VW’s Cheeky Polo GTI

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The Lilliputian Polo is a plain and simple recipe: a 2 box design, a nippy engine, a tight chassis and some smart tartan seats. The twin turbo 1.8 petrol engine puts out 141kw and a rather startling 320Nm of torque. It makes the Polo GTI feel incredibly quick, and the 0-100 dash is dispatched in 6.7 seconds to back it up. Fuel is consumed at 5.7 L/100k in the 7sp DSG, and 6.1L/100k for the 6 speed manual, meaning you’d around 850 km from the 45L fuel tank.

The exterior styling is understated like its bigger bother, the Golf GTI. There are touches of red in the grille and brakes calipers just to show people you paid more. You can have LED lighting too but that comes at a cost, but more about that later.

The Parabolica 17” wheels look expensive with just a hint of retro about them. My favourite are the 5 hole alloys from a few years back because nothing beats simplicity.

The range starts with a $16,990 (drive away NSW) 66kw entry level model for those who just want basic wheels, up to the $31,908 manual/$34,483 DSG (drive away NSW) GTI.

The cabin is comfy and well-appointed with the obligatory “Clark” tartan fabric splashed about with gay abandon. The infotainment system features a slightly de-featured version of the system found in Golf and Skoda’s Octavia. The 6.5” touch screen has fixed buttons at the side for direct selection, as well as an auto-hide menu bar at the button of the screen. The functions of the auto-hide bar change with each app, and appear magically as your finger nears the screen.

The Apple Carplay is brilliant and works when connected to your phone via the apple charging cable. You can use some of the Apple apps as well as a couple of the audio streaming apps, just as you would on your phone. You swipe the screen then select the app. We streamed our favourite internet music sites which doesn’t count towards the data cap with some carriers. And, if your car doesn’t have Satnav, you can use apple maps instead. In fact, it is easier to type the address into Maps then entering the same info into a Satnav. We used the maps app frequently, but naturally you have to be in cell range for it to work fully. I’ve used CarPlay many times but this unit seemed slightly moody. It was happy to work first thing, but if you nipped into the supermarket for a sliced loaf, it wouldn’t reconnect when the car was restarted. VW was not able to say what the problem was, and I haven’t had the issue in other VeeDubs. It must be said that this happened after an Apple update so it may well just be a bit tetchy for the moment. Importantly, you can use Siri by pressing and holding the voice button.

You can add extra stuff with various packs, at cost of course.

Driver Assistance Package $1,400

  • Discover Media audio and satellite navigation system with 6.5″ colour touch screen display
  • Driver Fatigue Detection system
  • Parking distance sensors, front and rear
  • SD card for satellite navigation system

Luxury Package $3,300

  • Alcantara and leatherette combination seat upholstery
  • Coming / leaving home function and daytime driving lights
  • Individually heated front seats
  • LED headlights for high and low beam
  • Panoramic glass sunroof, electrically slide and tilt adjustable
  • Rear registration plate light, LED

There is no smart entry/start system sadly, so you have to use the fob buttons to get in, and an actual key to start the car. It feels a bit last decade but such is life.

On the Road:

Polo is a brilliant package even in the base model. Although under-powered, the handling is sensational. The top-of-the-range GTI has no such problems.

As usual, we ran errands and id the usual things an owner would do to make sure there no nasty surprises lurking in the design. If you lower the rear seats, Polo can take a full sized bike with the front wheel removed. The active among us would no doubt find that handy. The 204L luggage area is slightly smaller in the GTI than the base models at 280L. The base models have a full sized spare and the GTI has a space saver, and the GTI is 10mm lower at 1,443mm. The lowered suspension is meant to aid handling by lowering the centre of gravity, but we all know it just makes any car look better, right?

At first, I found the ride firm, even harsh. I’d been in the Golf for the week previous, so the change was even more marked. Polo lacks the adjustable suspension of the big brother, so designers opted for a firmness to get boy racers around corners fast. It works too by George.

The test run through the Royal National Park happened on a particularly nasty day. Sydney weather has been moody to say the least. It’s hot one day, then cold and rainy the next. We entered the park at the southern end and began the descent to the weir. The showers made the roads greasy so we had to treat the bends with extra respect. It has to be said that the speed limits are straight from the 50’s, and the recommendations for the corners obviously more for Ford Anglias than anything designed in the last 30 years. None the less, we thought erring on the side of caution would yield slightly less risk. It soon became apparent the Polo’s grip was impressive regardless of the filthy weather.

There is no “sports” mode other than the “S” setting on the DSG. As it turns out, the Polo does perfectly well without the bells and whistles. 141kw does amazing things to a car weighing only 1242kg. The feel of near perfect balance makes the handling like that of the proverbial roller skate.

The power is instantly on-tap provided you keep the turbo spinning in the sweet spot. The steering is sharp and the brakes progressive so even on wet roads, changing direction feels confident and sure-footed. The front wheels will break traction if you’re too savage with the accelerator at the lights, but on this road, in these bends, it pure delight.

We loved the drive so much, we did it twice, but then we were done and turned to head. I mentioned descending into the park previously, and as you do, you meet some very tight corners. Some become tighter once you enter them, so can catch the unwary off-guard. Our run slowed considerably once an air-conditioning mechanic’s van turned out of a side street in front of us. It gave us more time to enjoy the Polo because even very slow, it was a joy.

As you know, the bends can be troublesome, but rarely a straight section. It goes to show how quickly things can go very badly tits-up when, after going through all the hard bits, the “P” plated van we had been following suddenly went sideways. I’ve been in a couple of accidents over the years and I can attest to the fact that time slows down. I can now say the same thing happens when you watch someone going wrong for another driver.

Many a racing car driver has told me to be gentle. Never over correct, and always look where you want to go, not where you’re going. You see, if you look where you’re going, that’s where you go. A case in point: this boy was staring at the only road sign in at least 500m. When he over correct and fish-tailed in the opposite direction, of course the van swung gracefully sideway. It came back onto our side of the road and flattened that road sign. Thankfully it dissipated the energy and the van straightened up to run several more metres along the shoulder and come to a stop. The whole thing was in slow motion. We can’t have been going more than 30kph and I had slowed to snail’s pace while the action happened ahead.

A handsome tradie jumped out of the van as I pulled alongside. After I made sure my hair was OK, I rolled down the window and said in my very butchest voice, “you right mate”. He looked properly shaken. He explained that it was a work van and that we had been going slow. I agreed that it was strange, but I knew more or less what he had done. He had been in a low gear for the hill climb, but flattened his foot at the top when he saw the straight. His van broke traction, and instead of a gentle correction while backing off the throttle, he panicked and hit the brakes. The skid continued in glorious colour.

Apart from the tradie needing new undies, the van suffered damage in the passenger’s side. Although not an old model, the van was not equipped with stability control. It would have helped, if not prevented this fiasco. In comparison, the Polo went exactly where it was pointed without ever misbehaving.

He declined any help and after I made sure he had phone signal, I headed back to town.

Conclusion:

The Polo GTI, while not perfect, is a very good mix of sensible city hatch, sexy power, and capable driver aids. You can’t option the lane departure and blind spot warning as yet, and the adaptive cruise control is part of a pack only available to the midrange 81TSI, which is rather infuriating. Rain sensing wipers are standard on the GTI, but low speed autonomous emergency braking isn’t. In fact, emergency autonomous braking is part of the package available only to the midrange model.

This is what happens when the product managers mix options and trim in order to reach price points. It seems odd that they don’t simply make all options available to let the customer decide. They say the wiring looms come with certain options grouped because of the way the wiring is done at the factory. It all seems very odd.

Having said all that, the only thing that may deter me from buying a Polo is that city cars, by and large, are not for me. If I didn’t have the extra 20 grand for a Golf GTI, perhaps I’d take the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ option for similar money to the Polo. They have longer doors so are a bit easier to get in and out of despite being much lower. I’d prefer a softer ride too but the handling is a great argument for firmness underfoot.

Price: $31,908 6 sp manual/$34,483 7 sp DSG

Engine: 141kw/320Nm, twin turbo petrol, 1.8L

Econ: 6.1L/100k manual, 5.7 L/100k DSG

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