Since its unveiling at the Paris Motor Show in October, we’ve been waiting with bated breath to try what looks like a brilliant new entry into this sector – the 2015 Volkswagen Polo GTI.
It has some difficult work ahead of it, too, because its main rival is the Ford Fiesta ST and frankly that is a fantastic car capable of making far more expensive machinery look silly.
This isn’t lost on the chaps at VW, though: a lot of work has gone into building the latest GTI and from the minute you park your behind on those evocative ‘Clark’ tartan-pattern sports seats and fire up the powerplant you can tell this isn’t your common-or-garden Polo.
What’s powering the new Volkswagen Polo GTI?
An evolution of the 1.8-litre ‘EA888’ turbocharged petrol unit VW has been developing for some years. It features many new technological developments including a combination of direct and indirect fuel injection (to provide optimal efficiency in all conditions), variable valve timing and an electric actuator for the turbocharger’s wastegate, meaning it’s controlled very accurately, minimising turbo-lag and improving driveability.
In this application it makes 190bhp, but here’s where it gets interesting: the torque output – and so the engine’s character – depends on your gearbox choice.
That’s right: unlike last time there’s a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes. However, since the seven-speed twin-clutch DSG isn’t capable of withstanding as much torque as the six-speed self-shifter, Volkswagen had to re-map the torque delivery so you get less twist, but for longer. In this case the manual car has 236lb ft between 1450 and 4500rpm, whereas the DSG has 184lb ft available between 1250 and 5300rpm.
The net effect is that performance remains the same with both ‘boxes, the 0-62mph sprint complete in 6.7 seconds and the GTI maxing out at 146mph. As you’d expect, fuel economy and CO2 output are better with the more modern DSG ‘box, its 50.4mpg and 129g/km trumping the six-speed’s 47.1mpg and 139g/km.
We found the six-speed to be the enthusiasts’ choice, though. It felt more versatile on the road, because there’s more in-gear acceleration to play with and it pulls away quicker, whereas the DSG takes fractionally (but noticeably) longer.
In sixth gear at around 65mph there’s a surprising surge of torque when you bury your right foot that you simply wouldn’t get with a smaller engine.
And that engine itself is a great thing. It occupies the sweet spot between a highly strung small-capacity turbocharged screamer and a more lethargic larger-capacity engine. There’s a nicely linear power delivery and thanks to a noise actuator feeding the engine note into the cabin it sounds great too.
What about the 2015 Polo GTI’s chassis?
The Polo GTI has been on a bit of diet, which goes a small way towards explaining quite how well this car handles. Sitting on sports suspension that’s lower than the regular Polo (by 10mm at the front and 15mm at the rear) and using a completely new electro-mechanical steering system, there’s a lot to like about this new GTI. It’s a marked improvement on the previous version in this respect, that’s for sure.
The cars we tested were fitted with the optional Sport Performance Kit, which introduced the now-ubiquitous ‘adaptive dynamics’ that most new cars appear to have these days. That means the fitment of electronically adjustable dampers along with a Sport button.
Pushing said button means the dampers tighten up, preventing bodyroll and making the car more stable and less forgiving over bumps. It also adds extra weight to the steering and sharpens up the throttle response, improving the noise the car makes at the same time. This kit costs £245, which seems incredibly good value.
Electronic cleverness abounds
Further adjustability is available through the electronic stability control (ESC) system. Dubbed ‘ESC Sport’, you can simply switch off traction control to allow a bit of wheelspin, or turn down the stability control programme’s interference significantly, allowing even more wheel slip before the car gathers you back up to prevent an accident.
Borrowed from the brilliant Golf GTI is the XDS+ torque-vectoring system. You can feel it working if you really concentrate (it kicks in just before the ESC does) but during everyday driving it’s another one of those systems that simply goes about its business unobtrusively.
In fact, there’s a fair bit about this car that’s unobtrusive. Its looks, for instance, are conservative.
Following the lead from bigger brother Golf, the smaller GTI gets bespoke bumpers, 17-inch alloys, red radiator grille strips which extend into the LED headlights and the black honeycombe grille we’re familiar with from the brand’s hotter propositions.
Overall, there is a whole lot to like about the new Polo GTI. It’s fast, fun, refined, comfortable and well-built. In fact, it’s everything you’d expect from a smaller product from the same brains as the Golf GTI. It’s not as hard-edged as the Fiesta ST, so ultimately lacks the same level of entertainment at the limit, but probably makes a better fist of things day-to-day.