2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI Review:: Sandown Raceway weekender

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This year marks 10 years that I’ve owned my six-speed, manual-only 9N Volkswagen Polo GTI, named Hanz. But importantly, 2016 also marks 40 years since the original Golf GTI first launched back in 1976.

And while, over time and seven generations, the Volkswagen Golf GTI has grown larger and heavier and more powerful, it’s the smaller, lighter Volkswagen Polo GTI that I think, has become more like the original 1976 Golf GTI, than the modern-day Mk7 Golf GTI.

Now, I’ve loved my 2006 Polo GTI since the day I bought him, and we’ve had a ball together blasting through kilometres of twisty mountain roads in both Victoria and New South Wales.

I love his compact proportions, slick six-speed manual transmission, and peppy 110kW/220Nm turbocharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder. He’s fun. Really fun.

In its day, the three-door-only 9N Polo GTI cost $26,990 (before on-road costs), and at the time, was considered well-specced.

Jump forward to today, and at $27,490 (before on-road costs), the updated 2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI isn’t just the GTI for those who can’t afford a Golf GTI, it’s a properly good thing in its own right.

One of the most competitively priced and well-equipped light hot hatches on sale, the five-door-only MY16 Polo GTI comes standard with halogen daytime running lights, a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a rear-view camera, and 17-inch ‘Parabolica’ alloy wheels.

You also get ‘Clark’ tartan sports seats, a red-stripped honeycomb grille, GTI badging on the grille, tailgate and front fenders, a neat part-black rear wing, and dual chrome-tipped exhausts.

The rest is standard baby hot hatch: five seats, a small (204-litre) boot, and reasonable levels of light-car practicality.

A six-speed manual transmission is standard once again – the previous twin-charged 6R Polo GTI was a seven-speed dual-clutch-only affair – as is the use of a single turbocharger.

That’s right. With Volkswagen ditching the problematic 132kW/250Nm supercharged and turbocharged 1.4-litre ‘CAVE’ four-cylinder of the previous incarnation, under the bonnet of the 2016 Polo GTI is a new, third-generation version of the Audi-developed EA888 turbocharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder.

Go with the manual as tested here and you get 141kW of power between 4300-6200rpm and 320Nm of torque between 1450-4200rpm. Opt for the $2500 dearer seven-speed DSG option, and, as in the old 1.4-litre, torque is again limited to 250Nm.

Regardless of which transmission you favour, the amply spritely baby GTI claims 0-100km/h in 6.7 seconds.

That means, in manual guise, the humble little Polo GTI is only 21kW and 30Nm off the 162kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo in the Golf GTI, and only 0.2 seconds slower to 100km/h than its bigger brother.

What’s more, when you really get into it, the Polo GTI is also arguably closer in spirit to the original Golf GTI than the current GTI as well. Allow me to explain…

The Polo GTI’s engine is a 1.8-litre four-cylinder, the original Golf GTI had a 1.6-litre four-cylinder. The Polo GTI measures 3983mm long and 1682mm wide, the original GTI was 3705mm and 1630mm, respectively. You see where I’m going with this.

And, while at 1234kg (tare), the new Polo GTI can’t match the featherweight 810kg kerb weight figure of the original 1976 GTI, it is still 79kg lighter than an equivalent six-speed manual 2016 Golf GTI.

So is the Polo GTI as agile and fun as the numbers suggest? Well, I grabbed my helmet and signed up for another Driver Dynamics Level 3 High Performance driver training day and headed out to Melbourne’s Sandown Raceway to find out.

Sat in pit lane among the usual track-day throng of Subaru WRXs, Mitsubishi Evos, and Renault Megane RSs, the Volkswagen Polo GTI certainly struggles to stand out from the crowd. It’s far more ‘Oh, don’t mind me’ than ‘Oi, look over here’.

Rolling out of the pits, however, the throttle is dropped and the GTI has no issue getting up to speed before being tipped into Turn One for the very first time.

Unfortunately, it’s immediately apparent that the GTI’s sports seats, while somewhat bolstered, aren’t quite bucketed enough to keep your bum as firmly positioned as you might like. The headrest too, can push on the back of the helmet a little, requiring some minor adjustment to seating position.

Doing their combined best to keep the Polo GTI on and track and pointing in the right direction are standard 215mm-wide, 40-aspect Bridgestone Potenza S001 tyres, independent MacPherson struts up front, and a torsion beam rear out back.

Riding on lowered GTI-specific sports suspension – 10mm lower than a standard Polo in the front and 15mm lower in the rear – the GTI also brings Volkswagen’s Extended Electronic Differential Lock (or XDL) to the party.

An electronic alternative to a ‘proper’ mechanical limited-slip front differential, the XDL system essentially uses the car’s stability control system to brake the inside wheel in a bid to reduce understeer. And with the first few sessions lapping Sandown’s thirteen turns and 3.1 kilometres under the belt, overall, each element is doing their part.

The other big bonus of the updated MY16 Polo GTI is the standard inclusion of electronically adjustable dampers (different to the Mk7 Golf GTI’s adaptive dampers).

Optionally available on overseas models since the Polo GTI’s December 2014 debut, the new, trick suspension means drivers can choose between an ultra-compliant, road-friendly ‘Normal’ mode, and a notably stiffer ‘Sport’ setting for more spirited situations – such as track days.

Teamed with an equally-new ‘Sport’ mode, which sharpens throttle response and ups in-cabin engine sounds, the increased performance setting is easily accessed via a dash-top-mounted button located above the central infotainment touchscreen.

Pushing the magic button also increases the weight of the Polo GTI’s electro-mechanical speed sensitive steering. However, while the setup is suitably accurate, it is short on feel and feedback.

Even with Sport mode engaged – and thus the adjustable suspension in its firmest setting – the Polo GTI will still exhibit some roll and push, and it’s here where you feel the Bridgestone tyres starting to struggle.

A few more laps in – with the car’s stability control in ‘Sport’ setting too, which raises the system’s interjection threshold – and rather than getting warmer and stickier, the tyres start to scrub on turn-in and spin-up under throttle. In short, when driven with pace, the Polo GTI just doesn’t quite have the initial bite or lateral grip to match its stellar engine.

The brakes too are another key component not feeling as at home on the track as on the road.

Comprising 310mm ventilated discs up front, 230mm solid items out back, and red-painted calipers at all four corners, successive quick laps result in some fade and a middle pedal progressively sinking nearer and nearer toward the GTI’s red-piped floor mats.

This can be temporarily rectified with a handful of cool-down laps, however, it’s still worth keeping in mind if regular track work is something you’re considering.

Similar to the GTI’s steering, is its six-speed manual gearbox.

A little light and almost flimsy in its action, it too lacks feel and engagement, but again, is accurate and still accomplished.

The real gem though, is the Polo GTI’s punchy engine.

Strong, gutsy, and happy to rev from around 3000-3500rpm to just shy of 7000rpm, the turbo 1.8-litre endows the sporty Polo with enough get-up to hustle out of corners, and see the speedo consistently nudge 190km/h up Sandown’s 910-metre-long back straight. And according to the spec sheet, that’s still 46km/h shy of the car’s claimed 236km/h top speed. Impressive for a ‘city car’, no?

Full-tilt brake and tyre performance aside, the 2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI is still a solid car, and one that’s vastly capable around a circuit.

We came to the track though, to find out if the Polo GTI is as agile and fun as its numbers suggest. And the reality is, while it is most definitely the former, it struggles with the later – it’s just a touch dull and uninvolving and uninspiring to be truly entertaining.

In the grand scheme of things, however, to have a largely practical five-door hot hatch that so adeptly balances everyday comfort and driveability, with legitimate off-the-mark and through-the-bends performance, for less than $30,000, is impressive.

The 2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI might be a touch more expensive than CarAdvice favourite, the three-door, manual-only Ford Fiesta ST ($25,990), but it’s cheaper than the feisty five-door, automatic-only Renault Clio RS200 ($30,000). And while it is perhaps not as sharp on track as either of those two, the refined and technology-packed MY16 Polo GTI still has plenty to offer keen buyers.

It might not quite be the ideal weekend warrior, but if you’re a fan of the original Golf GTI, the new Polo GTI might just be the modern-day GTI that surprises you.

Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI images by Tom Fraser.