If you’ve ever hit it off so well with someone at a party that you could’ve carried on talking to them forever were it not for the fact you had to get some kip before work the next day, you’ll understand how the sweet little Polo GTI got under my skin. After an hour behind the wheel of one, I didn’t want to give the keys back, but sadly, I had to.
The Volkswagen Polo was given a smart new look last autumn and especially from the front it looks like a case of “Honey, I shrunk the Golf”, which is a good thing, without a doubt. The Polo looks sharper than it’s ever done before and this, the just-launched GTI version, is sprinkled with additional but subtle sexiness. In a hot supermini identity parade, the Polo GTI would look pretty normal next to the much more in-yer-face Corsa VXR and Fiesta ST. Me, I love powerful cars but don’t like to shout about it, so the Polo would be my pick – and I’d plump for the 5-door, as I actually reckon it looks a bit more balanced from the side. The only real tell-tale signs it’s a GTI are the red stripes on the front grille which exquisitely blend into the front lights, badges dotted here and there, gorgeous new alloy wheels, a sporty spoiler, diffuser and twin chrome exhausts.
Not long before my first drive in the new Polo GTI, I’d spent an hour in a hybrid Golf GTE and it was plain to see that they share the same high quality materials and feel like they’re built to last. Some may say Volkswagen interiors are a bit boring and in a way, it’s true, but give it a few years and I bet you’d get tired of the technicolour interiors some rivals dish up. The Polo GTI with its touchscreen multimedia system, USB and Aux inputs, tartan seats inspired by fast Golfs from your parents’ party days, exciting red stitching and leather sports steering wheel will appeal to any driver with taste, old and young.
It doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve driven a couple of cars with truly awful clutches, gearboxes and pedals over the years, which just made each driving experience horrible. The complete opposite struck me about the new Polo GTI as soon as I turned the key and set off. Some say the gearstick is too long and a true hot hatch should have a stumpy little one, but I couldn’t fault the Polo’s new 6-speed manual gearbox. The shift action and ratios felt spot on, as did the clutch. Full marks there, then.
The previous Polo GTI was only available with a DSG (automatic) gearbox and had a 1.4-litre engine producing 180PS, so my ears pricked up when I heard that the new one not only has a manual gearbox but also produces 192PS from a turbocharged 1.8-litre engine. Its big brother the Golf has an engine built from the same DNA and it’s humbling to think the latest Polo GTI has more power than Golfs from decades ago. Combine it with that very likeable 6-speed manual gearbox and this little chap goes like stink and sounds good, too, with a lovely exhaust note. The manual Polo GTI has more punch than the DSG, producing 70Nm more torque, but they both get to 62mph in an impressive 6.7 seconds and can reach a top speed of 146mph. That’s 0.2 seconds faster to 62mph than the Fiesta ST, which has a top speed of 139mph. Small, sporty cars like this can end up feeling part of your soul, this praise usually saved for the British and French efforts, but I think it’s true of the Polo GTI.
So that this German pocket rocket can cope if you fling it around bends, the suspension is pretty hard, but no more than a Fiesta ST. It does thud over speed bumps and potholes a bit, but it could’ve been much worse. The steering felt beefy and changed direction precisely at high speeds, but lacked feel at times. The Sport button isn’t just there for decoration, cranking the volume up even higher when pressed. I didn’t drive the Polo GTI on a track, but from the impression I got on North Yorkshire roads, it’ll understeer when really pushed, but this is kept in check by fancy trickery that brakes the inside wheels on sharp corners. Overall grip was excellent but if you’re after wild thrills, you’re probably better off with a Fiesta ST, although the Ford will be less pleasant to live with day after day.
When you’re not in the mood for hooning, the Polo GTI doesn’t mind being well-behaved, either. Some may find the brakes a little over sensitive but you quickly get used to them. The engine note really comes alive when you plant your foot down but is nicely muted around town, making it a great car for all occasions. It’s safe, too, as traction control is never completely turned off.
There was plenty of headroom and wriggle space inside, both front and back, so your friends, parents and workmates won’t grumble even on long journeys. The Polo GTI shouldn’t have a drink problem, either, with stop-start contributing to combined economy of 47.1 miles per gallon on paper from the manual version or 50.4mpg in the automatic. The previous, 1.4-litre Polo GTI was in insurance group 30 (out of 50), which is the same as the Fiesta ST currently, but the new Polo is in group 29E.
The fabulous new Volkswagen Polo GTI costs from £19,480, which is about £2,000 more than a basic Fiesta ST (with no options ticked). The German isn’t as crazy and track-focussed but to me is very nearly as much fun, every bit like a fast, compact GT car. Its subtle looks really do it for me and I could probably even warm to the tartan interior. The new 1.8-litre engine and 6-speed manual gearbox are both cracking and it feels just like a squashed Golf GTI, which will predictably sell in far greater numbers. In a way, that’s a shame, as the eight-grand-cheaper Polo is so good.