspect of hot hatches that has bothered me is the harsh ride. Remember, these cars also live everyday lives; in cars like the Abarth 595 and the Mini Cooper S, the ride is harsh enough to convince you that you’ve broken something going over rough surfaces. In the Polo, however, it is different. Of course, compared to everyday hatches, it’s still hard, but among its peers, it’s very compliant. This is the one I'd pick from the three to handle our rough roads.
The car offers drive modes too. Comfort setting keeps things fairly light and easy, while Sport quickens the pace, firms up the steering and the dampers just a bit, the exhaust crackles too, but it isn’t very dramatic. Going through the gears is very quick and smooth, typical of a VW DSG, but again without any drama; you can’t hold high revs even in manual mode, as the 'box will shift up a gear. Handling is sharp but pretty unexciting; run wide through a turn (I did a lot of that on the track), and all you need to do is lift off the throttle to bring things back in order. This then is the driving character of the Polo GTI – it's pretty fast and fun but not extroverted like a Mini.
Should I buy one?
Actually, the question is ‘Will you be able to buy one?’ VW India is in a conundrum about launching the car here. The new GTI certainly has enough to justify a premium, compared to the current one, and it’s safe to say that it will certainly enjoy more attention. But with the Polo (and the GTI) now based on the new MQB platform, the question is: Do they import it, which would mean a high price, or delay the launch until the local MQB platform (MQB A0-IN) is developed? To maintain the continuity of the brand, VW could do both – begin with an import and then move to local assembly later.
So, if and when the Polo GTI does make it here, assuming it’s sensibly priced or you have really deep pockets, should you look at it? Yes, this is a hot hatch that deserves serious consideration. While it may look all too familiar, the interior is a step ahead of the previous one, it drives fast, the gearbox is super-quick and the handling is fun enough. This isn’t to say it’s a thrill-your- pants-off kind of ride; it’s actually quite rounded off to serve as a daily driver and the ample interior space, comfortable seats and decent equipment list will be a further draw.
So as things stand, the new Polo GTI's got a lot going for it. VW just has to make sure it gets the pricing right, and, going by the brisk sales of the reduced price GTI, there's a handy marker for that.
Volkswagen mulling over new Polo GTI’s India launch