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Battle of the hot hatches - Heat this!

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Once upon a time, this car was hot. So hot that the Fiat Palio 1.6 GTX is a legend even now. Hushed words talked about its 100 bhp performance. The telephone dial wheels that looked like they came off an Alfa Romeo were acknowledged with a conspiratorial nod. To some, the Veglia meters were enough reason; nothing more needed to be said about its Italian lineage. If somebody told you he bought a Palio, the next line was an eager ‘You got a GTX?’ When a fully loaded, low mileage second-hand GTX changed hands for Rs 3.5 lakh about five years back, I was thinking of what a steal that was. The GTX was IT, the car that any kid worth his parents’ handouts wanted to buy. Till the GTX came along we never had anything in production that was so hot.

Memories come rushing back as I head out on the highway in this car. The traffic signal drag races. The effortless way in which it would chuck sedans behind. The leap forward as you redline it and shift gears every time. And the accompanying Italian opera that gave you the feeling of contentment. The way you could corner flat-out. Seriously, nothing came close to this car in terms of sheer excitement... at least nothing so affordable.




In a period dominated by 1.2-litre hatchbacks, despite its age, a car like this comes as a breath of fresh air. Especially at the mid and top-end, where all new hatchbacks lose steam, this one has got the performance of a three-box. No one told the Palio 1.6 that it’s not a sedan either!

If the GTX was the hot hatch that every kid dreamt of ten years ago, then the current class of 2011 would be fantasising about the Volkswagen Polo 1.6 – in this shade of brilliant red. Or would they? Maybe college kids have more pocket money than salaried men these days, so it may not be true. But what we can safely say is that the Polo 1.6 is the spiritual successor of the GTX. Okay, it may not have the Italian flair that the Fiat had or an evocative badge like the GTX (GTI? Hmm...), but it still is something to look at on our roads. Why not the Fabia 1.6 then, which shares the same powertrain as the Polo? Er, the problem is that the Fabia does not look hot.

After driving the 1.2 petrol Polo for so long, for me, the 1.6 is like being liberated. The same engine that does duty in the Vento feels much more uninhibited in this guise, obviously because of a weight advantage of about 30 kg. Compared to the 1.2, which gets exciting to drive only by around 2500 rpm, this one is great way down as well. It is quick on the trot and is much easier to drive in the traffic crawl. When the roads become free and you give the Polo 1.6 the stick, it accelerates... and then hesitates! The car seems to suddenly pause for breath – somewhere around 2000-odd rpm. It’s as if the Polo 1.6 had a change of heart, thinking it’s the 1.2 instead. But then it convinces itself that’s not the case and gets back with a vengeance. The tacho needle suddenly goes berserk as it rapidly heads towards the redline... and I realise that I have never enjoyed the Polo move this way before (at least in India, because I drove the 1.2 TSI version abroad).

 

 

The engine acquires a strident, metallic note that’s buzzy and addictive – but it does not have the meaty bass that the GTX summons. It feels quick, fast and fun; this wild persona of the Polo is reserved for the 1.6. Even while you’re doing 120 kph and the needle is climbing, never does the Polo feel as if it’s out of its element. It stays calm and unruffled, goading you to push it some more if you had the guts. If the steering feel had been a little tauter, especially when the speed hits atmospheric (as opposed to stratospheric) levels, it would have been great.

So, what happens when these two meet? Well, the obvious answer is that one feels passionate and Italian and all that sort of stuff, while the other is precise and German. It is, of course, true. The Palio may be more flamboyant while the Polo is understated. The Palio is more dynamic and the Polo is all about control. The Palio corners with drama while the Polo is exact. Both are terrific fun in their own way. When you compare their power-to-weight ratios, you’d see that the figures are very close to each other – 93.4 bhp/tonne for the Polo 1.6 as opposed to 92.6 for the GTX.

 

Not exactly. The Polo 1.6 is a fantastic piece of kit, there’s no doubt about it. It looks terrific by itself, but does it look more special than other Polos? That 1.6 badge is too discreet for the world to know that you’re driving an out-of-the-ordinary Polo. Maybe it adds to VW India’s complexity, but couldn’t a set of different looking sporty wheels and a spoiler make it stand apart from the rest? Agreed, currently the 1.6 contributes to a mere 10 per cent of Polo sales, but maybe the effort is worth it – it will take the Polo closer to becoming a hot hatch of dreams. Of course, that’s not all.

Ten years ago, the Palio 1.6 GTX was a true Indian hot hatch. To become the equivalent now, what the Polo needs is the 130 bhp turbodiesel from the Polo Cup cars. Along with new wheels and some cosmetic aerodynamic kit, this Polo would be the true successor – of course, it should also be badged the GTI. It can be fast and it can be easier on the pocket too. And who said diesels cannot be hot hatches? Anyone remember the Hyundai Getz CRDi? Oh, there’s another FTD story idea there!