These days, mid-life updates in cars tend to be pretty minor. A little nip and tuck for the exterior, a tweak or two in the cabin, and maybe a tiny boost in power and fuel economy. Usually, we like to poke fun at how difficult it is to spot the changes. However, when news of VW’s newly refreshed Polo GTI landed, the changes seemed pretty drastic.
Sure, it had all the aforementioned minor cosmetic tweaks, but VW had gone and changed the whole engine. The 1.4-litre twin-charger engine was ousted for a 1.8-litre turbocharged unit, and this formerly DSG-only car was at last - praise be - given a manual gearbox option.
When I drove this rejuvenated, manual-cogged mini GTI earlier in the year, I liked it a lot. I even thought - despite the presence of electronic driver aids and all the usual gadgets - it felt like a bit of a throwback. It felt - as much the phrase is overused - old school. And, it turns out that it’s almost exactly the same width and length as the Mk2 Golf GTI, so that got me thinking: how do the two compare? Well, with both sitting in front of me, I’m in exactly the right position to tell you.
It’s odd seeing them both together. Yes, they’re the same size and they share a few of the same touches - GTI badging unchanged from the original Golf GTI and the red lipstick on the grilles, for instance - but the similarities don’t go much further. The Golf has that gloriously flat bonnet, the thick line swallowing the whole car from front to back, a boxy rear three-quarter and, of course, that instantly recognisable slab front with its slatted grille and quad round headlights. It’s an iconic look, and one that I love.
Of course, none of these things lend themselves well to aerodynamics or pedestrian safety, so the Polo is predictably a more bloated, cuddly shape, but it’s attractive in its own chubby way. So, the Golf is the one you want to look at, and the Polo is the one you’d rather get hit by while crossing the road.
You might notice this Golf isn’t quite standard, but to our eyes the modifications on this example - kindly supplied by CT reader Matthew Hartle - are complimentary. The old 15-inch BBS RA wheels have been swapped for 16-inch versions of the same design with a slight stretch on the tyres, and it’s received a reasonable drop on a set of coilovers. Other than that it’s mostly standard, and in exceptional condition for a near-30-year-old car.
On the inside, things still feel very different, but there are more parallels to be drawn here. I’m not talking about the retro-look tartan seats, as ironically the newer Polo has them fitted while the older Golf doesn’t, but both cabins feel like simple, uncluttered, and slightly dull spaces.
So, with both cars thoroughly examined from the outside, it’s time to go for a drive. First up, it’s the Golf.
The first thing that’s abundantly clear is the performance, or lack of it. Being an eight-valve model with just 110bhp, this thing isn’t quick, despite it being a few hundred kilos down on the newer Polo.
You have to rev it hard, and I mean really hard to get anything approaching decent forward momentum, but actually, I don’t mind that. It makes a nicely burly noise as the needle buzzes toward 7000rpm, and swapping cogs on the five-speed manual gearbox is surprisingly satisfying considering the long stroke. It takes a bit of practice to start shifting quickly, but it’s worth persevering.
With the first few corners dispatched, I’m pondering the handling. It’s skewed somewhat by not running on stock suspension, but you can tell that the chassis feels basic but predictable, and most importantly fun. It all feels eager and happy, and the whole lot is helped by nice steering, even if it is slow lock-to-lock compared to what we’re used to in modern hot hatchbacks.
With the Golf keys handed back to Hartle, it’s time to give the Polo a clobbering. And lordy, is the performance difference noticeable. With 189bhp available from the 1.8, we’re well up on power here, and it certainly feels so. It’s not an engine you need to rev out, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a punchy mid-range to enjoy, and a throaty exhaust note in the mix. 0-62mph takes 6.7 seconds, near enough two seconds faster than the old Golf.
The handling gap is equally chasm-like. The Polo’s a car you can lob about and really lean on, even with the traction control turned off. Although there’s no such thing as completely off; whatever you set the driver aids to, the understeer tackling XDS system - which brakes the inside front wheel during hard cornering - is always on, but that’s fine by me because it’s a decently effective system.
There’s body roll, sure, but not too much. The balance in the suspension between comfort and stiffness is a damn good one, and there are even adaptive dampers available for £249, which is a box you’d be daft not to tick.
One thing I’ve almost certainly lost by jumping from one car to the other is steering feel. The Polo’s not awful in the feedback stakes, but not brilliant either. However, it’s far more direct, and on a good road like the one I’m on now, that’s what matters more to me.
“The automotive progress in that gap results in the Polo offering a vastly different driving experience, and is a much more serious car in terms of handling”
There’s something nagging a little more than the steering though, and that’s the gearbox. Since it was the manual we tried last time out in the Polo GTI, we figured it would be remiss of us not to try out the seven-speed, twin-clutch DSG transmission, even if that hampers the whole throwback feel of the car.
The little pops and farts on each change are nice and all, but it seems a shame to lose the involving short and satisfying shifts of the Polo’s slick manual - it’s a box of cogs that makes me think VW Group needs a little more credit for the stick shifters it puts in its hotter cars.
You also lose a fair bit of torque. The Polo’s auto ‘box can’t handle the same 236lb ft as the manual (VW does have other DSG transmissions which could take it, but are prohibitively large and too heavy for the job), so you have to make do with 184lb ft. You get the twist for longer - between 1250 and 5300rpm as opposed to 1450 and 4500rpm in the manual - but the muscular in-gear thrust of the stick-shifting model is one of its best attributes. So if you’re going to buy one, save yourself £1245 extra you’re charged and go for the £18,900 manual (£19,530 as a five-door).
With a day of driving over, I’m pondering these two cars and what’s changed during the 25 years that split them. The automotive progress in that gap means the Polo offers a vastly different driving experience, and it’s a much more serious car in terms of handling, as well as being a hell of a lot plusher on the inside. But there are still parallels to be drawn: the old MkII feels like it’s willing to have fun, but is still refreshingly sensible in a very Germanic sort of way, just like the new Polo.
Yes, the ubiquitous Ford Fiesta ST understeers less, has sweeter steering and is on the whole sharper, but the Polo GTI really isn’t that far off. And, considering it doesn’t have an interior which makes you feel sick, and a crashy ride bordering on the unacceptable, it’s a damn sight easier to live with. It’s probably the only hot hatch of this size I’d seriously consider over the Ford, but do I favour it over the old Golf? That’s a tricky one.
With that age difference, they both have very different characteristics, and are cars you use in different ways. It’s great fun kicking the Polo’s head in, because you know it can take it, whereas the Golf is happier being driven a little more considerately; it’s more about how this car looks and feels, and I have to say, it does look superb. Several decades on, the old MkII has arguably never looked better, and is immeasurably cooler than the Polo.
Really, there are no winners and losers here, just the satisfying knowledge that the winning VW GTI recipe is still very much the same.
Additional photography by Tom Barnes. Aeriel footage by Altitude Media Ltd