LONG-TERM UPDATE 12 | Recapping a year with the VW Polo GTI

24 March 2021 - 12:04
By brenwin naidu AND Brenwin Naidu
The author's 12-month tenure with the Volkswagen Polo GTI has come to an end.
Image: Waldo Swiegers The author's 12-month tenure with the Volkswagen Polo GTI has come to an end.

You might say the arrival of our long-term Volkswagen Polo GTI in 2020 was eclipsed by more pressing matters.

It arrived on March 24, hours before our collective worlds would change forever, as SA prepared to enter its first round of lockdown.

This week, the car is scheduled to be collected by its rightful custodians, a full 12 months and 14,500km later.

And the reasons for such a low accumulation of mileage are obvious, of course. The last Volkswagen we had in our long-term programme, a Golf 1.4 TSI Comfortline, saw 30,000km in just a year with us.

Constraints aside, we did our best to simulate accelerated usage in the Polo, so as to offer you a good picture of what the ownership experience entails. Here is a recap of what we got up to each month.

Month 1: Getting acquainted

With options, the total price of our GTI came to about R447,050. Base price was R398,400. Extras included: Brescia 18-inch alloys (R6,000) wrapped in Bridgestone Turanza T001 rubber (215/40R18), leather upholstery (R9,950); sunroof (R11,900); park distance control (R3,350); dual-zone climate control (R3,950); LED headlamps (R13,200); and the smokers’ package with lighter and ashtray (R300). Said package never saw use. 

The first mission behind the wheel of the GTI was to a ministerial briefing in Tshwane on March 27. On April 2 we went to witness transport minister Fikile Mbalula spraying disinfectant over minibuses at the Bree Taxi Rank in Johannesburg after his regulatory indecisions. He became Sunday Times’ Mampara of the Week.

The Polo GTI proved to be an attractive and well-built package.
Image: Waldo Swiegers The Polo GTI proved to be an attractive and well-built package.

Month 2: Infrequent commutes

A total of 888km had been covered since collection in March. Tasks for the Polo were limited to work-related commutes as well as grocery-getting activities. Gripes? Driven sedately, one expected the six-speed DSG to shift up sooner than it does, even in its meekest Eco setting. Then there was the hard ride. A noticeable squeak from the rear of the cabin began making its presence known. We also took full advantage of idle time and gave the Polo several washes by hand. In addition to reading the manual.

Month 3: All about that heat

As winter took hold, we appreciated the comfort and warmth afforded by the heated seats of our tester. The extremities of the season provide a real test for the mettle of any car. Aside from the melodramatic instrument cluster warning of potentially icy roads on some mornings, our little Volkswagen showed nary a shrug at cold starts. Its elevated idle tone settles down to a composed, steady hum as the engine warms up. At this point the odometer sat at 2,400km.

Month 4: Stretch those legs

That squeak noted in the second month was addressed. It was minor. The space-saver spare wheel was loose, with relentless chirping produced as it rubbed against its polystyrene housing. We took the squeak-free Polo to Gerotek Test Facility to verify its performance credentials. After five runs dispatching the 0-100km/h dash, the quickest time, according to the VBOX, was 6.64 seconds, while the slowest time recorded was 7.07 seconds. It handled the quarter-mile in 14.99 seconds. Volkswagen claims 6.7 seconds to 100km/h. Launching it effectively proved fool-proof: engage Sport via the driving mode toggle, tip the DSG shifter down to “S”, foot on the brake, foot on the accelerator, pull back your left leg and go.

Tech-rich interior will appeal to the digital generation.
Image: Waldo Swiegers Tech-rich interior will appeal to the digital generation.

Month 5: Digital charms

The touchscreen interface of the Polo impressed with its ease-of-use on the surface – but scratching deeper revealed certain gems. Including the simple act of relaying time: you can choose between watch bezels. There are other displays to get excited about if chronology is not your thing. That includes a trio of virtual gauges, showing boost pressure, oil temperature and G-force levels. There is also the Think Blue monitor that turns efficient driving into a game. A lap timer is part of the mix. The odometer was at 3,500km here.

Month 6: Crossing borders

Hitting the open road felt utterly special after months being housebound. Average fuel consumption dipped dramatically over 2,500km on a jaunt from Johannesburg to Gqeberha. It went all the way down to 6.4l/100km, a major improvement from the near 10l/100km seen during a routine that consisted almost entirely of urban commutes. Our Polo came alive over the twisty parts of Olifantskop Pass and seemed to love stretching its legs on the N1. The journey took our odometer to 6,206km.

Fitment of a Thule roof box upped the GTI's road trip credentials.
Image: Waldo Swiegers Fitment of a Thule roof box upped the GTI's road trip credentials.

Month 7: New outfit, more miles

The fitment of a Thule box gave our Polo a European tourer sort of look. But it proved functional too, when a family trip to Cape Town and back to Johannesburg (via Gqeberha) had to be undertaken. That left the odometer sitting on 10,250km – we did about 3,200km in six days. It was a hard test of man and machine. Despite hauling a full load, the 147kW/320Nm EA888 motor still pulled the Polo towards the horizon with impressive resolve. It only faltered once during the whole trip. On the last leg, just after Bloemfontein, an error message accompanied by a red triangle informed me that the coolant level was low. After letting the car cool down for about 15 minutes and adding cold H20, the warning light never returned and we made it home safely. An air bubble in the coolant tank was found to be the culprit when we took the vehicle in for inspection.

Month 8: Rainy season

Johannesburg roads began to resemble obstacle courses as torrential rains wreaked havoc on the asphalt. The Polo evinced a rather assuring sense of sturdiness. The cabin is well-insulated, the wipers work with the efficiency you expect and its ventilation system is brilliant – rapid demisting and temperatures that are always comfortable are ensured by the dual-zone climate control system. We were caught in a hailstorm too. The roads were flooded and the Polo trundled along slowly and sure-footedly. And it was probably glad that we had not removed its Thule headwear, which took the brunt of that violent spray of ice balls, rather than exposing the glass of the panoramic sunroof.

Month 9: Load shedding

While the Thule headwear blended interesting looks with functionality, it could not stay forever. Removing the load made the car quieter (no more buffeting); reduced fuel consumption (decreased drag) and meant we could use the sunroof to its full potential. The odometer had reached the 12,800km mark.

That time the Polo GTI met it's racier track-dwelling sibling.
Image: Waldo Swiegers That time the Polo GTI met it's racier track-dwelling sibling.

Month 10: First service

At 13,500km, we booked it in for its first ever annual service. Volkswagen says 15,000km, but there is a 1,500km allowance on either side. On the agenda is a simple change of engine oil, a new oil filter and a thorough inspection, all covered under the service plan. The other point we brought to the attention of the technician was the brakes’ tendency to groan, which only happens when reversing at low speed. Apparently this was not an isolated occurrence and a software update was rolled out to potentially alleviate the issue. The sound has not been completely eliminated in our case. A flat tyre in December rounded off the series of niggles.

Month 11: Getting reflective

Nostalgia and sadness for the impending farewell came on strong. In our reflections, we dwelled on points like the presence of four USB ports, where most cars have one or two.

Last thoughts:

Punchy, attractive, well-built and with inherent cachet, the popularity of the Volkswagen Polo GTI is understandable. Although our year with the car was not completely quirk-free, the high points behind the wheel certainly outweighed certain niggles.

Pricing has gone up since the R398,400 base a year ago: now Volkswagen will charge R439,700 for the car. Optional extras could push that further to R500,000 if not careful. On the used front, values appear to be strong too. The cheapest one-year-old model we saw listed on a major car classifieds website was R449,900, with 23,000km on the odometer.