Just why Volkswagen chose to launch two desirable performance hatchbacks less than a week apart remains a mystery. But the Golf R and the Polo GTI will get any petrolhead’s heart beating faster – even though the twosome have very little in common. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
Ask any motoring enthusiast to list their favourite hot hatchbacks, and the chances are VW’s iconic Golf GTI will be near the top of the list – and rightly so.
After all, the GTI pioneered the hot hatch trend, and six generations on it’s still one of the genre’s leading exponents. In that time, it has grown in size and stature, while the engine’s output has shown commensurate gains in power and torque.
Today’s Golf 6 GTI is a 155kW, turbo-engined tar burner that combines loads of urge and grippy road manners with a comfortably appointed interior. It’s already being described as the best GTI yet.
But in the performance arena, good is never good enough. The latest GTI may represent the pinnacle of that nameplate to date, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s the fastest or more powerful production Golf in the family. That honour belongs to … the Golf R.
The “R” is to Volkswagen what the “S” is to Audi – a moniker applied only to special, performance-optimised performance cars. To take that analogy a step further, the Golf R is to the Golf line-up what the S3 is to the Audi A3 range: a performance flagship.
The Golf R has certainly been equipped with all the Right Stuff: a turbo engine, all-wheel drive, big alloy wheels, low-profile rubber, and the obligatory understated body kit. The result is stern and purposeful without being too menacing.
The 2-litre, direct-injection engine’s output is raised to a rumbustious 188kW by upping the turbo boost to 1,2bar, and adapting the engine management system accordingly. Some engine components have also been strengthened. The 350Nm torque peak adds satisfying grunt to the overall power delivery.
Golf R buyers get to choose between a six-speed manual or a six-speed DSG transmission – the latter is the more efficient option, and also allows slightly more rapid acceleration. But the manual ‘box, with its nicely weighted shift action, will remain the enthusiast’s first choice.
The 4Motion all-wheel drive system is another key addition to this flagship package. It adds vital traction under hard acceleration, and uses a Haldex multiplate clutch to share the power between the front and rear axles.
Another core element of the Golf R is the suspension, which is stiffer and lower than the already talented set-up of the GTI. The fully independent system combines front MacPherson struts with a multilink rear.
The Golf R’s stability control system – dubbed ESP in VW-speak – offers an intermediate “sport” mode, which permits a measure of traction loss and mild oversteer before it intervenes. In practice, this allows a more involving, and more thrilling, driving experience.
So, it looks the part, and it seems to have the muscle and the clever electronics to match. But what does it all boil down to in sheer performance terms?
The manual gearbox Golf R is credited with a 0-to-100km/h sprint time of 5.7sec, while top speed is predictably governed to 250km/h. Yes, I know: Who would ever want to go faster, especially since the open-road speed limit remains less than half that? But heck – why rein in a horse that wants to run faster …
For the Playstation generation, the DSG-equipped Golf R nicks 0.2sec off the manual Golf R’s 0-100km/h sprint time, thanks to its snappier, paddle-induced gear changes.
Given that fuel prices reached near-record levels only days after the Golf R’s track-based launch, fuel efficiency is an important facet, even for performance cars like this.
The combined-cycle consumption figure is a claimed 8.5 -litre/100km, but take that with a pinch of salt (or a whiff of high-octane fuel). Drive with the enthusiasm the Golf R demands, and 11-litres/100km in mixed conditions would be a more realistic expectation.
Of course, life couldn’t be more pleasant in the Golf R’s cabin. Sculpted, high-backed front seats take pride of place and offer superior comfort and support.
A grippy, thick-rimmed steering wheel, a racy gearshift knob, alloy pedals and blue-tinged instrument dials all add to a sporty sense of occasion.
Is the Golf R better than the GTI? That depends. As an expression of the hot hatch state of the art, the Golf R is up there with the best: close relative Audi’s S3 and the Renault Mégane RS. But its added complexity and its all-wheel drive, rob it of some of the purity of purpose which remains a GTI hallmark.
Besides, at R408,930 for the manual, and R423,430 for the DSG version, the Golf R isn’t exactly cheap.
Which brings us to the second VW hot hatch to make its debut in less than a week. Cape Town hosted the launch of the much-vaunted and eagerly awaited Polo GTI – a car which, ironically, exemplifies much of what was so appealing about the original Mk 1 Golf GTI.
Of course, the modern Polo GTI is a much more sophisticated car than Golf-based original – and it’s better packaged too. But this “small” GTI has some of the cheek and edge that made the first Golf GTI such a universally appealing model.
The Polo GTI is a somewhat different machine. Despite its limited 1,390cc capacity, the engine combines turbo and supercharging to deliver an eager, linear stream of power and torque. The 132kW power maximum equates to almost exactly 95kW/litre, and a power-to-weight ratio of104kW/ton.
Those figures easily eclipse the first Golf GTI’s output, as does the rest of the execution: a lowered, fettled suspension, 7Jx17 alloy wheels shod with 215/40 R17 rubber, ESP stability control, and ABS-controlled disc brakes all round.
You can choose any gearbox you like for the Polo, as long as it is the seven-speed DSG dual-clutch unit now in wide use within the broader VW product family. Naturally, shift paddles behind the steering wheel rim create a measure of F1 mystique.
VW’s own performance data suggests a 0-100km/h dash completed in 6.9sec, and a top speed of 229km/h – figures which are well above the level of the original GTI. Drive with verve, and the Polo’s appetite will obviously increase, but its efficiency is admirable – as is the CO2 emissions rating.
The Polo GTI is the top model in the local line-up, which means it’s pretty loaded with extras. Niceties such as remote central locking, air-con, a trip computer, CD receiver, electric mirror adjustment and electric windows are included, while the Polo’s solid build quality is reassuring in a country where we keep our cars far longer than the European norm.
So, two hot hatches. Both wear the VW badge with pride. One epitomises the sharp end of the performance hatchback field. The other introduces a more cost-effective, smaller but also wieldier and keener driving experience.
For me, it’s the Polo GTI that gets the nod, because it is the wielder, feistier, ultimately less-diluted car. But then, the Golf R adds sophistication, technology and space to the party, and truly represents the cutting edge in hot hatchback terms.
Our best solution? Buy both … DM
VW Polo GTI
In-line four-cylinder, 1,392cc, force-induced
Seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch
132kW @ 6,000rpm
250Nm @ 2,500rpm
8,3 l/100km (combined cycle)
VW Golf R
In-line four-cylinder, 1,984cc, supercharged
Six-speed S-tronic dual-clutch
188kW @ 6,000rpm
350Nm @ 2,500rpm