What is it?
The latest Volkswagen Polo GTI is almost exactly the same size as a Golf GTI mk2. Reflecting today's downsizing trend, the engine is smaller than in those early GTIs, its pistons displacing a mere 1.4 litres. But with the help of a supercharger and a turbocharger, there's 178bhp on tap. Available as a three-door or five-door hatchback, but with a seven-speed DSG twin-clutch paddleshift gearbox as its only transmission option, the Polo GTI prices start at £19,570.
The big highlight is the TSI twincharger engine, which, combing the benefits of super- and turbo-charging, offers strong punch from low down right through to 7000rpm. Seventh gear's long-striding, economy-hyping 27mph/1000rpm calms the ardour a bit but allows a claimed 142mph top speed, though we managed a GPS-verified 145mph on the German Autobahn in our long-term test car. The engine note sets the scene, its snorty, gruff induction noise pitching you straight into your own private trackday fantasy.
While traditionalists will crave a three pedal, stick-shift gearbox layout, the near-seamless changes of DSG and the accelerative and economy benefits it brings (and that’s before you explore the smidge later you can brake into corners, and how much extra focus you can give your cornering line without the need to remove your hands from the wheel) should help soothe the pain. An automatic gearbox might seem out of place in a Renaultsport Clio, but it suits the demeanour of a polished VW product somewhat better, especially as the years of development DSG has received really shine through in its smoothness. The only hesitancy comes when you want to pull away quickly from a junction or roundabout.
Fuel economy is rated at 47.9mpg combined, while 139g/km CO2 emissions place the GTI in tax band E.
What’s it like to drive?
As with the engine, the chassis is friskier than the Golf's and less the civilised tourer. It steers firmly and positively with a good bite from the front tyres (mounted on Golf GTI-type 17in wheels), the nose tucks in keenly but the ESP light is easily triggered as you power out of corners.
There's a touch of torque steer, too, the good sort that adds to the feistiness. The tail edges out just enough not to feel inert if you throttle-off, but – as usual in a VW Group car – the warning light flashes annoyingly if the ESP is switched out. Over bumps the ride is firm, but compared to some of its rivals it’s suited to British roads, and is very well damped with no after-bounce or choppiness. Fantastic as it is, the Ford Fiesta ST might feel over-firm in comparison.
Here is the best attempt yet at a convincing GTI-badged Polo, a car with its own personality freed from the shadow of the Golf. It looks right for the role, too, with its deep valances, honeycomb grille, red stripes and twin tailpipes, plus a mini-GTI interior treatment. The tartan seats and 17in Monza alloy wheels are tell-tale signs for those who know their hot hatchback history.
How does it compare?
The Polo GTI joins a pair of VW Group rivals in the shape of the Skoda Fabia vRS and Seat Ibiza Cupra – both of which use the same drivetrain and offer a similar blend of talents. The new Renaultsport Clio 200 Turbo copies the GTI’s twin-clutch gearbox format, and while it doesn’t execute it anywhere near as well, the RS badge arguably has more kudos in this hot hatch size bracket and disappointing drivetrain aside, its chassis is still a blinder. All pale in comparison to the new Ford Fiesta ST, though. Priced from a bargain £16,995, it’s as quick, agile, playful and practical as you could hope for and easily the class leader.
Anything else I need to know?
The Polo GTI launched three years ago, and its 178bhp now places it in the lower rungs of the small hot hatch class. That will change, though, when we’re finally blessed with a Polo R. Expected to have four-wheel drive, more than 220bhp and a more pumped up exterior, it ought to take liberal inspiration from VW’s world rally car.
In Europe, Volkswagen offers a preview in the form of the Polo R WRC Street edition. Still front-wheel drive, it gets a 217bhp 2-litre turbo engine, completes 0-60 in 6.4sec and is good for a 151mph top speed. Limited to 2500 units, it costs a bulky 33,900 euros in its German home market.
If you crave more power but can’t stretch to importing one of those, Superchips can help. The tuning company – whose VW Polo GTI ECU remap can be switched on or off using a handheld Bluefin remote control – has massaged the twin-charged 1.4’s outputs to 204bhp at 6500rpm and 194lb ft at 3475rpm. It makes the Polo a more interesting car to drive, with more power at the upper reaches of the GTI’s rev range encouraging you to hang onto every rpm rather than relying on its bulky mid-range and short shifting through the gears. It costs £455.