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Road Test: Volkswagen Polo GTI

The Polo takes its best shot yet at the junior hot hatch class. By Alex Grant.

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SECTOR Supermini PRICE £21,520-£23,020 FUEL 47.9mpg CO2 134g/km

It’s not easy taking a place in Volkswagen’s GTI lineage. Synonymous with performance Golfs, it took the Jetta almost a decade to get the badge, and the Polo didn’t follow suit until 1995 (1999 in right-hand drive). Although there are now three GTIs to choose from, Volkswagen hasn’t slackened its standards when it comes to letting models fly the flag.

This is a familiar formula; GTIs are rarely the fastest in their class, instead striking a balance between long-distance touring comfort and fast-road driver enjoyment that makes them suit pretty much any journey. The last Polo GTI came close to translating that perfectly into a smaller package, and the mainstream Polos are sophisticated enough to bode well for its successor.

The lines are pretty blurred this time. The Polo now uses a downsized version of the Golf’s modular platform, and the two cars even share the same 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine. Range engineering means the Polo comes in at 197bhp, versus the Golf’s 227bhp, but that’s competitive with the segment benchmark Fiesta ST and an uplift over the old car’s 190bhp too.

All Polos are now five-door hatchbacks, including the GTI. Opting for the fastest member of the range adds heavily bolstered – and very comfortable – sports seats and, red-stitched tartan fabric and soft-touch materials accented with gloss black and aluminium. Volkswagen is offering two versions; GTI for those who just want the performance, and GTI+ which adds the digital instruments, adaptive cruise control and keyless entry and start, aligning with the Golf in terms of creature comforts. In either, material quality is excellent and interior space is equivalent to the Mk4 Golf, but the matte-finish red dashboard inserts are an acquired taste.

Polo GTIs have, at times, just felt like a fast Polo – quick, but a little uninvolving. This doesn’t. The engine sparks into life with a raspy growl, popping and banging through the gears with an aggression that’s quite unlike its predecessors, and delivering 62mph from rest in a respectable 6.7 seconds. While it’s heavier than the Fiesta ST, peak torque between 1,500rpm and 4,400rpm means in-gear acceleration is more than up to the badge, while two selectable suspension modes, a 15mm reduction in ride height and an electronic limited-slip differential, keep it pinned to the road.

So, at last, it’s a proper GTI. Arguably more aggressive than most Volkswagens to get the badge, with firmer ride quality (even in comfort-focused drive modes) and a lot more engine noise in Sport mode than the equivalent Golf. Neither are unusual for a car in this class, nor are they dealbreaking flaws, though the mandatory DSG ‘box won’t please everyone. It’s quick to respond and probably the better option for making this an all-rounder, but the manual launching later this year should chip away at the Polo’s price premium and up its driver appeal too. Otherwise, it’s more than earnt the its place in the lineage.

What We Think:

The Polo GTI is a serious contender in its class – which says a lot, considering how strong its rivals are. As grown up as a Golf GTI when you need it to be, but with a mischievous side.

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Alex Grant

Trained on Cardiff University’s renowned Postgraduate Diploma in Motor Magazine Journalism, Alex is an award-winning motoring journalist with ten years’ experience across B2B and consumer titles. A life-long car enthusiast with a fascination for new technology and future drivetrains, he joined Fleet World in April 2011, contributing across the magazine and website portfolio and editing the EV Fleet World Website.