Hot hatchbacks need a manual transmission – there, we said it. After driving the facelifted VW Polo GTI, we’re wrapping both arms and legs around the left pedal lest Volkswagen take it from us again.
The 6R-generation Polo GTI from 2009 came only with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission which proved almost as problematic from a reliability perspective as the 1.4-litre ‘twincharged’ four-cylinder it mated with.
Even before the whole DSG saga went down, I recall wanting to burn the automatic faster than it self-harmed its own clutch packs. Hard on the brakes in a straight line, wiping speed off coming into a corner, I was left furiously slapping its left paddleshifter never knowing when the electronics would permit access to a lower gear. Coming up to the next corner, it was impossible to press the engine into its redline without auto-upshifting, often right before turn-in.
Today, all that is just a bad dream. The new six-speed manual transmission has a featherweight, dainty movement between gears, perfectly in keeping with a 1234kg hatchback. The throw is not short, but nor is it long, and there’s just a hint of rubber between changes like a rifle-bolt that has been cling-wrapped.
The fresh engine it teams up with, a 1.8-litre turbocharged four from the Passat, is similarly creamy and smooth yet also bloody fast. Maximum 320Nm from 1450rpm to 4200rpm, peak 141kW from 4300rpm to 6200rpm – there is simply surging response everywhere in this car.
Indeed, the duo of engine and transmission give the latest Polo GTI a bit of an alluring, sports-luxury personality to go along with its more compliant suspension, bright touchscreen and superbly comfortable, classically tartan-trimmed cloth seats.
Volkswagen claims 0-100km/h in 6.7 seconds, but in contrast to its emissions claims (cough, cough) this is pessimistic because MOTOR has achieved a 6.26sec time (and 14.5sec quarter) in this very car at BFYB this year. Don't forget that only three years ago, a 1360kg Mk6 Golf GTI produced 155kW/280Nm along with a claimed 6.9sec 0-100km/h.
A seven-speed DSG continues in the Polo GTI as a $2500 option not to bother with, all those computer-controlled immediate shifts merely deliver an identical performance claim due to a 70Nm deficit (to preserve the troublesome DSG, you see).
Rarely will the driver of a Boxster Spyder emerge from the driver’s seat and say “might swap to the Polo now”, but so it was with Associate Editor Newman after a hard strafe in the Porsche. No elitism here. The little Volkswagen may be the smallest and cheapest car of the field by far, but it was far from left behind.
The beauty of the new drivetrain came to the fore on a hillclimb sandwiched between Boxster and F-Type ahead, and the Maloo and 308 behind. Attempting to be silky and maintain corner speed, I realised that the 1.8-litre turbo – an identical configuration to the original three-door Polo GTI from 2005 with 110kW/220Nm and a five-speed manual – lets you either pluck third and ride its mid-range or rev sweetly at the top of second. Either approach is perfectly fine.
A recent MY16 update has brought standard two-stage adaptive dampers and along with Sport stability control and grippy Brigestone Potenza 17-inch rubber, it gels near-perfectly with the drivetrain’s raunchy personality.
Through corners, the ordinary on-centre steering, most noticeable around town, gives way to firm and crisp response. Playing Polo is about indulging in bodyroll, exploring nose-tightening lift-off oversteer, finding sweet balance and nailing quick exits, rather than darting snickety-snick and wickedly-quick between bends a la 308 GTi. Tellingly, though, the Volkswagen’s steering, gearshifter and brake pedal feel are preferable to the double-the-price Peugeot.
“It’s a good thing!” exclaimed Newman, exiting Volkswagen’s littlest GTI after yet another cat-and-mouse stoush. We all agree, though the manual transmission only further lifts what is otherwise one of the most improved mid-life facelifts in recent times.
It may have been in Goliath company here, but just like the manual transmission itself, David proved a damned good bloke, standing tall even among A-grade sporting players.
While the Polo GTI's power and handling puts it on a par with some of the big boys in this comparison, the ESP won't turn completely off and sometimes gets in the way of some truly foot-to-the-floor shenanigans.
Body: 5-door, 5-seat hatch
Engine: 1798cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbocharger
Bore/stroke: 82.5 x 84.2mm
Power: 141kW @ 4300-6200rpm
Torque: 320Nm @ 1450-4200rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Suspension(F): A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Suspension(R): torsion beam, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Steering: electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes(F): 288mm ventilated discs, 2-piston calipers
Brakes(R): 232mm solid discs, single-piston calipers
Tyre sizes: 17.0 x 7.5-inch (f/r) 215/40 R17 (f/r)
Tyre: Bridgestone Pontenza S001
Price as tested: $27,490
Pros: Torquey engine; sweet gearshift; adaptive dampers
Cons: Loss of steering feel
Star Rating: 4/5