Can a hot hatchback work with an automatic gearbox? If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have laughed it off as a fairly silly query. But with the constant improvement of twin-clutch transmissions – and the trio of DSG-only, 178bhp hatches launched by SEAT, Skoda and Volkswagen since 2009 – it’s now a perfectly valid question.
The VW Polo GTI showed more talent than its Ibiza Cupra and Fabia vRS cousins but still fell short of the mark when we put it against tougher rivals at the beginning of 2011 (evo 154). Nevertheless, a startling turn of pace and the four-fifths-scale Golf GTI feel intrigued us enough to run one for an extended period.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn it was a painless six months. Everything a modern VW prides itself on – assertive styling, top-notch build quality, a comfy and spacious cabin – was present and correct. Its ergonomics were among the best I’ve come across, too. Navigating the dashboard’s well-damped switches while driving was a breeze, as was inputting satnav destinations and flicking through my iPod via the £840 touchscreen media system (the only option on J4 VWW, taking its price up to £19,635). Just a shame that – GTI-trademark tartan seats and red-stitched leather steering wheel aside – the interior seemed to support the functional-but-dull VW stereotype.
Buying a GTI is as much about performance as quality, though, and this is where things got intriguing. There’s no doubting the Polo’s punch: its turbo- and supercharged 1.4-litre petrol engine produces 178bhp and 184lb ft of torque, the latter available from just 2000rpm. And with power sent to the front wheels via the near-seamless shifts of a seven-speed DSG ’box, acceleration was as effortless as it was relentlessly brisk. Passengers were often astonished the first time I passed a national speed limit sign, eyes widened by how quickly such a meek-looking machine gathered pace. If you don’t know your cars, the 17in Monza alloys and red-striped grille are too subtle to be giveaways.
I quickly discovered that the chassis felt overwhelmed by all that twist, however. On less than bone-dry roads, careful use of the accelerator was needed to avoid low-speed wheelspin, while early application of the throttle out of corners would be greeted with a nagging orange light, even with the ESP apparently off. The Polo was keen to understeer too, and the rear wheels were hard to provoke out of line with a lift of throttle when trying to combat this.
While the ride wasn’t as firm as most rivals’, it lacked composure over tricky B-roads. The Polo could be genuine fun to drive though, its paddles and sharp, light steering endowing it with a fast-paced arcade-game feel. But when really pushing on – the conditions in which a great hot hatch shines – the little GTI frustrated.
That didn’t stop me having a ball when I visited the Stelvio Pass in September. As the Alpine sun dried previously sodden roads, I had a belting drive I won’t forget in a hurry. It was the highlight of a four-day trip during which the Polo hit a GPS-verified 145mph on the Autobahn. It was also a comfortable and relatively quiet 120mph cruiser; nothing short of brilliant for a 1.4 supermini.
The GTI impressed on track, too. During October’s Fast Fleet outing at a Bedford Autodrome ‘How Fast’ event (evo 165) it helped me set a top-five time for our group, DSG coming into its own, the ride more composed on smooth tarmac and the run-off-area safety net allowing more vigorous steering inputs to bully understeer away. That nannying ESP hamstrung progress at times, mind, and the brakes were grumbling after only a couple of fast laps.
Wear and tear was otherwise very impressive. I averaged over 2500 miles a month, yet the car went back to VW with plenty of tread still on its Dunlop Sport Maxxes and the variable service indicator yet to bong for its first inspection. The brakes weren’t many miles off replacement, though.
Boosted by a 37mpg average (against an official combined figure of 47.9mpg) and £115 annual road tax based on 139g/km CO2, those low running costs go some way to offsetting the GTI’s hefty asking price. They’re also the Polo’s best ammunition against our favourite hot hatch, the Renaultsport Clio 200, a car I’ve previously run long-term. The Clio is much more exciting to drive and, actually, just as easy to live with. But servicing occurs every 12,000 miles, I rarely cracked 30mpg and tax costs £245.
There is one potential cause for concern with the VW, though. Browsing Polo forums revealed a major thirst for oil from some twin-charged TSI-equipped cars (Polo, Ibiza and Fabia). While some have needed replacement engines for a known piston ring issue (evo 165), the vast majority simply slurp more oil than you’d expect from a diddy-engined hatch. Happily, our GTI fell into the latter camp, and £16 every 4000-odd miles wasn’t financially debilitating.
And the answer to my initial question? DSG still has flaws, namely poor pick-up from a standstill and the occasional unexpected downchange, but it’s an admirable bit of technology. Yet each time I returned to the Polo after a night or two in a manual car, I immediately missed the intimacy of nailing gearchanges myself. I appreciate the efficiency and refinement a dual-clutch ’box provides, but cars this small – especially heated-up versions – need a manual option. The Polo doesn’t have one.
So, it’s fast, classy, comfortable and a piece of cake to run, if far from pulsating dynamically. It’s rare, too – 599 Polo GTIs found UK homes in 2011, a mere 1.3 per cent of Polo sales. But while the large mileage I covered in our car proves how pleasurable it was to live with, I’ve not pined for the Polo since it left. It felt more GT than GTI, and badged thus it would have delivered on its promise far more sweetly.