Volkswagens that bear the GTI badge have attained a legend of their own. These cars wear a familiar, polished design but hide a mischievous streak beneath, ready to be unleashed, at the slightest provocation. So it's no surprise that we, at OVERDRIVE, were drooling when Volkswagen announced that the Polo GTI will be available in India pretty soon. A proper hot hatch is what we expected, and we've finally managed to sample the GTI around our favourite set of roads. This is what the GTI is all about
"Familiar but hot as well" was the first thought that echoed in my head as I caught sight of the car rolling up to our test location. That was largely due to the bright red colour and lovely LED headlamps. Of course, this is me knowing what I'm looking at - most folks will still see a regular Polo at first glance until they realise that it is missing two doors. I'm glad VW chose to get the three-door variant to India. Aside from the subtly different bumpers, twin exhaust pipes and the GTI badging on the grille, front fenders and boot, there's little to tell this car apart from the thousands of Polos on the road. Would I have liked some stripes or a more pronounced body kit? Absolutely, but that's not the way Volkswagen works, and all its cars choose class over flash.
Nevertheless, let me walk you through the details. The grille gets a glossy, honeycomb effect with the red stripe at the bottom and a big GTI badge announcing the car's identity. The air dam gets the honeycomb effect as well, and another differentiation to the Polo is the blacked-out splitter below the front bumper. I particularly like the full-LED headlamps and its integrated DRLs that are unmissable. There are a few red accents inside the headlamp cluster too. The side profile of the car is neat thanks to the three-door layout and large glass area with just one pillar cutting across it. Finally, I cannot move ahead without mentioning the taut shut lines that exude a sense of quality and solidity.
I do have a complaint - the 16-inch alloy wheels. They simply look boring and would fit better on a Jetta than a GTI. Internationally, the GTI gets 17-inch wheels which fill the arches pretty well, but Volkswagen brought in the 16s to improve ride quality. The rear end gets a blacked-out spoiler that extends from the edge of the roof and a faux diffuser at the bottom of the bumper. The twin-chrome exhausts add to the sportiness, and although the tail lamp looks like a regular Polo's, the shape of the elements is what sets it apart.
The interior layout again reminds strongly of the Polo, but there are a few distinguishing bits like the gloss-black central fascia, a larger touchscreen infotainment system and rotary knobs for the air conditioning.
The instrument cluster has new analogue dials for the engine temperature and fuel level. There's a digital multi-functional display screen that shows the engine oil temperature, odometer, trip meter, ambient temperature, driving range and speed.
The flat-bottomed, leather-wrapped steering wheel looks great with the contrasting red stitching. It's nice and chunky to hold with logically placed switches to operate the infotainment system and MFD.
The Tartan fabric seats, with their retro themed chequered pattern, look classy even though it isn't leather. They have adequate bolstering to hold you snug when you chuck the car around corners. Ingress to the rear is pretty easy with a simple mechanism that folds the front seat backrest. Space at the rear is not a squeeze and perfectly adequate for full-sized passengers. Since this is an international-spec car, there are several safety bits such as Isofix points and three-point seat belts for all three occupants.
That said, the GTI is devoid of a few features such as a start-stop button and a rear-view camera we've come to expect from a premium car. Still, the cabin oozes quality and there's a Germanic, built-to-last feel to the switches and knobs around the cabin. Some parts, such as the stalks behind the steering wheel, are shared with its VW group cousins like the Skoda Octavia.
The 1.8-litre TSI unit in this car debuted in the Skoda Laura TSI and currently resides in the Octavia and Superb. In the GTI, however, it makes 12PS more and is a complete thriller! 192PS between 5,400rpm-6,200rpm and 250Nm of max torque between 1,250-5,300rpm are very impressive figures, but that's just one side of the coin. It's the way that power is delivered that makes this engine one of our favourites.
The power delivery is very crisp and linear. The tacho needle races to the redline, and there is no sudden surge as the boost kicks in. You expect to be shoved hard into the seat when you stamp on the accelerator pedal, but instead the car sprints ahead smoothly and keeps gathering pace at a very high rate. In fact, you have to be a bit cautious because the manner in which the car gathers pace is alarmingly deceptive. The speedo rises quickly in response to throttle inputs, and before you know it you are well past legal speeds. This is a seriously fast car, Vbox recorded 0-100kmph time of just 6.71 seconds, kind of fast! Volkswagen claims a top speed of 235kmph, and I'm confident this car will quite easily show that on the clocks.
Internationally, the car comes with the option of a 6-speed manual transmission and a 7-speed DSG. In India, however, we get the automatic transmission, and we aren't complaining - the gearbox is an absolute gem. Shifts are precise and arrive just when you want them. Transitions through the gears are seamless, and you don't feel any jerks during upshifts or downshifts. Select Sports mode and the shift points are moved to the redline. The gearbox is so good in this mode that the engine is never out of the meat of its powerband.
Shift to D and the motor calms down. The gearbox shifts still quickly and smoothly, but engine revs won't get very high. But then again, this is the GTI, so response to throttle inputs are quick, even in this mode. Paddle shifts are standard, further boosting the involvement on a winding road.
When we drove the car in Germany last month, we noticed how the ride was pretty stiff, even on those smooth roads. Suspecting that it might not suit India well, Volkswagen has increased the ground clearance by 15mm taking it up to 155mm. Further, the company has worked on the suspension set-up as well (we're waiting to hear what exactly was done) to make the car more supple and plaint on our roads. And of course, there are the 16-inch wheels wrapped in 215/45 R16 Bridgestone Turanza tyres.
Despite the suspension being tuned for India, the GTI handles really well. Turn-in isn't as razor sharp as we expected, but once in the corner, the GTI offers immense grip and stubbornly sticks to a line. Feedback from the chassis is great and the electric steering is quick and direct, but it feels quite similar to the standard Polo, and we'd have liked a more connected feel to the road. The car also remains planted around mildly bumpy corners and only feels a bit shaken up when driving on rutted roads.
It's only when you begin pushing really hard, something GTI owners will probably do, that the soft suspension and luxury car tyres show their weaknesses. The tyres struggle to lay down all that power when accelerating hard out of slow corners. If the ESP is on, power gets drastically reduced and if you turn the system off, you get wasteful wheel spin. Exits from hairpin bends demand a teeny bit of patience and you can fully apply the power only when you feel the tyres properly hooked up.
Body roll is well controlled in most situations, but in quick direction changes, like a chicane or succession of corners, the body roll is a little more than we'd have expected with a car wearing this badge. As a result, the GTI can feel a little loose at the rear in fast direction changes. Fun, but also demands awareness from the driver.
However, keep in mind that we are talking about close to the limit driving, the type reserved for empty mountain roads or, ideally, a closed circuit. In nearly every other situation, the GTI is either a proper driver's car or a stable and reasonably comfortable machine.
The brakes are spectacular and have an extremely strong bite, easily the best I've experienced on any vehicle at this price point. The car comes to stop from 100kmph in 3.03 seconds, covering 37.61 metres in the process. The pedal has a very nice, firm feel and offers good progression. Despite the immense performance, I never felt intimidated or nervous that the brakes were too sharp to use. Despite some hard driving, the brakes offered consistent performance, and I doubt fade will ever be an issue on road use.
When I dialled down the pace, I began to appreciate the comfortable ride that the car offered. Ride quality over broken surfaces is great for the kind of car the GTI is, but you do hear a few loud thuds when you go over sharp potholes. That said, comfort is nice, but it's not something the few potential buyers for a car like this have high up on their priority list. I wonder, what could this car's dynamic performance have been if it wasn't toned down for our market?
There was a big hue and cry online about the price, but try this for perspective - in the UK, the Polo GTI is priced head on with the Mini Cooper S. In India, both are CBUs but the Mini costs considerably more. Yes, the Volkswagen Polo GTI looks remarkably similar to its humble sibling, but that's where the familiarity ends.
The Polo GTI is tremendous fun and also undoubtedly the best-handling car in VW India's line-up. I'll go one step further and say with confidence that it's the best driver's car below Rs 30 lakh. The engine is a nutter and there's more than enough power for our road conditions. For all that performance, you also get the practicality of a boot and decent space in a well-appointed cabin.
However, it's quite obvious that looks are not a concern for a GTI buyer; this customer is looking out solely for a sharp and hardcore driving experience. Ironically, in making the Polo GTI more mass appeal, Volkswagen has lost some of the magic that appeals to the car's target customers. Regardless, at Rs 25.65 lakh (ex-showroom Mumbai), nothing can keep you entertained like the Polo GTI.
Images by Suresh Narayanan