The Renault Clio RS has long been the junior hot hatchback king but is the new VW Polo GTI capable of stealing its crown? The Wheel Deal headed to Zwartkops Raceway to find out
“There’s talk on the street; it sounds so familiar. Great expectations, everybody’s watching you.” 35-years ago the Eagles penned these lyrics to a song called New Kid in Town. It appeared on their classic album, Hotel California. And today, I can’t get them out of my head.
Now this has nothing to do with a sudden country rock revival, I haven’t sold out to plaid shirts and John Deere trucker caps, but rather the latest test car that’s been handed over to me for a good old fashioned thrashing. It’s called the Polo GTI and Volkswagen is toting it as the ultimate in junior hot hatchery: the next best thing to its bigger Golf brother. Yep, you see, never before have those words of Henley, Frey and Souther been more apt.
After all, the last Polo GTI didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Often shown up by its more dynamic rivals at Ford and Renault, it would be something of an understatement to proclaim that this new model has a lot to prove. Fortunately for the punters of this famous German marque, it seems that Wolfsburg has cooked up something packed with the right ingredients; a spicy ensemble that sticks in your throat and keeps you lusting for more.
Of course going on face value alone it’s easy to be underwhelmed. For despite the subtle presence of those larger alloy wheels, double exhausts and honeycomb front grille, there is not a lot to help distinguish the GTI from its lesser, rental car brethren. Some people, like myself, may like this under-the-radar approach but many will feel shortchanged: their wallets begging for more cosmetic bling with which to wow bystanders on a Friday night.
But once you sink into that perfectly positioned drivers seat, this lack of visual punch is blown into the weeds. For the way the new Polo GTI packs on speed is nothing short of spectacular; a trick that can be attributed to that 1.4TSI engine fizzing beneath its bonnet. On paper it sounds diminutive, almost laughable, but thanks to the inclusion of both a super and turbocharger, it gives this VW some serious legs. There is zero lag; no gaps in the power band, just a brutally hard pull that doesn’t stop until the needle hits the red line.
Even from a quick trawl around suburbia, it’s clear that this littlest GTI is capable of left hooking above its weight in the sprinting department; a fact clearly demonstrated when a man in an SLK attempts to dice me off the line and fails dismally. As benchmarks go this double-blown Polo may now be the car to beat, but how does it fare when it comes to the all-important world of dynamics? After all, power is nothing without handling prowess.
And to find out I’ve just rolled into the deserted automotive playground that is Zwartkops Raceway. A 2.5-kilometer strand of bitumen spaghetti that twists and turns through the badlands west of Pretoria, very few South African circuits can make or break a machine’s reputation quite like this one. And from the get-go, the Polo is making a name for itself.
It takes a few laps for those tyres to heat up in the AM chill of a Highveld winter but once they do, the Polo GTI proves to be a very competent drive indeed. In typical modern VW fashion it’s incredibly refined and goes about tackling the track’s more gnarly sections without any fuss or drama. Endowed with masses of mechanical grip, you simply set yourself up for the corner, aim for the apex and then squash that throttle hard as if it were some enraged and highly venomous tree frog – it’s that easy.
An incredibly forgiving car in which to explore the limit, it flatters whoever is sat behind the wheel thanks to features like an electronic XDS differential that reduces understeer and enhances overall traction.
But even though the Polo GTI’s pert chassis delivers an entertaining degree of lift-off oversteer and its steering is quick and direct, the lack of a proper manual gearbox makes you feel somewhat detached from the overall experience. Don’t get me wrong, that DSG transmission is a peach but out on a track, where it counts, it’ll never replace the visceral kick offered by a stick and clutch pedal. Of further concern are the brakes that, even after three hot laps, suddenly begin to fade. Still, despite this, the VW clocks a 1:18.81 on its final run – a figure just over four seconds slower than what I managed in a BMW M3.
It’s a ballsy display but one that can only be truly honored after the class-leading Renault Clio RS scrabbles its way out onto the circuit to strut its stuff against the stopwatch.
Finished in bright metallic blue paintwork with two white racing stripes tattooed down its left side, our Gordini Edition doesn’t come equipped with any extra power or torque over the standard model but it does benefit from a much firmer and more focused cup chassis. And the difference it makes is simply astounding. For whereas the Polo GTI serenades your senses like a crooning Norah Jones, the Clio RS emphasizes every kink, crease and nuance of the Zwartkops surface with all the piercing, operatic sincerity of Maria Callas.
It may lack the urgency that makes the VW so effective down the two main straights, that sweet-revving two-litre engine struggling for breath up at altitude, but through the corners the Renault is so much more surefooted and willing to please. A surgeon’s scalpel to the Polo’s Kitchen Devil, it’s also light-years ahead under hard braking too: those four-pot Brembo calipers never ceasing to lose their vicious bite no matter how hard you push.
Able to get on the anchors later and carry more pace through the curvy bits consequently makes the Renault faster around the circuit on average with a string of low 1:19.00 lap times. The Polo still lays claim to the best time of the day but in terms of consistency, the blue and white Frenchy puts on a performance that defies its breathless power delivery.
Mated to one of the slickest six-speed manual gearboxes I’ve ever stirred and a pedal box that was tailor-made for the business of heel-and-toeing, all this makes the Clio RS one of the most engaging hot hatchbacks you can buy for the money. You’ve got to work a hell of a lot harder to get the same results as you would in the Polo but when you do, there is a sense of achievement that makes you feel like F1 ace, Sebastian Vettel. And that’s special.
It’s also something that makes choosing between these two charges that much harder. For although VW’s new boy is definitely a more well-rounded car better suited to the rigors of everyday driving, it’s this hardcore and completely uncompromising edge that makes the older Clio RS so irresistible to your inner driving purist. This is a car you’ll buy with the irrationally of your heart whereas the VW will definitely get the sensible nod of your head. And here, today, after flinging both around the racetrack, it’s the former that gets it way.
VW Polo GTI at a Glance:
Engine: 1390cc four-cylinder twin-charged
Power: 132kW @ 6200rpm
Torque: 250Nm @ 2000 – 4500rpm
Top Speed: 229km/h
Fuel Consumption: 5.9l/100km (combined), 8.02 (achieved)
Price: From R261 600
Incredibly quick off the mark
Brilliant TSI engine
A superb, mature all-rounder
Brakes could be beefier
No option of a manual box
Styling might be too bland for some
Renault Clio RS Gordini at a Glance:
Engine: 1998cc four-cylinder
Power: 147.5kW @ 7100rpm
Torque: 215Nm @ 5400rpm
0-100km/h: 6.9 seconds
Top Speed: 225km/h
Fuel Consumption: 8.2l/100km (combined) 12.6l/100km (achieved)
Price: R279 900
Epic braking power
Visceral and involving
Engine lacks punch at altitude
Gordini styling not to everybody’s taste
Renault stigma still lingers