Could today’s sensible superminis really be faster than yesterday’s hot hatch heroes? It’s a question that’s been running through my head ever since our VW Polo arrived in the Auto Express car park four months ago.
You see, as the owner of a 1989 VW Golf GTI, the muscular mid-range acceleration and keen throttle response of the Polo’s turbocharged 1.2-litre engine felt extremely familiar. In fact, back-to-back stints in the two cars convinced me that there was little to choose between them for outright pace. There was only one way to settle this – a race!
Well, sort of. The eighties-style traffic light grand prix is frowned upon these days, so I decided to take our dynamic duo to the Longcross test track in Surrey where they could be hooked up to our Racelogic GPS timing gear.
On paper the pair are surprisingly evenly matched. The 112bhp 1.8-litre Golf has an 8bhp power advantage over the heavier Polo, but the newer car strikes back with a 175Nm torque output – 16Nm more than the GTI.
At the test track, the Polo went first – and completed 0-60mph in only 9.4 seconds. But it was the overtaking urge that impressed, with the 30-50mph sprint in third gear taking 4.3 seconds.
Next up was the Golf – and I was a little nervous. I’ve owned the car in our pictures for nearly a decade, so I was going to take any defeat personally. My jangling nerves weren’t helped when the GTI also posted a 30-50mph time of 4.3 seconds. I knew the two were close on performance, but I wasn’t expecting them to be identical.
However, the GTI’s slightly lower kerbweight and higher power output finally helped it claim a lead in the remaining tests, with 0-60mph taking 9.0 seconds and 50-70mph in fifth gear needing 8.7 seconds – a full half a second faster than the Polo.
So, it was a narrow victory for the past master. Yet the acceleration figures only tell half the story. While modern-day superminis can now almost match the pace of legendary pocket rockets, in all other respects the newer cars are leagues ahead.
For instance, the Polo delivers its performance with a mechanical refinement that owners of old GTIs can only dream of. And while there’s a deftness and delicacy to the Golf’s handling that the woolly feeling modern machine can’t match, the old-timer runs out of grip at much lower speeds.
You also get more kit and nearly as much space in the Polo. Additions such as air-con, electric windows and an iPod connection make spending extended periods in the new VW a pleasure. Low wind noise – even by current supermini standards – and excellent seats also mean the bright yellow machine is a more comfortable motorway cruiser.
Then there is the matter of performance per pound. In 1989, the Golf cost £11,429. Take into account inflation and the GTI would set you back around £23,000 in 2011 – nearly £7,000 more expensive than the Polo.
But perhaps the most sobering demonstration of progress comes when you want to stop. In its day, the Golf’s four-disc braking set-up was reckoned to provide powerful stopping.
At Longcross, it brought the GTI to a halt from 70mph in 59.4 metres – although it took two attempts, as the first run finished in clouds of tyre smoke and locked up wheels. The Polo stopped in only 49.1 metres.
And this was on a bone dry day. Factor in rain and surface changes, and the Polo’s ABS-backed system is at even more of an advantage.
So, modern superminis aren’t quite as fast as yesterday’s hot hatches, but that really misses the point. The march of progress means that in every other respect the Polo is far and away the better car. Still, that won’t stop me loving my creaky old GTI...
“Like James, every time I’ve driven the Polo I’ve enjoyed it, with the quality cabin and subtle looks particularly impressive. However, the real highlight has been the 1.2-litre turbocharged engine – with a linear spread of power throughout the rev range, it punches far above its weight.”
Graeme Lambert, Road Tester