Johannesburg - With the launch of its latest Polo GTI, Volkswagen may be in danger of taking some shine off its iconic Golf GTI and cannibalising some sales from it.

Where the fastest version of the Polo used to be considered a poor man’s GTI, the latest Polo range-topper has grown into a hot hatch with real pace and aspirational appeal, a car buyers might consider without feeling like they’re downgrading too much from a Golf GTI.

Apart from the Golf’s extra legroom, the ‘teenage’ Polo GTI mostly matches its bigger brother in terms of performance, refinement, technology and safety - all at a major price saving of R375 900 vs R548 600.

First off, there’s been a power increase from the old Polo GTI. A two-litre turbo petrol with outputs of 147kW and 320Nm now resides in the engine bay, replacing the 1.8 turbo of the previous-generation Polo GTI which delivered 141kW and 250Nm. A six-speed DSG automatic sends the thrust to the front wheels.

That hike in torque is matched to an athletic chassis that puts down the power in a tidy fashion, helped along by sports suspension and a front differential lock.

Compared to run-of-the-mill Polos the GTI hunkers 15mm closer to the road and comes standard with steel springs, but at extra cost you can spec up the car with Sport Select suspension, comprising active dampers with switchable modes to soften or stiffen the ride.

In either case the Polo GTI comes standard with driving profile selection where the driver can select between Normal, Sport, Eco and Individual Modes - affecting the steering, gearshifts, engine sound, and - in the case of the Sport Select version - the suspension firmness.

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Accessing and starting the Polo GTI is done with the fob remaining in your pocket, and this keyless operation is part of a well-stocked features list that also includes dual zone climate control, cruise control, a digital instrument panel, and an infotainment system with a 20cm touch screen.

The array of extra-cost options on offer, depending on your budget, includes a panoramic sunroof; and an Advanced Safety Package which comprises Parallel Park Assist, Park Distance Control, Rear View camera, Blind Spot Detection, Rear Traffic Alert, and Electric Folding mirrors.

The Polo’s smart cabin sets the standard in the compact car segment for its classy look and feel. Soft-touch surfaces and a neat, uncluttered dashboard set a stylish scene, and this top-of-the range Polo gets a touch of glamour with a GTI gear knob and Art Velour upholstered sport seats, along with black rooflining, red contrast stitching, and a multifunction sports steering wheel.

The sports seats are optionally available in black leather upholstery with seat heating. Adding colour is a dash panel that can be ordered in Deep Iron Metallic or Velvet Red.

Externally identifying the GTI as the whizz-kid of the Polo range is a sportier bumper with integrated spoiler lip and fog lights, a red stripe in the radiator grille, 17-inch ‘Milton Keynes’ alloy wheels (or optional 18-inchers as on our test car), red-painted brake callipers, and C-shaped black high-gloss air curtains in the bumper. The car can be further glammed up with optional LED headlights with a red winglet that extends the red stripe in the radiator grille.

The tail end gets an enlarged, two-piece roof spoiler painted black, along with a high-gloss black diffuser and chrome dual tailpipes, plus LED tail light clusters that provide a distinctive light signature at night.

These sporty addendums, while still relatively subtle, hint at a car that should be taken seriously when lined up next to it at a traffic light - and indeed this is so.

With our Vbox connected and testing at Gauteng altitude, the Polo GTI covered the 0-100km/h sprint in 6.6 seconds and the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds - just a shade slower than the 6.5 seconds and 14.6 seconds we achieved in the Golf GTI with its 169kW and 350Nm outputs.

That’s good old power-to-weight ratio at work there, with the lesser-powered but smaller Polo having less mass to shift.

In overtaking acceleration the more powerful Golf still has the edge however, managing 60-120km/h in 5.3 seconds versus the Polo’s 6.0 seconds, while the Polo’s 237km/h top speed also trails the Golf’s 248km/h.

The Polo GTI’s appeal lies in the easy delivery of its performance, which has smooth gusto throughout the rev range. Turbo lag is all but absent and its quick sprints are child’s play to achieve with the auto gearbox and launch control: left-foot brake, build revs, and release the brake - and off it zooms with just a brief chirp of the front tyres.

It’s all neat and tidy with minimal torque steer twitching the steering wheel to and fro, even under harsh acceleration. In fast cornering the Polo GTI maintains this neat and slick nature, with an agility that invites the enthusiast driver to explore its playful side. That fun factor is enhanced by being able to boot the throttle nice and early out of tight corners, thanks to the diff lock always applying torque to the front wheel with the most grip, while stability control keeps it all pointing in the right direction.

With Sport mode selected a cheeky exhaust bark adds some vocal charm to the car’s high-spirited temperament.

In Sport the ride is noticeably firm and jittery, but in normal mode the bump-absorption is smoothed right out to comfortable commuting levels.

And the Polo GTI is hardly a fuel-guzzler either, with our test car averaging an impressively economical 7.7 litres per 100km.

The new VW Polo GTI DSG is sold with a 3 year/120 000km warranty and 3 year/ 45 000km Volkswagen Service Plan.

VERDICT

Every now and then a car comes along that just nails it, like a hit song that goes straight to the top of the charts, and the fast version of Wolfsburg’s impressive new Polo range has Despacito-like success written all over it.

Not only does the pup come close to matching the big dog in terms of outright performance, but it’s grown into a more suave and sophisticated car.

It’s hard to fault. The Polo GTI’s refinement, build quality and above all bang for buck propels it straight into Car of the Year contention.

Drive360