Volkswagen Polo GTI

Heaps of driver appeal, provided VW plays ball

JOHN CAREY

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

COMPARISONS will inevitably follow the new Polo GTI’s launch in Australia around May. They will settle the question of whether the question of whether the updated version of Volkswagen’s small hot hatch packs enough heat to torch the reputations of the Ford Fiesta ST and Renaultsport Clio 200 Sport.

Volkswagen has dropped the previous Polo GTI’s turbocharged and supercharged 1.4-litre four, replacing it with a turbo-only 1.8 that neatly leapfrogs the 1.6-litre turbos of the Fiesta ST and Clio.

The 1.8-litre’s 141kW maximum is a 9kW increase compared with the old Polo GTI. But its extra capacity brings a significant torque increase, jumping 70Nm to 320Nm, at least in manual form.

VW offers Polo GTI buyers a choice between six-speed manual and seven-speed dual-clutch ’boxes, something neither Ford nor Renault do. Volkswagen Oz plans to offer the manual version at a competitive sub-$28K price.

Despite the DSG version having a serious engine torque-ectomy, this doesn’t dent the maximum power figure (see sidebar) and an identical 0-100km/h time of 6.7sec is claimed for both variants.

The 1.8-litre turbo is a charmer.

It’s refined and smooth, but its voice grows growly approaching the 6000rpm redline. There’s no doubt the high-torque calibration of the engine delivers snappier response and greater mid-range thrust, but the low-torque version is anything but sluggish, and the DSG is a sweet match. In Sport mode, it does a great job of shifting gears when driving hard.

VW hired the Circuit de Valencia for the Polo’s launch, and the seven-speed DSG shone on the track. It snatched higher gears at the right time and made perfect, throttle-blipping downshifts when braking for the Moto GP track’s tighter corners.

But the chief reason for the track time was to highlight new suspension and chassis technology. This Polo GTI is the first to offer adjustable dampers.

The Sport Select suspension, with its two-stage Bilstein dampers, is the centrepiece of an optional Sport Performance Kit. Its presence in the Polo GTI is signalled by a Sport button in the row of switches between the centre air vents and infotainment screen. In Germany, the package costs just $A420.

Stabbing the Sport button switches the Bilsteins from sporty comfort to stiffly sporty, increases the electric steering’s weight, sharpens throttle response, switches the DSG (if fitted) to Sport mode, and adds drama and volume to the engine note with a sound actuator.

On a racetrack, the Polo GTI is fun in Sport mode. It’s agile and responsive, with decent front grip, good sensitivity to throttle adjustments and a pleasant bark to go with its bitumen bite. But switched to normal mode, it feels doughy, with way too much understeer for track enjoyment.

The advantage of the Sport Select dampers and Sport Performance Kit is made obvious by sampling a Polo GTI without it. On public roads, the standard dampers are borderline brutal.

Except for its ride, the fixeddamper Polo GTI possesses real public-road prowess; great steering, excellent agility and strong brakes. The affordable optional suspension promises amelioration of the car’s one obvious dynamic shortcoming, plus amplification of its talents.

VW Oz, we hear, doesn’t plan to offer the Sport Performance Kit for reasons of cost. If true, this is a grave mistake, one that could affect the outcome of those inevitable comparisons…

PLUS & MINUS

Interior presentation; stiff ride; Australia won’t get adjustable dampers New 1.8-litre four; choice of transmissions; agility; five-door flexibility

01 LOFTY PEW

Tartan-covered driver’s seat is supportive, but positioned a little too high for tall-driver comfort. And yes, that’s the same steering wheel as you’ll find in a Golf GTI.

02 UNDERDONE

Instrument panel features updated infotainment, but interior lacks the class and cohesion of Golf GTI, despite piano-black dash bits.

03 FAMILIAR

New 1.8 turbo is a short-stroke version of the iron-block EA888 2.0-litre turbo four in the Golf GTI, sharing the same cylinder bore and spacing dimensions.

Straight torque

TEAMED with a six-speed manual, the new 1.8-litre turbo four twists out an impressive 320Nm. But while the DSG-equipped version delivers an identical 141kW power max, its torque peaks at only 250Nm. What gives?

Engineer Carsten Helbing explains it’s because the DSG can handle no more than 250Nm, while the manual is more robust.

There’s no difference in engine hardware; the fix is purely electronic. The software in the manual creates a 2750rpm-wide max torque band and a 2000rpm max power spread. The DSG version is the other way round, with a 4050rpm torque plateau and a skinny 800rpm region of max power.

OR TRY THESE...

Ford Fiesta ST $25,990

FORD’S 134kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo is brilliant, as is the ST’s chassis. The price is excellent, too.

The fast Fiesta is manual-only, which won’t be a problem for many, but its dash looks dated and its two-door body somewhat restricts appeal.

Renaultsport Clio 200 Sport $29,290

THIS five-door is a better French flyer than Peugeot’s 208 GTi, and rivals the Fiesta ST for driver appeal. The Clio’s whooshy 147kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo is teamed only with a six-speed dual-clutch, making it a direct competitor with the Polo GTI DSG.