We recently spent some time with the recently refreshed VW Polo GTI and share our thoughts in this report.

VW’s Polo is a perennial top seller in the local market. It’s not difficult to see why. The little hatch is stylish, well built (right here in SA we may add) and feels like it offers a better experience than many of its rivals. There are also a few different variants on sale with an option to suit most buyers. 

At the top of the tree is the VW Polo GTI, which is the car we recently drove, and for the first time ever. The range-topping version bears those three letters made famous by VW with its Golf. The Polo GTI stepped in to fill the role once occupied by Golf as the bigger sibling matured.

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New external appearance

All Polo models recently underwent the knife for a slightly revised look. This included the apex version. From the outside the updated Polo range features new bumpers front and back. A new tailgate features elongated tail lights. Speaking of which, the head and taillights are LED items with a light strip along the radiator grille. The latter gives the car a space-agey appearance at night. The GTI benefits from LED matrix headlights and a red strip on the radiator grille along with a honeycomb grille, hexagonal foglamps and red brake calipers.

Check out the full history of the VW Golf GTI by clicking here.

New tech

Volkswagen has also taken the opportunity to install a new look HVAC control unit and steering wheel. In the Polo GTI controls are handled by a touch panel with capacitive sliders replacing the physical switches and dials. We have to say that we prefer the older system, or just physical buttons as they are easy to adjust without looking and don’t require a deft touch to operate.

The new touchscreen interface is easy to use and quick to respond. There is also a completely digital instrument cluster. Both of these, along with the leather upholstery give the cabin a premium feel, more so than some of the Polo’s competition in this segment, or even from a segment above.

Touch points for the driver include a new sports steering wheel with ‘GTI’ badge, as well as a chunky gear selector that lights up at night. Both of these have red accents. In fact, that same hue is used around the cabin, including the stitching and dashboard inserts of our test unit. There are also a pair of aluminium pedals to let you know this is the sportiest Polo of the family.

Click here to read our review of the Mk8 VW Golf GTI.

Unchanged powertrain

While the latest VW Polo GTI has a number of upgrades, none has been carried out under the skin. Under the bonnet is the same 2,0-litre engine as before. This turbocharged inline-four still develops 147 kW of power and a healthy 320 N.m of torque in a plateau from 1 500 – 4 350 r/min. VW does not offer its small hot hatch with three pedals. Drive is, as is now tradition, sent to the front axle through an automated dual-clutch transmission, or DSG in VW speak.

Good base

This is, oddly, the first time we have had the opportunity to drive a VW Polo GTI in its current shape. We somehow did not get the chance with the pre-facelift version either. The VW Polo has a good platform in general. The ride quality and general sense of solidity permeates the GTI version.

In this guise the Polo rides on large alloys with ultra-low profile rubber and is 15 mm lower to the ground than its siblings. But none of that seems to hinder the quality of the general ride. We did find some of that more scarred tar can be felt in the cabin, but that was usually at speed. That wide footwear does afford plenty of grip though the steering is mostly lifeless.

Click here to read five facts about the recently released VW Taigo.

Lacking sparkle

The automatic transmission in the VW Polo GTI robs the driver the ability to properly engage with the driving experience. There are paddle shifters behind the steering wheel rim but they are plasticky and detached from any mechanical connection. Also, the engine’s peak torque arrives so early on that one really doesn’t need to be accurate with finding a gear-shift point. Revving it harder isn’t more fun.

While extremely quick, the Polo GTI isn’t a playful, chuckable car that goads you into the driving experience in the same way that a previous-gen Ford Fiesta ST does. For some unknown reason Ford SA doesn’t offer the latest version here so we can’t comment on that. Sure, it will probably walk away from most of its competition, but it doesn’t engage and delight in the way a good small hot hatch should, which is a shame. We look forward to driving the upcoming Hyundai i20N for a return to the small car magic.

Summary

The VW Polo GTI is seen as an attainable ‘performance’ car for many in SA. It has plenty of power and torque, looks the part and handles pretty well. VW has long been credited with creating the hot hatch genre with the Mk1 Golf GTI. Since the Golf has grown into a more mature prospect the door was open for VW to imbue the Polo with some level of mischievousness, but it hasn’t.

We can’t help but think that even just the addition of a manual transmission would add a level of fun factor that the Polo GTI lacks. Having said that, VW sells Polos by the truck load, so they must know a thing or two about what people really want…

Model: VW Polo GTI 

Price: R494 600

Engine: 2,0-litre inline four, turbocharged petrol

Transmission: six-speed automatic, FWD

Max power: 147 kW

Max torque: 320 N.m

0-100 km/h: 6,7 sec

Top speed: 238 km/h

Fuel consumption: L/100 km