WELCOME back the three pedals and DIY gearbox.
"We are excited to reintroduce manual to GTI," said Volkswagen of its new breathed-on Polo, responding to a small but very vocal group who demand their hot hatches retain this important level of purity.
The outgoing Polo GTI was an auto-only offering, and while an enjoyable steer, entertainment from small petrol-engined hatches with paddle shifters - no matter how hot - just seem harder to fall in love with.
But the latest gen Polo GTI not only offers a choice between six-speed manual or seven-speed twin-clutch DSG, it also brings more power and speed from a newly developed 1.8-litre turbo, lumps more torque in manual guise, better economy, more kit and a lower price to meet this hotly contested hatch market.
At $27,490 for the manual Polo GTI variant, Fiesta ST shoppers may pause for thought, especially if they're chasing VW's renowned solidness and badge cachet.
For students of GTI heritage, the Polo's 'Clark' tartan cloth is a must, and livens up what would otherwise be a conservative cabin.
That said, a flat-bottomed multi-function leather sport steering wheel is classily red-stitched and feels pleasingly chunky in your palms, while aluminium pedals and lovely manual gear knob have you itching to begin playtime.
Sport seats offer good, deep support, but personally I found the seat sides impeded on the manual gear change somewhat, but I do like sitting close to the steering wheel. Sliding the seat back remedied this for the most part.
Dash layout is superb and the uncluttered centre console simple to navigate, with a 16.5cm infotainment touch-screen offering the usual features but also multi-device Bluetooth and a JPEG image viewer.
A luxury package is available on the GTI ($3300) which includes heated Alcantara/leatherette seats. Certainly comfy and of appreciated quality, but robs the cabin of its tartan GTI-ness.
On the road
Owning a hot hatch is all about tracking down your favourite stretch of tarmac and revelling in high revving, front-wheel drive lightweight car heaven.
Sadly our test drive heading to the Blue Mountains from Sydney involved far too much traffic, roadworks and too few twisties to fully evaluate the Polo GTI's charms.
But as such a car will typically have to serve as a daily driver too, its ability to quietly go about stop-start traffic and highway cruising proved trouble-free.
Sure, the Polo GTI doesn't absorb the bumps and lumps of poor roads on its tighter suspension and skinny rubber as well as the non-GTI Polo variants, but the DSG makes cruising effortless, and the manual gear change and clutch are light and pleasing to control. The latter also make it a joy to cog swap once the roads get a bit more challenging. As if to say 'this is what you were missing all along' the manual Polo GTI is a real return to form in the involving stakes, and as it boasts a whopping 70Nm more than the DSG version, feels far the more spritely of the two, despite identical 0-100kmh times.
On the few opportunities to really let the GTI loose, it inspired great confidence such was its poise and grip levels, while the new 1.8-litre turbo simply loved playing in the higher rev ranges - also the right place to appreciate the exhaust note.
Featuring the XDL Extended Electronic Differential Lock found on big brother Golf GTI, understeer is eliminated in all but the most foolhardy cornering manoeuvres by braking the inside wheels.
Steering feedback is so-so during cornering although pleasingly weighty; tyre grip and poise are impressive, and turn-in and braking excellent. It feels like a grown up hot hatch with incredible competence, but seems to lack the zest of some of its rivals, not least the Fiesta ST that stands out as the segment's fun-for-your-dollar hero.
As you'd expect of a VW the Polo GTI impresses in almost every way with its intelligence and abilities, but it just can't seem to let its hair down.
Perhaps a test on a hotter hatch friendly bit of road would unveil a few more charms.
What do you get?
You get 17-inch alloys, climate control, auto headlights, rain sensing wipers, auto dimming rear-view mirror, tyre pressure indicators and an alarm system to go with the decent infotainment gear, excellent sound system and all those appreciated GTI cabin goodies.
For an extra $1700 there's a Driver Assistance Package, and although you could argue the sat nav, park distance sensors front and rear plus rear view camera should be standard in such a car, it is probably money well spent to tick this box. Not least for those saving the $2500 by going manual over automatic.
The luxury pack seems more of an extravagance at $3300 and not entirely in the hot hatch ethos with its classier yet more boring Alcantara/leatherette seats, LED lights and panoramic glass sunroof.
It's a hot hatch, do you really care? Rear seating is well thought out dimensions wise, but adults won't enjoy long trips back here. Boot space is also limited, but with folding rear seats you can cram a fair bit in through the rear hatch. Cabin storage is all fine, with storage drawers under the front seats.
The Polo GTI is ideal for the young driving enthusiast as yet unburdened with cargo-demanding kiddies, but while youth may be on your side, insurance premiums won't be.
Capped price servicing helps avoid costly surprises, and for such a fruity offering, the quoted 6.1 (manual) and 5.7 (DSG) litres/100km are excellent. Our 'real world' enthusiastic test saw a figure of just over seven - more than acceptable, and you can run this GTI on 95 octane while the outgoing model supped away on costly 98.
There are enough badges on the car to highlight it's a GTI, but it is still quite a subtle offering for a hot hatch. In profile it's a beauty on its 17-inch Parabolica alloys; the front end is a style treat and could be mistaken for a Golf GTI to the inexpert eye, but much like the boggo Polos, the rear end is inoffensive but beige curtain plain.
Competent, fast and fun, all at an appealing price - the new Polo GTI has plenty going for it. A delightful chassis and the new 1.8-litre turbo is a torquey treat, and best exploited with the manual gearbox finally re-introduced to a car that was crying out for one.
It feels very well screwed together too and would be a joy to live with day-to-day if you can put up with a sometime crashy ride over poor surfaces.
It just lacks that extra spark, sometimes undefinable, that makes a hot hatch great however. Perhaps it's just a bit too sensible, especially in DSG guise, making the cheaper and torquier manual variant the pick.
What matters most
What we liked: The return of a manual option, excellent torque figure for the manual, quality, solid feel throughout, decent value.
What we'd like to see: A bit more spark and theatre to be a truly desirable hot hatch, more kit as standard, ride comfort harsh at times, a way to turn off all driver aids should a track day be planned.
Warranty and servicing: Three years unlimited kilometre warranty and roadside assist. Capped price servicing for each calendar year, with services due every 15,000km at an average of $489 each service for the first 90,000km.
Model: 2015 Volkswagen Polo GTI.
Details: Five-door front-wheel drive hot hatch.
Engine: 1.8-litre TSI BlueMotion turbocharged four-cylinder petrol generating maximum power of 141kW @ 4300rpm and 320Nm @ 1450rpm (manual version) or 141kW @ 5400rpm and 250Nm @ 1250rpm (DSG version).
Transmission: Six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG automatic.
Performance: 0-100kmh in 6.7 seconds.
Consumption: 6.1 litres/100km (combined average, manual) and 5.7 litres/100km (auto).
CO2: 142g/km (manual) or 132g/km (DSG).
Bottom line plus on-roads: $27,490 (manual) and $29,990 (auto).
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