Ride and handling
VW has made some big noises about the Polo GTI’s ‘playfulness’. With the larger Golf being pushed upmarket, the field is left clear for VW to deliver a more fun hot hatch. Certainly the Polo’s compact external dimensions (I say ‘compact’, it’s actually larger than a Golf MK4 in every dimension other than length), low weight and big engine should make for a genuinely entertaining package.
Initial impressions are good, because like its big brother, the Polo benefits from slick and naturally-weighted steering, almost perfect control weights and a taut yet controlled ride – on our Sport Select-equipped car, at least. Push harder and there’s strong bite from the front tyres and a definite sense that the rear axle is taking its share of the load, and on the smooth and snaking roads of our Spanish test route the VW felt planted and poised. Like the Golf, it covers ground quickly, with an almost clinical precision. And therein lies the problem. Once you’ve tackled a few corners you’ve pretty much got the measure of the Polo. The steering is quick and precise but there’s only the bare minimum of feedback, while that grippy chassis doesn’t want to get expressive. Lifting the throttle will tighten the car’s line, but there’s no sense of the puppy-like agility you get in the 208 GTi.
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The XDS ‘differential’ is also no substitute for the real thing. Torque vectoring means there’s plenty of grip when you turn in, but with the ESP in its halfway house Sport setting (you can’t turn the systems off completely) the inside wheel simply spins power away out of slower turns. Selecting Sport sharpens the throttle, adds artificial weight to the steering and fractionally firms up the dampers, but the Polo’s benign character remains. It’s an effective way of getting from A to B quickly, but not a thrilling one.
Take things easy and the GTI is a normal Polo, which means it’s refined, roomy and easy to drive – few superminis are as simple to live with. So it’s a shame much of this good work is undermined by the brittle ride. The car fidgets and hops over small imperfections and only really settles down on the smooth, longer frequency bumps normally found on motorways. Even cars fitted with the optional two-way dampers ride with an uncomfortably sharp edge.