Sometimes it feels like I’m in a club that’s having a bit of a membership crisis. When it comes to transmissions in cars I’m still a paid-up member of the Stick Wigglers Association, but it seems like the Too Posh To Push brigade are getting more numerous by the day.
I like to feel that the left-hand side of my body is part of the driving process. Left arm operates gearstick, left leg pumps the clutch up and down. It’s too much like hard work for some but for me, particularly when driving a nippy little hot hatch, it’s all part of the fun.
So thank you Volkswagen. Thank you for re-affirming my faith that we’re not sleep-walking into a future where manual gearboxes are a forgotten relic of the past.
Wind the clock back to 2010 and there was shock news when the latest Volkswagen Polo GTI was revealed – it was dual-clutch automatic only! A very good automatic, admittedly, but there wasn’t a manual option at all. It was the same on the Skoda Fabia vRS, SEAT’s Ibiza Cupra and Audi A1 TFSI. All shared the same running gear and manuals were off the menu, which seemed a travesty in a selection of cars that begged to be taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown around.
Now, in 2015, that decision has been reversed. The latest Polo GTI has undergone a host of changes but the standout feature is the return of the six-speed manual. A seven-speed DSG remains as a £1,245 option but, this time around, it’s the lesser choice. Why so? Because the manual boasts more torque from the new 1.8-litre TSI engine (320Nm vs 250Nm), the dual-clutch’s torque output limited to protect its innards.
The 0-62mph time is the same for both transmissions,the DSG’s rapid shifts overcoming the reduced torque output, but the manual feels more muscular and seems to respond more eagerly from low revs than even the old twin-charged model.
From the off the new engine proves it’s a worthy replacement. It’s more refined than the venerable twin-charged 1.4, which packed a big punch from its smaller displacement but sounded rough at high revs. The loss of the supercharger and its improvements to low-rev engine response might have been a concern as I pulled away but clever turbo technology means there’s barely any pause for power. The 1.8 TSI responds quickly, pulls eagerly and, despite the extra 400cc, is just as economical as the old engine.
The handling has also been improved on the new GTI. While the steering has no more feel than before the chassis has a more planted feel, the Polo riding like a bigger car and flowing with the road in a similar manner to the brilliant Golf GTI. It might not dance between apexes like the all-conquering Fiesta ST but it is more settled and that makes it less nervous on shoddy roads.
This particular Polo had the optional (£245) ‘Sport Performance Kit with Dynamic Chassis Control’ and based on my limited time in the car it strikes a good balance between capable handler and comfortable cruiser. One thing the performance kit adds is a ‘Sport’ button mounted on the dash. When pressed it makes the steering feel heavier, sharpens throttle response, stiffens the active dampers and activates a sound resonator that amplifies exhaust and engine tones. It’s a mixed bag, with the steering and throttle feeling better and the car taking on a more lively demeanor as it leaps from bend to bend.
However, Sport mode adds a harsh edge to the ride that doesn’t suit the weather-worn roads of North Yorkshire. The sound resonator was a bit much too, particularly as it triggered an unwelcome vibration from somewhere in the dashboard that belies the Polo’s image of solid build quality.
Without driving a GTI on standard springs and dampers I can’t give a wholehearted ‘thumbs up’ for the Sport Performance Kit, but in non-Sport mode those adaptive dampers are very good.
Volkswagen have perfected their GTI identity now. The tartan seats, red line stretching across the grille into the headlights, GTI badges on the front wings and model name replaced by ‘GTI’ on the boot-lid are now all present on the Polo, just like the bigger Golf GTI. Understated looks too, with subtle bumper redesign and bigger wheels. It’s not flashy but it is smart.
Being a flagship model the GTI is the best equipped of the Polo range. There’s very little on the options list you’d feel you have to add as the Polo comes with 6.5-inch touchscreen, DAB radio, LED headlights, auto lights and wipers, audio inputs, Bluetooth, air-con and stop/start function along with 17-inch ‘Parabolica’ wheels as standard. If you want a little more then noteworthy options include cruise control with parking sensors (£400), satellite navigation (£700), that Sport Performance Kit (£245) and the Winter pack with heated seats (£360).
So does this latest incarnation change the Polo’s place in the market? No, despite the big improvements. The Fiesta ST and Clio 200 are still the default choices if handling is top of your list, but the Polo is much closer to them than it used to be.
The Polo is still being pitched as the sensible choice in this fiercely competitive sector and that makes its closest rival the Peugeot 208 GTI, which also packs a powerful engine and fun chassis with a level of comfort that makes it easy to live with. Now, thanks to the new engine, the Polo’s performance is even closer to the Frenchman and it may be a surprise to discover the Polo’s entry price of £18,900 is slightly lower than the Peugeot’s.
Cheaper to buy, better handling, faster in the mid-range and more generously equipped than before. What’s not to like about the 2015 Polo GTI?
2015 Volkswagen Polo GTI Statistics
|Performance & Economy||2015 Polo GTI Manual||2015 Polo GTI DSG||2010 Polo GTI|
|Engine||1,798cc turbocharged 4-cylinder, petrol||1,798cc turbocharged 4-cylinder, petrol||1,398cc supercharged & turbocharged 4-cylinder, petrol|
|Transmission||6-speed manual, front-engined, front-wheel drive||7-speed dual-clutch automatic, front-engined, front-wheel drive||7-speed dual-clutch automatic, front-engined, front-wheel drive|
|Power (PS / bhp)||192 / 190||192 / 190||180 / 178|
|Torque (Nm / lb.ft)||320 / 236||250 / 184||250 / 184|
|0 - 62 mph (seconds)||6.7||6.7||6.9|
|Top Speed (mph)||143||140||142|
|CO2 Emissions (g/km)||139||129||139|
|Combined Economy (mpg)||47.1||50.4||47.9|