The Volkswagen Polo GTI has long lived in the shadow of its bigger brother, the Golf GTI. Does it step into the light with this latest model? Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
Ten Second Review
The Volkswagen Polo GTI can't hold a candle to the best in its class in terms of driving fun but if you're looking for a quick and discreet supermini that brings with it the trappings of big car quality, it's well worth a look. Be careful with the options though, as they can really blow the budget.
Students of automotive history will know many of them. You know, the cars that would have been remembered far more fondly had they not been overshadowed by a far more illustrious stablemate? The Audi S2 coupe had no chance whatsoever following in the footsteps of the iconic ur-quattro and the Peugeot 309 GTI might actually have been a better drive than the legend that was the 205 GTI. If you want the undisputed champ of neglected sibling syndrome, look no further than the Volkswagen Polo GTI, apparently forever condemned to be the car people walk past in showrooms to moon over the Golf GTI. Volkswagen seems rather fed up with this state of affairs and, after many years of building warmish Polos that left British buyers somewhat underwhelmed, the gloves have finally come off. Game on.
As well as playing second fiddle to the Golf, the Polo GTI has also had to give best to the Ford Fiesta ST in the supermini hot hatch class. The latest Polo GTI sets out to rectify that issue, the old 180PS 1.4-litre turbo engine being ditched in favour of a far heavier duty 190PS 1.8-litre unit. From there, power is delivered to the front wheels via a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual clutch DSG transmission, both options resulting in an identical 6.7 second sprint to 62mph. Why's that? It's because Volkswagen lets the engine deliver more torque when it's paired with the manual 'box, offsetting the slower shift times. Like all Polos, the GTI rides firmly and it's a good deal stiffer in roll, thanks to some chunky anti-roll bars. It's more composed than the Fiesta ST over the sort of sharp surface imperfections you find on city roads. Those who prefer a more playful chassis and more communicative steering might well prefer the livewire Ford but there's clearly been a lot of thought - and budget - poured into the Polo's dynamics.
Design and Build
The Polo GTI doesn't really go too large on extrovert styling, with much the same low-key, high quality aesthetics as the Golf. Viewed on a spec sheet, there's a lot of changes to the standard car, but the net effect in the metal is muted, discreet and classy. There's a more aggressive under-bumper assembly, red piping across the front grille, a dinky roof spoiler, a rear apron and some tidy 17-inch Parabolica alloy wheels. It also rides 15mm lower on its sports suspension. Drop inside and you'll find GTIO tartan seating, which is almost certainly the most extrovert aspect of the Polo GTI's entire attire. You'll notice the latest shape instrument panel that has been redesigned and your hands grip a chunkier wheel rim. The centre console has also been given a mild makeover with heating and ventilation controls now easier to operate. Soft touch plastics and subtle aluminium detailing are the order of the day but the cabin is notably less austere than before. There's a 280-litre boot that increases to 952-litres when the rear seats are folded down.
Market and Model
The list price of £18,850 might seem a bit steep for a Polo especially when you start adding to it with bigger alloy wheels and the £250 'Sports Performance Kit' which lets you stiffen the dampers, sharpen the throttle response and have a more aggressive engine note by prodding a Sport button on the dash. There's also the decision as to whether you need the DSG dual-clutch transmission too, which adds around £1,200. Then there's sat nav at £700 and MirrorLink for your Android phone that'll tack on another £160. The five-door model is another £650. There are only two non-cost option paint finishes too; Flash Red and Urano Grey. If you want something else it's going to run you at least £260. In other words, without getting too excitable, it's easy to clock the price up at quite a canter. Volkswagen dealers are very good at encouraging this. Still, you do get some decent gear as standard, with fitments like a DAB stereo, an XDS diff lock, those tasty sports seats, and LED headlights.
Cost of Ownership
This being Volkswagen, you'd probably be shocked were this car not challenging amongst the class best in terms of efficiency. But here's the thing. It's not. Okay, so 47.1mpg isn't bad for a car with 190PS at its elbow but compare that to 49.6mpg you'd get from a 231PS MINI John Cooper Works, a car that's actually bigger and heavier than the Polo to boot and the Polo resides in the 'okay' bracket. Emissions work out at 139g/km. Start getting a bit keen with the options and you'll see those famously resilient Volkswagen residuals crumble somewhat too. Just about the only options that used buyers will pay extra for are satellite navigation and the DSG transmission but straight away that adds nearly £2,000 to the asking price.
The Volkswagen Polo GTI is, for a small hatch, inoffensively nice. It does nothing notably badly, but quite a lot really very well and therein lies the problem. It's a car that's never really been let off the leash for fear of cannibalising sales of the more profitable Golf GTI, and has never quite learned to let its hair down. Buy a Ford Fiesta ST, a Peugeot 208 GTI, a Renaultsport Clio 200, a MINI Cooper S or a Suzuki Swift Sport and they'll all put a bigger grin on your face than the Polo GTI. If fun is the defining buying criteria of a hot supermini then the Polo GTI finishes well down the pecking order. If, on the other hand, you want something that's downsized, a bit more mature and presentable and which is finished with big car attention to detail, the Polo rates extremely highly. As a GTI it's no great shakes. As a desirable small Volkswagen, it earns our approval and we think customers will likewise warm to it.