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VW Polo GTI 2018 review – finally worthy of those three letters?

2 hours 27 min ago
For  Impressive mid-range grunt, competent daily driver Against  Handling is one-dimensional, adept, but not exciting

VW's Polo GTI is a polished and capable, but lack intensity compared to rivals and playfulness of the bigger Golf GTI

The Polo GTI has always found itself in somewhat of a predicament. Designed as a grown up, mature supermini in standard form, the Polo GTI has never really found favour with enthusiasts thanks to this underlying conservatism. Repeatedly unable to capture the larger Golf GTI’s effervescence, the new Polo GTI has been redesigned from the ground up to achieve this goal, and is closer than ever to its talented bigger brother. But can it capture the Golf GTI’s magic, or will it fall into the same ‘must try harder’ category as previous versions?

Visually, the Polo is not off to a great start. The now five-door-only bodywork, shared with the standard car, is over-complex and looks more like a demonstration of VW’s latest metal stamping techniques than an actual production car. Combined with mundane front and rear fascias, even the GTI’s trademark design cues like the honeycomb grille and red highlights struggle to lift the Polo GTI above indistinct. Compared to its wide-stanced PSA rivals, and the aggressive new Fiesta ST, the Polo’s lack of visual pizzazz is not surprising, but not any less underwhelming.

> Click here for our review of the Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport

Under the skin, however, the new Polo GTI has made a much better fist of aping its big brother. Now based on a similar, albeit simplified chassis, sharing the same excellent EA888 turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and the standard Golf GTI’s XDS electronic front diff, have these new ingredients finally given the Polo GTI the tools to offer a Golf GTI experience at a lower price point? Well, yes, and no.

Performance and 0-60 time > competitive on-paper figures and flat power and torque curves correlate to a muscular feeling on the road

Engine and gearbox > the trade-off being a hesitation to rev. Gearbox is typically polished, manual cars aren’t due till Q4 of 2018

Ride and handling > Entertaining enough at road speeds, but it’s a little one-dimensional as the pace rises

MPG and running costs > near 50mpg on paper doesn’t correlate to real-world usage, as with all performance cars, admittedly

Interior and tech > solid, ergonomically sound and functional, GTI elements brighten up the practical, but still dull standard interior

Design > the exterior GTI addenda is less successful at portraying what’s under the skin. Looks more like a high-spec Polo than proper GTI

Prices, specs and rivals

The new sixth generation Polo GTI is currently available in two models – basic GTI and GTI Plus. If you were hoping that the Plus would bring with it similar goodies to the Golf GTI Performance, though, you’ll be disappointed, as there are no technical upgrades, just added levels of equipment. As standard, all the usual GTI goodies apply, including tartan sports seats, 17-inch wheels, twin chromed exhaust pipes and a subtle, but still obvious, rear wing.

Plus models add adaptive cruise control, LED headlights, Volkswagen’s digital dial pack and heated and folding mirrors. Both models are available with options like larger 18-inch wheels, sunroof and an upgraded infotainment system with embedded satnav if you wish to further bolster the Polo’s standard equipment. Prices for the basic car start at just over £21,000, with the Plus model representing a £1500 jump.

> Click here for our review of the Toyota Yaris GRMN

The supermini hot hatch class is in a state of transition at the moment, and is likely to change in the very near future, with Volkswagen’s arch nemesis, the Ford Fiesta ST, moments away from its release in the UK. Judging by the new standard Fiesta, we’re expecting it to be quite the entertainer, too, not leaving the Polo GTI any room to rest on its laurels. Peugeot’s 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport has also been a firm evo favourite for the last couple of years, offering a far more dynamic driving experience than most rivals, dominated by its rev-happy 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine and scalpel-like front end. But the Peugeot is not much longer for this world, with an all-new 208 range due to be revealed at the Paris motor show later this year.

The typically polished Mini Cooper S is also a constant threat, offering a similar combination of a 2-litre turbocharged engine and dual-clutch gearbox in its recently facelifted guise. The Mini is a slightly more expensive car, though, and to match the equipment levels of the Polo, especially in Plus form, the cost discrepancy increases as its tempting options list is raided. Toyota’s Yaris GRMN is also a more expensive and decidedly aggressive offering... if you can get your hands on one, which you can’t.

Performance and 0-60 time

VW claims the DSG-equipped Polo will rattle off the 0-62mph sprint in just 6.7sec. Yet, while it feels as fast as the numbers suggest when going all out, it never feels quite as quick as its torque figure and relatively low 1355kg kerb weight suggests.

There’s plenty of muscle at low speeds, but the delivery goes a little flat in the mid-range – it feels as if the car’s potential is being deliberately reined in so as not to tread on the toes of the Golf – although this reluctance could also be explained by the tall intermediate gears. Incidentally, both power and performance figures are identical to the incoming Fiesta ST, despite its lack of 500cc and a cylinder.

Engine and gearbox

You could definitely say the ears of the evo office pricked up when we heard the new Polo GTI would finally be fitted with a proper GTI engine. Unlike the previous generation car, which offered both the 1.4 twincharged four-cylinder engine (which sounded much better on paper than it was in reality) and later the 1.8-litre TSI engine, this new car features the well-proven, torque-rich EA888 from the Golf GTI. Producing 197bhp at between 4400 and 6000rpm, and 236lb ft of torque from 1500 to 4400rpm, the Polo offers an identical power output to the Mk5 Golf GTI, and even more torque.

For the moment, the Polo is only available in the UK with a six-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox, with paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. A manual gearbox is due in late 2018, says Volkswagen. The gearbox itself is typical VW, with an inherent slickness to gear changes and excellent response from the paddles. Town driving is not the transmission’s forte though, as it will often lurch between gears and hesitate when pulling away. As the road opens up, though, the Polo’s DSG makes more sense, slipping between gears and shifting with an alacrity missing in most mainstream rivals.

> Click here for our review of the Toyota Yaris GRMN

There is one caveat to the gearbox, however; it has an inherent lack of drama. It seems to go about its business without any real urgency; the shifts, although quick, have none of the pomp and circumstance of the Golf, even when pressing on. The effect is yet one more element that seems to have come from VW’s vast collection of components, rather than being one specifically engineered for this application.

The 2-litre turbocharged engine also has its weaknesses, as although it shares an engine code with some very talented hot hatchbacks, the Polo’s flat torque curve leaves the engine feeling a little breathless and lacking any real enthusiasm for the upper third of the rev range, a defining character in rivals like the Peugeot. As a result, the engine feels flexible, rather than enthusiastic, effective, but not very GTI.

Ride and handling

VW has made some big noises about the Polo GTI’s ‘playfulness’. With the larger Golf being pushed upmarket, the field is left clear for VW to deliver a more fun hot hatch. Certainly the Polo’s compact external dimensions (I say ‘compact’, it’s actually larger than a Golf MK4 in every dimension other than length), low weight and big engine should make for a genuinely entertaining package.

Initial impressions are good, because like its big brother, the Polo benefits from slick and naturally weighted steering, almost perfect control weights and a taut yet controlled ride – on our Sport Select-equipped car, at least. Push harder and there’s strong bite from the front tyres and a definite sense that the rear axle is taking its share of the load, and on the smooth and snaking roads of our Spanish test route the VW felt planted and poised. Like the Golf, it covers ground quickly, with an almost clinical precision. And therein lies the problem. Once you’ve tackled a few corners you’ve pretty much got the measure of the Polo. The steering is quick and precise but there’s only the bare minimum of feedback, while that grippy chassis doesn’t want to get expressive. Lifting the throttle will tighten the car’s line, but there’s no sense of the puppy-like agility you get in the 208 GTi. 

The XDS ‘differential’ is also no substitute for the real thing. Torque vectoring means there’s plenty of grip when you turn in, but with the ESP in its halfway house Sport setting (you can’t turn the systems off completely) the inside wheel simply spins power away out of slower turns. Selecting Sport sharpens the throttle, adds artificial weight to the steering and fractionally firms up the dampers, but the Polo’s benign character remains. It’s an effective way of getting from A to B quickly, but not a thrilling one.

Take things easy and the GTI is a normal Polo, which means it’s comfortable, refined, roomy and easy to drive – few superminis are as simple to live with.

MPG and running costs

Volkswagen claims the Polo will sip fuel at a rate of 48mpg when driven on the combined cycle, however like most turbocharged engines it will consume significantly more when driven with enthusiasm.

Interior and tech

Thanks to the new Polo’s substantial growth in width, space inside feels far more generous than most superminis, feeling well screwed together, without being too grown up. The GTI bits are crucial to this, as the usual appearance of tartan seats and red stitching, augmented with new elements like the giant slab of red plastic stretched across the dashboard, help lift the otherwise dull interior. The seats are near perfect, comfortable and supportive, having enough lateral support without resorting to supersized bolsters that restrict access.

The GTI’s excellent steering wheel also adds to this sense of sportiness, as although we aren’t particularly fond of flat-bottomed wheels, the smooth leather and perfect grips help lift the GTI’s interior over mainstream Polos. It would be nice to have some more substantial paddle shifters behind the wheel, but they feel reasonably solid and are an acceptable trade-off for their quick-witted responses as compared to other dual-clutch gearbox supermini hot hatches, whose paddles look good but are slow to respond (looking at you, Renault Sport Clio).

In typical VW style, though, all the touch points are almost perfect. The driving position is near spot-on, unlike many superminis, with plenty of adjustment in the steering and seating positions. The high-mounted infotainment system is also placed in exactly the right position, close to the driver’s eye-line without looking like an afterthought like most floating screens. Beside which, Plus cars are fitted with VW’s Active Info display, a screen replacing the traditional dials. These screens are becoming increasingly in vogue, but its use in a supermini definitely gives the Polo GTI’s interior a distinct USP, although it’s not quite as high resolution as the Golf.

Design

Volkswagen has done something remarkable with the new Polo. Despite a completely new platform, the new Polo looks almost identical to its predecessor. Sure, look closely at the details and you’ll notice that the bodywork is more complex, the lighting units heavily faceted, but whether by accident or design, a step forward into the future, the Polo’s design is not.

All the GTI paraphernalia is correct and present, though, with liberal use of red highlights on the brakes, badging and the iconic red stripe across the front bumper. Like the Golf, the Polo GTI’s headlights are also bespoke, that red line extending into the lighting unit itself.

As is the usual GTI way, the Polo is grown up, purposeful, but not too obvious, a perfectly formed metaphor about the way the Polo GTI drives. Spec wisely and the Polo GTI will easily slip past unnoticed. Whether that’s what you want in a hot hatchback, however, is something to be considered.

20 Apr 2018

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Audi A7 Sportback review - Is Audi's four-door coupe the one to have?

Fri, 04/13/2018 - 14:41
For  Exterior styling, interior design, refinement, technology Against  Poor ride on air suspension, so-so dynamics

Remains a highly desirable car, but ride and driving dynamics could be better

Audi might not have invented the concept of the 'four-door coupe', but with the first generation A7 Sportback it certainly ran with it, turning out a dramatic fastback shape that managed to take Audi’s otherwise restrained and often samey styling and give it a new personality.

Time and the proliferation of similarly sleek models from rivals has dulled that original car’s visual impact, and gentle evolutions like the latest A7 Sportback will never delight like their predecessors, but the new car brings with it updated technology, subtle styling revisions and the promise of better performance and economy.

> Audi RS5 review

In terms of exterior and interior styling Audi has largely hit its mark, but what the latest A7 fails to bring to the table is a suitable ride and handling compromise. Put simply, it’s neither comfortable enough to effectively serve as a luxury car, nor entertaining enough to hit the spot as a driver’s car – hobbled by a jittery and unsettled ride, and a combination of numb steering and slovenly responses.

Those pounding up and down the motorway are less likely to discover these shortcomings, and for them the excellent cabin quality and design, hushed engines, absence of wind noise and strong performance will all be enough to justify the purchase – but Audi can, and should, do better for one of its most desirable models.

Audi A7 Sportback in detail

Performance and 0-60mph time - The 55 TFSI petrol is the quicker of the pair, out-sprinting the 50 TDI diesel by four-tenths to 62mph. Both hit a limited 155mph and both are smooth and refined, though fuel costs aside we prefer the petrol’s delivery.

Engine and gearbox - Choice of petrol or diesel V6s, the diesel using permanent all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic, the petrol with on-demand all-wheel drive and a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Both feature 48V mild hybrid tech.

Ride and handling - Neither as comfortable nor as entertaining as we’d like from a car like this. Very refined indeed on smooth roads, but less so on poor UK surfaces. Neither air suspension nor all-wheel steering seem worth the money.

MPG and running costs - Diesel models are competitive with rivals in terms of economy, while the petrol 55 TFSI should use a little less fuel than its closest petrol competition.

Interior and tech - Cabin design, quality and technology to lead the class, if a little anodyne for some. The touchscreens aren’t perfect, but probably the best of their type.

Design - Familiarity with A7s has dulled their visual impact, so the new model doesn’t seem as sharp as it once might, but fans of the model should find plenty to like.

Prices, specs and rivals

The bottom line for A7 Sportback pricing is £54,940; that gets you the 50 TDI quattro in Sport trim. Spending £55,140 steps you up to the 55 TFSI in the same Sport trim, while S line models begin at £57,840 for the diesel and £58,040 for the petrol.

Sport specification nets LED headlights and tail lights, 19-inch five-spoke alloy wheels, Audi Drive Select, heated and folding door mirrors, Pre-sense safety tech and lane departure warning and cruise control as standard. S line goes further with Matrix LED headlights, unique LED daytime running lights, 20-inch alloy wheels, sports suspension (which cuts 10mm from the ride height), an S line styling package and S line interior trim changes.

To this you can add features like adaptive conventional suspension (£1125) or air suspension (£2000), four-wheel steering (£1900), and a sport differential (£1500). The cost can quickly mount up, though as we’ve stated in the ride and handling section you can probably hold on to the extra cash required for the four-wheel steering and air suspension, since neither significantly improves the driving experience.

The A7 Sportback’s closest rivals are the Mercedes-Benz CLS and BMW 6-series Gran Coupe. The former is newest to the market while the latter is about to be replaced by the 8-series, so if you’re seriously struggling over your decision it might be worth waiting for BMW to show its hand before you opt for the others.

As a driver’s car the Mercedes shades the Audi, both riding better and handling with more aplomb, while its new inline-six engines are smoother than the Audi’s V6s. The Audi fights back with a great cabin, but for the time being the CLS gets our nod as the best large and luxurious four-door coupe.

Performance and 0-60mph time

Whether petrol or diesel’s your poison, neither stands head or shoulders above the other in accelerative terms and both offer more than enough performance to put the Sportback on a par with its rivals.

Quickest by a small margin is the 55 TFSI, which covers the industry-standard 0-62mph sprint in 5.3 seconds before eventually running into a 155mph limiter. The engine’s tone is predictably muted on the race to the red line, but the distant, cultured sound isn’t unpleasant and remains audible enough to let you know when the engine is working hard.

The diesel is quieter still, but again its six-cylinder note sends the right messages to the driver without sending excessive vibration back to the cabin. Drop the hammer from a complete stop and you’ll pass 62mph in 5.7 seconds, again on the way to 155mph, but the diesel does its work with slightly less commotion.

> New BMW 8-series

In general day-to-day driving the diesel’s easy-going mid-range is quite an appealing characteristic, but if fuel costs aren’t a consideration the petrol is probably the more pleasant companion, still offering plenty of torque when you need it but also a smoother, more linear delivery than the diesel can manage. It feels a little keener off the mark too, which contributes to its more responsive feeling.

Engine and gearbox

Two drivetrains are currently available in the A7 Sportback. Both feature three-litre engines, both are V6, and both use Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive technology, but from there the two differ.

One is a diesel, badged 50 TDI quattro and developing 282bhp between 3500rpm and 4000rpm and a brawny 457lb ft of torque spread between 2250rpm and 3000rpm. Diesel models are equipped with an eight-speed tiptronic automatic transmission and conventional quattro permanent all-wheel drive with a self-locking, electronically controlled centre differential. In Dynamic mode the diff sends more torque to the rear wheels – up to 85 per cent in the most extreme cases.

The other is petrol. This carries 55 TFSI quattro badging (nope, we’re still unconvinced by Audi’s latest naming strategy) and produces its 335bhp maximum power output from 5000rpm to 6400rpm. Its 369lb ft torque output might be less mighty than the diesel’s, but petrol drivers do get the benefit of it being delivered from just 1370rpm, all the way to 4500rpm. It uses a seven-speed dual-clutch 'S tronic' transmission.

It too features quattro all-wheel drive, but not the same system as the diesel. Audi bills it 'quattro Ultra' technology. This is primarily implemented for efficiency (Audi’s 'Ultra' tag first appeared on its hybrid Le Mans racers), and features a multi-plate clutch centre differential with the ability to decouple drive to the rear axle. This makes the 55 TFSI front-wheel drive in most conditions, with the ability to call upon the rear axle when necessary. Responses here can again be adjusted using Audi’s drive select system.

Another feature of both cars is 48V mild hybrid technology. As part of a 48V electrical system (with a lithium-ion battery in the boot) the A7 Sportback uses a belt-driven alternator starter for quick and efficient starting, and to re-start the engine following periods of engine-off, decoupled-drive coasting. It’s also capable of recuperating energy during deceleration, while a conventional pinion starter is included for cold-start situations.

Ride and handling

Here’s where the A7 Sportback’s shine begins to dull. Dull being the operative word here, since neither petrol nor diesel A7 is particularly entertaining to drive.

It starts with the steering, which feels slightly slow to respond around the straight ahead. Good for stability at high speeds on the Autobahn, but less desirable on twistier roads. While matters improve as you wind on more lock and the rack is always consistent, your fingers won’t be blessed with any feedback, so directing the A7 is more administrative duty than pleasurable activity.

We’ve also significant misgivings about the A7’s ride quality. Having tried cars on both conventional steel springs and the optional air suspension set-up, neither is as pliant as say, a Mercedes-Benz CLS, and both seem to induce a drumming resonance through the expansive interior that harms the A7’s otherwise very impressive levels of refinement.

Of the two set-ups we’d suggest saving your money and opting for conventional springs. The air suspension might give you a greater range of suspension compliance and body control, but it’s further behind the conventional set-up at its worst (juddering over sudden and high-frequency bumps) and it is ahead at its best (pliancy and body control at higher speeds).

You can also give the dynamic all-wheel steering a miss. While it pays dividends at lower speeds, cutting around a metre from the A7’s turning circle, it doesn’t seem to offer a great deal more agility in other situations.

The new Sportback is undoubtedly competent, offering plenty of grip and stability to its driver, predictable responses and, on smoother roads, class-leading refinement, but its basic dynamic set-up is an unhappy compromise, neither comfortable enough to be a luxury car nor entertaining enough to be a sporty one.

MPG and running costs

Most frugal of the A7 pair is the 50 TDI, which achieves a combined economy figure of 48.7mpg and CO2 of 150g/km. This is pretty much par for the class – Audi lists its closest rivals as the CLS 350d, BMW 630d Gran Turismo and 640d Gran Coupe.

The two BMWs also achieve mpg figures in the high 40s, and the latest straight-six Mercedes CLS 350d (also with standard all-wheel drive) has a provisional combined figure of an identical 48.7mpg to the Audi, which suggests an identical CO2 figure, too. It’s worth noting that the 6-series models are on their way out and an 8-series is due, so expect BMW to fight back with those cars.

The 55 TFSI is less fuel-efficient outright than the diesel, but Audi’s decision to fit quattro Ultra part-time all-wheel drive seems to have paid off, its 39.8mpg combined figure coming out ahead of the BMW 640i Gran Turismo and 640i Gran Coupe, which manage numbers in the mid-30s. The Mercedes-Benz does likewise, the latest in-line-six CLS 450 achieving 36.2mpg combined.

For other running costs it’s too early to say how A7 Sportback ownership might transpire, but as with other cars in its class, standard alloy wheel sizes of 19 and 20 inches mean tyres will not be cheap when replacement time rolls around. The Audi’s relatively frugal engines and resulting low CO2 figures do mean VED and BIK tax rates are a little lower than its predecessor, though.

Interior and tech

For all the A7 Sportback’s dynamic shortcomings it’s hard to imagine many owners being disappointed by the interior. In design, layout, construction and technology it’s probably the best in both its class and at its price point, and while the cabin of its Mercedes-Benz CLS rival feels a little more sumptuous and a little less po-faced, the A7 is ruthlessly well thought out and packed with cutting-edge tech.

That you’re staring at Audi’s Virtual Cockpit should be no surprise in a car this far up the range, but the A7 has also grabbed the double-touchscreen set-up from the larger A8 (now also implemented in the smaller A6) with configurable displays, smartphone-style controls and haptic feedback technology.

The latter is quite convincing, the vibrations being sent through the touchscreen doing a pretty good job of replicating the feel of pressing a physical button. The downside is that you still have to actually look where you’re pressing, since the screen gives you no more tactile feedback when prodding around unseen, but the 'buttons' are large enough that a rough stab usually gets the job done. Being able to pinch and swipe on maps or slide your finger fore and aft to adjust the temperature works well, too.

Elsewhere, the A7’s cabin continues to impress. The seats aren’t quite as comfortable as those in the A8 but there’s enough padding here, and enough adjustment, that longer journeys would be little hardship. There’s plenty of rear seat space, too (and despite the rakish roofline, getting in and out isn’t difficult) and when the body isn’t drumming away to itself over bumps, refinement is otherwise excellent – acoustic glass and slick aerodynamics mean wind noise is basically non-existent at motorway speeds.

> Best sports saloons

Audi’s LED lighting technology is very impressive, too. We’ll leave the unlocking and locking animations up to you – it’s either fun or distastefully flashy depending on your point of view – but they undoubtedly give the A7 a unique look among its rivals. And the LED headlight technology itself remains a worthwhile feature, the matrix LEDs of S Line models even more so. GPS guidance adjusts the beam pattern depending on the road you’re on, and the high beams pull the neat trick of adjusting around oncoming vehicles, to maximise your visibility without dazzling other traffic.

Design

As with all of Audi’s models, the latest A7 Sportback’s design is a case of evolution over revolution. The basic silhouette and proportions remain relatively similar when compared to its predecessor – think a rakish, if substantial 'four-door coupe' with a low-slung roofline and relatively low, sharply cut-off tail. Surprisingly it’s a little shorter and a little narrower than its predecessor and a negligible 2mm taller, though a marginally extended wheelbase (from 2914mm to 2926mm) has been implemented to improve interior space.

Less appealingly, the latest A7 Sportback is no lighter than before, and in some cases a little heavier – the current range spans the 1815-1880kg range, compared to the old car’s 1755-1895kg.

Whether you see the new car’s styling as an improvement over its predecessor will depend on how keen you are on Audi’s recent trend for including sharp cuts and slashes down its cars’ flanks and above the wheelarches – the latter designed as a gentle homage to the old Audi Quattros and their box arches, now included on all new quattro-equipped models in the Audi range.

It undoubtedly looks more modern, but the evolutionary approach means some of the impact of the original A7 has been lost with time. The rear end is now less distinctive, too – not everyone liked the old model’s frowning rear lights, but the latest full-width strip (with its flashy light display on unlocking the car) could be considered a little too similar to the larger A8.

16 Apr 2018

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