The new Volkswagen Polo GTI is a very agreeable supermini. That much I can say from the outset. The deeper, more pertinent point is whether it's a good downsized hot hatch; able to deal a knock-out blow to the evergreen (and now uniformly five-door) Ford Fiesta ST. So far, the Mk6 Polo GTI has failed to connect anything heavier than a light slap across the chops of its illustrious rival - the undisputed champion of the twenty-something-priced pocket rockets, which these days is a bracket that's stretching fearfully close to £30k. But the Polo GTI is new, sort of. The broader range had a facelift last year, and that included the GTI-spec models, so what's changed?
Well, it has a bit more power. That's through some tweaks to the software that releases 7hp more from its 'old faithful' turbocharged 2.0-litre EA888. It means an ST-beating, but not blitzing, total of 207hp, with 236lb ft from a lowly 1,500rpm. That, peak torque figure, I should add, matches the ST's 1.5-litre triple. But the search for much else that's changed mechanically bore no fruit. The GTI comes with the same 15mm-lowered sports suspension, two-stage damping, meatier front anti-roll bar and more ridged mounts at the rear. The XDS brake-locking differential control is as it was, too, as is the seven-speed DSG gearbox, although that does now decouple and coast when you lift off on motorways to save fuel.
To be honest, most of the changes concern the frillier bits. New designs for the front and rear bumpers (including an illuminated strip across the front grille), new body colours with the option of a contrasting black roof, new standard-fit LED Matrix headlights and LED taillights, with animated brake lights (when you unlock the car) and sweeping turn signals. Inside, it comes with a 10.3-inch digital instrument screen as standard, an updated infotainment package, and the heater controls, like most VW products now, are touch sensitive along with the buttons on the steering wheel. I'm not going to dwell on how annoying they are, but they are.
So, the all-important driving bit, then... Well, it's lively enough to match the Fiesta ST in a straight-line sprint. That's backed up by the figures, because both post identical 0-62mph times of 6.5 seconds. As is always the case with near enough anything this EA888 engine is shoved into, it's smooth and unobtrusive and, even in the sportier mode, here the fake noise doesn't sound too, err, fake. And as I've heard plenty of people say they find the Fiesta ST's three-pot too buzzy, I can imagine a good many will find this Polo's fruity parp more appealing.
Few could argue with its linear torque that's spread evenly across the rev spectrum. This makes it so tractable that it never leaves you floundering, and nor does the gearbox. It's responsive in the auto mode, and flits through its seven cogs in a manner seamless enough to be called unnoticeable. The problem is the pulling away part. This is when it can be jerky as the clutch grabs, which will induce some thuggish wheel spin if the surface lacks bite.
The steering is a bit light for my taste in the normal setting, and there's a bit of a software trough to climb out of when the wheel's moving from dead centre. And when you get out of that there's this sense of inertia, like lead weights are hanging off the column, which gives it a mildly synthetic feel. The good news is you can configure everything individually - engine, dampers and steering - and when you pop the steering into its Sport setting those issues are largely resolved. Actually, it becomes quite good: not much torque steer and an easy set-up to work with and strike up a rhythm on switchbacks. I'd stop shy of calling it engaging, though - it ain't that, mainly for the lack of sensations to revel in, which you get more of in the ST.
The Fiesta livens up corners in other ways, too. It's more 'up on its toes' and darty, whereas the Polo seems mostly disinterested at the prospect of being entertaining. That sounds damning, and perhaps it's a bit extreme. It's a very tidy little car to pedal across country, but that's at eight-tenths. It has plenty of grip and dedicated damping, which is quite delightful in the softer setting and seemingly never fazed by the usual B road inconsistencies. In fact, the damping is quite possibly better than the ST's, which is too reactive off bumps. The Polo isn't; it's controlled and breeds confidence.
The problem is, dip into those last couple of tenths that mark the good from the great, and they're not there. And let's face it, if you're not up for a bit of ragging when it comes to a small, front-drive hot hatchback, you should ask yourself if this is really the genre for you? If you push to that point in the GTI expecting to find ST-levels of front-end bite and rear-end mobility, neither is there. I'll tell you what it feels like: you know when a car's tyres are overheating and it starts moving around on elasticated tread blocks? Well, the Polo's like that, but when the tyres are in the zone. There's no definition to the front and half-arsed movements at the back.
Of course, if you're not bothered about those last percentiles and more concerned with livableness, then by all means carry on reading. Because in typical GTI style, the Polo is rather like its bigger brother. The ride is taut but sparing, bar a bit of fidget on the motorway. The ST's isn't. It's wearing. And having trekked 200 miles to Wales, I can tell you that the Polo is also quiet for a small car, with hardly any wind noise and completely acceptable levels of road roar - and that's with optional 18-inch wheels instead of the standard 17s. Even the brakes have a deliberate action that makes them as stress-free in traffic as they are strong at speed.
The front seats remind me of 1990s Recaros, which is a good thing. They hug you tightly at the sides and feel hard yet forgiving (if that makes sense?) on your back and bum. Essentially, you don't fall out of them round a corner and don't need to get out of them an hour into a long drive. Also, the driver's seat, the steering wheel and the pedals are thoughtfully aligned, so it's comfortable in that respect. And easy to see out of, thanks to unusually slight windscreen pillars (by 2022 standards), which is a boon when you're hacking through the twisties as much as meandering around Tesco's car park.
Yes, the various touch-sensitive additions take away from its usability. I mean, not for the first time my stepdaughter called into question my choice of music, but the frumpy folky racket playing in the background was nothing to do with me. Well, not beyond the fact I must've glanced the seek button on the steering wheel while twirling it. Christ, I've not sunk as low as folk music just yet. The infotainment system is fine, though: simple and responsive menus, smartphone mirroring, punchy stereo. Job done.
Which, in a broader sense, applies to the car, too: the new Volkswagen Polo GTI is still a very agreeable supermini. And an okay hot hatch. Comfortable, quiet, easy to use (too easy, from the point of the accidental folk music incidents), and capable and pleasurable to drive up to a point. And let's be fair, that's the remit the Golf GTI has stuck to for decades and everyone loves that. Maybe the Polo, being the smaller, lighter little brother, could do what little brothers tend to do, which is be a bit cheekier. It would make it more loveable. That's certainly the Fiesta's approach, which is why people adore it. The Polo GTI, much as before, settles for your respect.
Specification | 2022 Volkswagen Polo GTI
Engine: 1,984cc, turbocharged, inline four
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 207
Torque (lb ft): 236 @ 1,500-4,500rpm
0-62mph: 6.5 secs
Top speed: 149mph
Weight: 1,361kg (EU)
Price as tested: £30,365
- VW Polo GTI (Mk5) | PH Used Buying Guide
- VW Polo GTI vs VW Golf GTI
1 / 14