There was a time not long ago when cars like these were an afterthought. Thankfully, things have changed and Indian auto enthusiasts finally have their prayers answered.
Once upon a time, the hard-core automotive junkies in India were begging for enthusiast sports cars. Unfortunately, automakers saw India only as the biggest commuter car and bike market in the world – a market in which small hatchbacks and the sub 4-metre segment dominates. There were many affordable cars, but, unfortunately, there was no ‘affordable performance.’ The vast majority of cars on roads across the globe – not just in India – are simply ordinary. But, in some markets, a handful of automakers produce some special, high-performance variants along with their ordinary line – with the main aim of satisfying, inducing and invigorating the passion of enthusiasts.
There have been many affordable sports cars that have revolutionised the global auto industry, such as the Mazda MX-5, Ford Focus RS, Mitsubishi Evo and, of course, the legendary VW Golf GTI. All of these cars were outlaws in their time, as they defied the archaic conventions of mass automotive production. They were created with the single purpose of bringing affordable performance to everyday car enthusiasts. Thankfully, the Indian auto market is now one of the biggest in the world, and with an ever-growing customer base that’s becoming more informed and enthusiastic, we’re finally seeing these cars make their way to our shores – even if these are just a handful.
We got our hands on the three best enthusiast cars that are now available in the country, and we couldn’t have had a better day with them. Driving these three amazing machines around the Western Ghats in Maharashtra was perhaps one of the best moments I’ve had this year. With us was the VW Polo GTI, the Skoda Octavia RS and the Mini Cooper S JCW Pro Edition. All three cars are vastly different in nature, but they all offer you a beautiful driving experience in their own right.
In the driver’s seat
An enthusiast’s car needs to be something that truly instils a racing spirit in the driver, and the best place to establish that is when you step inside the cabin and sit in the driver’s seat. The Polo GTI, being the least expensive of the lot, doesn’t really have an elaborate interior setup. It’s quite similar to the standard Polo, with the exception of a pair of excellent bucket seats up front. With that said, there’s no real feel good factor here – other than the fact, of course, that the quality levels are top notch. The Octavia RS, on the other hand, really makes a statement. From the nicely moulded driver’s seat, it feels like a proper sports sedan. The cabin is all-black with red stitching, and it gets some carbon fibre accents on the dash. What I really love, though, are the seats – which are comfortable and supportive, and they also get a nice ‘RS’ logo on the headrests. The Mini, though, takes interior design and detailing to another level. With the JCW Pro Edition, the interiors are even sportier in the most unique ways imaginable. It gets contrasting red elements and carbon fibre bits, as well as JCW sports seats, and contrast stitching on the upholstery. The dash layout is funky and a little hipster-like in nature, but the attributes and the cabin’s character is certainly sporty. However, in terms of comfort, space and an overall sporty feel, I have to say that the Octavia RS clearly wins this one.
Start your engines
On paper, all three cars are virtually identical in terms of their performance figures. The Polo GTI gets a 1.8-litre turbo-petrol unit with an output of 189bhp and 320Nm of torque. Mated to the exceptional 7-speed DSG, it can race to 100km/h in just 6.7 seconds. The Octavia RS has borrowed its engine from the Audi TT and it’s a 227bhp 2.0-litre turbo-petrol motor. Mated with VW’s buttery smooth 6-speed dual-clutch gearbox, this gem of an engine allows the Octavia RS to race to 100km/h in just 6.8 seconds, which is just marginally slower than the GTI because of its heavier weight. The Mini JCW Pro Edition, however, just edges these two in the race to 100. It gets a 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbocharged petrol motor that’s good for 210bhp. The engine is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission that allows for a 0-100km/h sprint in just 6.5 seconds – making it the quickest off the line out of all three cars. However, the stock Cooper S has the same sprint time as the GTI.
All three engines are the result of some pretty fine engineering from each automaker, but how do they perform in the real world? Well, we put these cars through the wringer to see how each one would handle being redlined continuously and thrown around some sweet twisty roads – which is what any enthusiast would do with any of these machines. After all, driver enjoyment is their reason for being.
Seat of the pants
This was my first experience behind the wheel of the Polo GTI, and I have to admit that I was really impressed with this little hot hatch. The Polo GTI is the perfect sports car for India. It’s compact, light, agile and quick like a rabbit. With an on-road price of Rs.24 lakh, this is the most affordable performance car that you can buy. The engine performs extremely well and the exhaust notes are raspy and loud, while the paddle shifters give you total control with instant gear changes. The overall ride quality is decent, although, the sports suspension is incredibly stiff – to the extent that you may require a visit to the chiropractor every other week if you choose this car for the everyday commute (especially in the city of Mumbai).
The Skoda, on the other hand, although quite stiff, feels relatively comfortable in the city. It offers the same levels of performance but it’s a proper mid-sized sedan, which means that it can pass off as a family car as well. You can comfortably seat four people and take them on the ride of their lives. The suspension setup is brilliant, in the sense that it ensures exceptional handling while being quite comfortable at the same time. Another thing that I love about the RS is that its refinement levels are also excellent. The buttery smooth DSG, and the compliant ride overall, makes this a very polished machine for an enthusiast’s car. This is also one of the reasons why the RS was awarded a coveted slot in our ‘Best of 2017’ Mega Test in November 2017. Overall, the RS is a more well rounded car than the GTI or the Mini.
Considering the fact that the JCW Pro Edition is the most expensive of the three, by a huge margin, it didn’t really feel much different in terms of the overall driving experience. The engine was very refined, but the Octavia RS was in a league of its own. Thanks to the JCW tuning setup, the Mini sounds amazing, and the suspension tuning does seem to have become that little bit softer – which means that the ride is more comfortable than that of the Polo GTI. The 6-speed automatic transmission too works well, but it’s nowhere as precise as the others. Nevertheless, the sporty attributes of Mini are still very well embedded everywhere else. The Mini also seemed to offer the best fuel economy, but that’s not saying much in this group.
Pedal to the metal
Once we hit the twisty roads of Lonavala, the real fun began. The GTI, once again, won me over. The handling is spot on and it takes orders instantly – taking you exactly where you want to go, all the while the throttle is pressed all the way down to the floor. Even with the least amount of power on paper, the GTI is very light and extremely nimble – and, therefore, just as fast. The sporty suspension kept the car firmly planted at all times, no matter how fast I entered or exited a corner. The Polo GTI always seemed like it could unleash more and I could push it harder, and the more I drove it the more I did exactly that. The overall feel of the car, and the way it sounded as I redlined it before each switch of the paddle, really made me feel like a race car driver. So, if instilling a quick shot of adrenalin is the purpose, the GTI hits the bullseye.
The Octavia RS seems a lot tamer and more under control when compared to the GTI, but as soon as I put it in Sport mode its true character emerged. The RS is just as menacing and ruthless on the twisties as the more nimble GTI. The only difference here is that you can feel the extra weight of the car, and it doesn’t exit corners as quickly as the GTI – but you certainly are a lot more confident going into them thanks to the beautiful suspension setup, the supportive sports seats, and also how planted the car always feels. The steering response is incredible and the front-end is incredibly precise. When taking corners at high speeds, the car always feels calm and composed – and, more importantly, the DSG works so well that it offers a beautiful driving experience. The RS also lets out a beautiful exhaust note that blips every time you downshift, and that plays a little on your senses – the effect being to heighten the overall experience.
The Mini is certainly no slouch either, and when it comes to razor sharp handling there really isn’t a car within this segment that can come close to it. The Mini corners like it’s on rails – literally. Extremely precise steering that offers you go-kart like handling, incredible power delivery, and a beautiful overall ride quality makes the Mini one of the best, and most engaging, little hot hatches to drive. While I was pushing the car to its limits, trying to see if it would falter, I only became more impressed with it. I certainly felt the most confident taking on corners at high speed in the Mini.
I really wish I could tell you who the winner is, but the truth of the matter is that each of these cars is a joy to drive. The GTI is the most affordable, and definitely the most fun because of its brashness. A lot of people would opt for the RS because it truly offers the best of both worlds – family car and sports sedan all rolled into one. The Mini would obviously appeal to someone with a little more fashion sense and a hipster lifestyle. The point is that they’re all inspiring and emotional cars.
All of these machines offer you limitless amounts of fun within a price range that isn’t exorbitant. While these cars might break the norms of the auto industry from a traditionalist standpoint, they, without a doubt, form an extremely emotional and inspiring segment. So, go out and buy one to ensure that we get more such machines in the near future.
If I had to choose just one as a daily driver and a performance car, well, the Octavia RS simply has no rival!
- Skoda Octavia RS
- VW Polo GTI
- Mini Cooper S JCW Pro Edition
Engine: 1,984cc / 4-Cylinder / Turbocharged
Transmission: 6-Speed DSG / Front-Wheel Drive
Power: 227bhp @ 5,500-6,200rpm
Torque: 350Nm @ 1,500-4,500rpm
Price: Rs.25.48 lakh (Ex-showroom)
X-factor: With great power, incredible handling, and awesome refinement, the Octavia RS is a proper sports sedan that will make you smile every time you get in the driver’s seat.
• Great power and refinement
• Supple ride
• Twin headlamps look awkward
Engine: 1,798cc / 4-Cylinder / Turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed DSG / Front-Wheel Drive
Power: 189bhp @ 5,400-6,200rpm
Torque: 250Nm @ 1,250-5,300rpm
Price: Rs.19.9 lakh (Ex-showroom)
X-factor:The ultimate hot hatch in India.
• Tremendous handling
• Instant power delivery
• Too stiff for the city
• Short on space
Engine: 1,998cc / 4-Cylinder / Turbocharged
Transmission: 6-Speed AT / Front-Wheel Drive
Power: 192bhp @ 5,000-6,000rpm
Torque: 280Nm @ 1,250rpm
Price: Rs.42.9 lakh (Ex-showroom)
X-factor: A unique and historic machine that also offers you insane amounts of driving pleasure.
• True go-kart handling
• Iconic looks
• Not the most practical