Sunday, September 9, 2007

Road Test: Volkswagen Polo GTI

Volkswagen Polo GTI

As the small car becomes less of a convenience and more of a necessity to help alleviate the strain of fuel costs and congested roads, a number of events have transpired: more buyers means more competition, and in the last two years the venerable small car with its basic features and meagre interior space is now packed with extras that were once the domain of much larger cars.

As engines and suspension become more compact, this too opens up more interior space, so the spatial sacrifices drivers once made in owning a small car are not so acute.

With this surge of interest in the small car sector, more and more car makers are joining the party. BMW did the unthinkable in releasing the 1 Series, Mercedes foresaw the trend and launched its own sub-brand in the form of the smart car quite some time ago, and the list goes on.

As more and more cash flows into the small car market, the ubiquitous halo models are of even more import to car makers than ever before. These aspirational and often sporty models give any particular range a knock-on effect, as buyers of lesser models get an idea of what the top shelf model offers, and may upgrade their wheels or bodykits in homage, perhaps even splurging on the actual halo model in the event of a job promotion.

As chance would have it, we are right now looking at one of these halo models, a German design no less, in the form of Volkswagen’s second smallest vehicle (the Fox isn’t sold in Australia), the Polo. But not just any Polo - this is the halo model, the cream of the crop, the special reserve, the top shelf sports model and the most powerful production Polo ever built, one that follows in the footsteps of the legendary Golf GTI. And in more ways than one...

Let me begin by saying that Volkswagen make a solid vehicle. They may not be the most luxurious Germanic brand, they may not even be the prettiest or the smartest, but they are solid if nothing else.

In this seven day test the Polo was submitted to some very poor quality roads - including plenty of unsealed surfaces - and I must say that I punished the drive-line quite thoroughly, yet the cute little turbo simply winked at me and did it all again the next day with nary a squeak or rattle in protestation.

The car rides quite nicely and, because it's not as tightly sprung as the Golf GTI, it's almost easier to live with day by day. As a city car, this thing is the bees knees. It's got enough poke to fly past larger engined vehicles at the traffic lights and its small enough to easily navigate peak hour traffic and tight parking spots. It's tidy dimensions (it measures less than 4 metres in length) contribute a lot to the vehicle's overall ease of use, and though boot space may not be copious, nor rear seat room, the Polo is far from impractical.

However there were a couple of little things that irked me, such as the lack of a centre armrest. I acknowledge that being a compact car and measuring only 1650mm in width, there's not much room for anything between the seats, but I'm telling it as I see it (and the fact that time and again I almost fell out of my seat as I began to lazily tip my weight westwards...). Fit and finish is pretty good, and though leather costs extra, the standard cloth trim isn't too bad, and the cushioning is just right.

When the roads start to curve and the traffic is left grimacing in your rear vision mirror, the Polo really begins to show it true colours, with responsive steering giving the car a sporty, focussed feel. Though not as tightly sprung as its bigger brother, the Golf GTI, and having a much more relaxed ride than something like the Renault Clio Sport, the little Veedub can still retain good corner speeds and is quite responsive to steering input as its 205/45 R16 tyres provide decent levels of grip and its front MacPherson struts deal with the ever-changing road surface with a good deal of composure.

Adhesion is a little wanting if you fly into a corner too hot, and the inherent understeer in the front-wheel drive vehicle makes correcting this troublesome, but in general the Polo GTI impresses with its well-sorted chassis.

If things do get wildly out of control, or perhaps on a wet day, the Electronic Stability Programme that ships as standard on the GTI will be a godsend, able to fiddle with a number of the cars parameters, such as torque, brake pressure and so on. Simply put, the ESP is designed to help you avoid potentially hazardous situations.

Some body roll can be felt when changing directions at higher speeds and its chubby (for a whipper-snapper) 1190kg kerb weight doesn't help, but in general it retains a good posture through smoothly surfaced corners, and the 5-valve turbo engine is quite the little devil, always keen to squirt out a bit more power when you ask nicely. Generating 110kW of power @ 5800rpm, the Polo will charge to 100km/h from rest in 8.2 seconds, which is pretty good for a compact hatch of this size. Peak torque of 220Nm hits the front wheels early on in the piece, @ 1950rpm, and though we can't vouch for the cars top speed (for legal reasons) let's just say that's bloody quick when given a bit of space and gentle tail wind.

The Volkswagen Polo GTI really is a sweet machine with a lot of go for something of is size, and the 1.8-litre turbocharged engine is delight to use, with good reserves of power and an ability to tick over quietly in order to save fuel at the same token. It always has been a great engine in its many applications in Audis and VWs over the years, and can be tuned reasonably cheaply - chip and 'zorst - to output some serious numbers thanks to its 20-valve cylinder head (5-valves per cylinder).

I liked the fact that you can hear the turbo ever-so-gently spool up as the revs build and there’s a great sense of elasticity to the engine too. For instance you can drop it into a high gear and because the turbo has an all-areas pass to the party, you’ll always get a nice shove when it starts to huff and puff, and at times you can almost make out the waste gate venting exhaust flow in order to stick to prescribed boost levels.

The 5-speed manual gearbox, likewise, is a smooth operator. Featuring a light clutch and fairly short shifts between gates, it gets the job of gear changes done with minimum fuss. It does feel a little loose and floppy when pushed, but this is only an issue when you're chomping at the bit, charging hard, and trying to change gears in as little time as possible. During everyday driving and commuting, it works a treat.

The brakes are more than up to the task of decelerating the force-fed Polo, and though they don't provide brilliant feel or fade free performance 100 per cent of the time, they still manage to do the job asked of them, and were reliable enough - even when punished. This go-fast Polo is an impressive pocket rocket, and in addition to sharing the celebrated GTI moniker with what is arguably the most legendary Volkswagen hatch in existence, it also bears a close resemblance to its bigger brother, the Golf GTI. And while the car on test is not quite as accomplished as the level-headed Golf, the Polo in no way tarnishes the GTI namesake.

Mimicking its bigger brother - the five-spoke alloy wheels, red brake calipers, the sporty front and rear aprons, twin exhaust pipes, the rear spoiler and of course the red-rimmed grille with GTI lettering - the Polo cuts a fine figure and stands out as sporty, but without being too radical. The multifaceted headlights are sporty enough, while the integrated wing mirror-indicators add a little class to the fine young pup and though the car doesn't generate as much attention as the Golf GTI on the road, it's got plenty of road presence for something so small.

Inside the car, the cabin may appear a little sparse from the driver's seat, but more than anything that's due to ergonomic packaging of the HVAC controls and centre console. I actually liked minimal number of push-buttons and dials, and even the cruise control is a simplified stalk-mounted device. Everything that you'd expect from a Volkswagen is there, it's just been optimised for this application, and it works well. The tri-spoke leather steering wheel and gear shifter add a bit of sportiness to proceedings, as do the alloy pedals and aluminium-look dash garnishes, and the GTI is available exclusively as a 3-door.

An omnipotent hot hatch? Not quite, but for what you pay it's tremendous value. You get a European built car for under $30,000 that features a turbocharged 5-valve engine, a car that mimics its bigger brother's good looks and is still very much a performance hatch, able to hold a respectable line through a corner and sprint away rapidly from standstill.

Clearly aimed at those younger buyers who may not be able to dance with the Golf GTI for fiduciary reasons, the Polo GTI is a fun to drive car with a very curious nature - as in "maybe I should give this big V8 a run for its money?" The turbocharged aspect of the car could make insurance premiums a bit stiff for the under 25s, but if this is of no concern you will find many years of driving enjoyment to be had with this energetic German.

If you liked the look of the Golf GTI, but didn't want to spend forty thou, this could be the cost effective alternative you've been looking for. It's an accomplished vehicle, and with compact cars gaining popularity right around the world, the Polo GTI is a great hero model to top off the model range. Better yet, it adds a new and very worthy flavour to Volkswagen's famed GTI garage.
Source: webwombat

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