It’s difficult to know where to begin with the Polo GTI. Those three letters are arguably Volkswagen’s most valuable brand assets, couple that with one of Wolfsburg’s best-selling hatchbacks and surely you cannot go wrong? The thing is though, the Polo GTI has managed to float around in purgatory for quite some time now. It took Volkswagen the best part of 30 years to even give the Polo its GTI wings, and since then it has managed to fly under the radar without much fuss, at least compared to its larger sibling. Thanks largely to the fact it usually had smaller engines, less GTI embellishments and a hefty price tag compared to its peers.
However, as the Polo GTI has evolved, it’s slowly stolen more and more from the ever-popular Golf GTI. The red grill stripe, the tartan seats, the honeycomb grill. All those little touches that make a GTI, a GTI. And now, in a slightly un-VW move, they’ve given it the same 2.0TFSI engine with over 200bhp. This is now a Polo that can do 0-60 in 6.5 seconds, and go on to a top speed of 149mph. That has the potential to not only worry its peers, but also the Golf GTI.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, this car as tested has a price of £31,845….
Now you’ve finished mopping up all of the beverage you just spat out, I will remind you that inflation has skewed all new car prices of late. So whilst the Polo GTI starts at £27,985, its nearest rivals are all in that ballpark.
And what of the competition? Well Ford have scored a slight own goal by culling the ever-popular Fiesta. So that leaves the £26,000 Hyundai I20n. The issue here is the i20n is manual only, whereas the Polo is DSG only. So, if you want an auto, it has to be the Polo anyway. Perhaps this is a very smart move from VW from a commercial standpoint, or it’s just a way of keeping the Polo from stealing Golf GTI customers. Either way, my personal opinion is that it’s a crying shame we don’t have the option of 3 pedals.
I’m sure you’re all waiting for the cliché to come now, the predictability of a GTI reviewer saying the classic line: It’s very capable, but not as involving as the competition. I genuinely think this isn’t true with the Golf, for two main reasons. Firstly, nobody is driving all these cars back-to-back and trying to decide which one is better, that’s a very isolated scenario in the world of car reviewing. And Two, when its your own money, you’d probably rather have the Volkswagen to rely on than anything else. Residual values, reliability and (as much as I hate to say it) some brand credit.
Whilst I will proudly stand by this opinion, and fight anyone who disagrees, my first venture out in the Polo has me falling straight down this exact hole. The first few drives left me wanting more, it felt like all the ingredients were right but the final result was water. However, I was undeterred, sometimes you need to scratch the surface a little bit more with a GTI, and perhaps this Polo was the same?
I decided to line it up for some of my favourite test roads, and even with the weather not on my side, I pushed its boundaries a little more. Whilst the Michelin Primacies fitted to this test car are pretty below average in anything but dry conditions, for both feel and grip, I did start to feel some of that sparkle. I think the initial feeling I had was probably due to the fact I wasn’t expecting it to be so grown up, and that personality is evident when you push on as well.
When using the car normally, you can (and I did) do many miles in it with no effort at all. Helped by the radar cruise control, DSG box and comfortable seats. Push it hard though, and rather than be presented with the usual squirrely and rabid hot hatch personality, once again this grown up and solid feel are at the forefront. The chassis feels completely unwavering, which at times leaves you wanting a more playful side, but there’s something to be said for the confidence it inspires.
I really don’t think there’s another car in its class that can dispose of a B Road with such speed, and so little drama. The 15mm lower suspension, and XDS Differential (which despite the name is more of a trick ESP system than a physical component) are the main changes VW made to sharpen the GTI up over standard models. Ok that may not sound like a lot, but to me that just shows you how good the standard car is.
After a solid week with the GTI, I think I finally understood the depth of capability of it. It may seem like an expensive proposition, but when you compare it to its peers, it’s closer than you might think. I’d be lying if I said it was a car I fell in love with, there are still some elements that felt frustrating at times. I won’t bother mentioning the haptic steering wheel controls, nor the touch sensitive climate control panel. For me, the biggest irritation is that beneath the sensible, grown up exterior, there is a recipe for an all time great hot hatch. And I can’t help but think it would be as simple as giving us a manual.