Volkswagen Polo GTI – Full Test
It must be tough being the Volkswagen Polo GTI. I imagine it would have some great conversations at parties.
“Hey, I just saw your badge. You’re one of those GTIs, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am. Nice to meet you.”
“Wow, I’m thrilled to meet you. I was one of your biggest fans in the 70s and 80s, you were amazing, the way you popularised the ‘hot hatch’ thing. OK, you lost it a bit in the 90s but what a comeback, the GTI badge really is something to cherish again. Yeah, I really am a big fan of Golfs.”
Whenever the GTI name gets mentioned it’s ‘Golf this’ and ‘Golf that’. Few people seem to readily associate the words ‘Polo’ and ‘GTI’ which is a shame because the Polo GTI has been around since the Mk3 model of 1994.
Mind you, the Polo doesn’t help itself. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and in that regard the Golf GTI should be very flattered indeed. From a distance it would be easy to mistake the new Polo GTI for a Golf as it bears a number of features that you’d find on its bigger brother.
At the front is the familiar wide, thin honeycomb grille with red piping and chrome GTI logo. Look to the sides and the Polo uses 17-inch ‘Monza’ alloys that bear a striking resemblance to those on the Golf, while at the back Volkswagen have removed the ‘Polo’ badge and swapped it for a ‘GTI’ badge, a trick they first employed on the Mk5 Golf GTI. Below that is a pair of chrome-tipped exhaust pipes, just like … you guessed it.
Step inside and the mini-GTI theme continues. The chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel is carried over from the Golf, featuring the same GTI logo and red stitching in the leather. The Polo’s cloth seats use the same tartan pattern and the dashboard design employs a similar layout to the Golf.
This particular Polo is in five-door shape, adding a sprinkling of extra practicality for those with little ones to ferry around. There is also a three door Polo available, the two missing doors knocking off £620 from the asking price.
Having already mentioned the 17-inch alloys I should point out that my test car was wearing non-standard wheels wrapped in winter tyres. More about those tyres in a moment, but as you can see the 15-inch ‘Sira’ alloys do very little for the sporty appeal of the Polo GTI.
To the untrained eye the Polo GTI is very good at playing copycat, but that doesn’t mean it’s identical under the skin. Where the Golf uses a 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine like most of its rivals, the Polo packs a feast of technology that only a handful of the supermini hot hatches can share.
For a start there’s the 1.4-litre petrol engine. With both a turbocharger and supercharger strapped to the engine the Polo GTI generates 178bhp and 184lb/ft of torque, impressive for such a small engine.
Drop the electric windows down and you may hear a little tell-tale whine from the supercharger accompanied by the occasional soft whoosh from the turbo, but other than that it’s difficult to tell that there are two chargers beavering away under the bonnet. The power is delivered in such a way that it’s almost impossible to detect where the supercharger and the turbocharger swap over and the Polo responds quickly to a prod of the throttle, no matter where the engine is in the rev range. Make no mistake, this Polo has the performance to match that classic GTI badge.
Accompanying the subtle whine-and-whoosh soundtrack is a fruity exhaust note. It’s not very loud in the cabin, masked by the Polo’s excellent sound-proofing, but at full throttle it makes its presence felt and helps to make the GTI feel like a proper hot hatch.
Twin Chargers, Twin Clutches
The twin-charged engine is mated to another technological showpiece, a 7-speed automatic dual-clutch gearbox. Dual-clutch gearboxes are now commonplace and are increasingly accepted as the norm, but in the Polo GTI it’s standard fit and the only transmission available.
As in the mechanically identical Skoda Fabia vRS I reviewed last year, the DSG plays a big part in the Polo’s character. On a gentle throttle the Polo is an absolute pussycat to drive, with the DSG’s auto mode changing gear early and smoothly. The gearchanges are only noticeable thanks to the drop in the tone from the engine bay.
As well as being silky smooth the dual-clutch system changes gear in the blink of an eye, helping the Polo achieve its 0-62mph time of 6.9 seconds (coincidentally identical to that of the Golf GTI). Despite there being only 1,000 miles on the clock this Polo felt like it could match that figure, launching off the line with an eagerness that would shame the most excitable of puppies.
Manual control is available via the steering wheel-mounted paddles or the gear lever. It’s a slick feature and offers a little more interaction with the Polo, but you’re still not in full control. The DSG will stop you changing down when the revs are too high (very sensible) and will also stop you changing up if it considers the change too early. Economy-conscious hyper-milers will be frustrated.
The final party trick is the Sport setting. The gearbox hangs onto revs for longer, keeping the engine in the meatiest part of the power band. While it starts off as fun you really need to be in the mood as the constantly revving engine quickly becomes tiring. I don’t really see the need for it as the normal ‘Drive’ mode performs a perfectly decent job of handling the gears and if you give it enough beans it will happily surge to the red line.
For the most part the DSG is great but it can be a bit slow-witted to change down as the speed drops. It’s something you have to consider when approaching roundabouts or junctions, as stamping on the throttle to take advantage of a gap in the traffic results in a pause while the DSG drops a cog or two. Give me a six-speed manual and I’d be much happier.
Park Yourself On The Tartan
As the door closes with a satisfying ‘thunk’ and you settle into the Polo’s nicely bolstered tartan seats, you can tell straight away that you’re in a Volkswagen. The dashboard features soft-touch plastics and sturdy buttons highlighted by chrome and gloss black trim. The dials are smart and easy to read and, in another nod to the Golf GTI, they are backlit by a soothing red glow.
The only option fitted to this Polo GTI was the touch-screen sat-nav (£840). It might not be cheap but it works well, integrating the sat-nav’s directions into the Polo’s trip computer. The display is large and clear and controls not just the sat-nav but also the radio, CD player and multimedia system, as well as providing traffic updates. It’s an option I’d recommend.
That flat-bottomed steering wheel feels good to the touch, wrapped in quality leather. Sadly there are no wheel-mounted buttons but the trip computer’s various functions can be controlled from a rocker switch on the wiper stalk.
The Polo really does feel very upmarket for a supermini with an air of quality that its rivals struggle to match. This extends to the driving experience, with a hushed cabin that shuts out the worst of any wind and tyre roar.
I have one complaint and that is the positioning of the armrest above the handbrake. With the armrest down it’s difficult to reach the handbrake properly and in the end I just pushed the armrest up and out of the way. It’s one of those design flaws that seems so obvious that you wonder how it made it through to production.
On The Move
Bearing in mind this Polo GTI had winter tyres fitted it was difficult to judge the Polo’s usual levels of grip and traction. Mind you, without winter tyres it would have struggled to put its power down on the slippery roads of a cold, damp January.
With softer rubber the Polo made the most of its 178bhp, pulling away with minimal scrabbling from the wheels. The Bridgestone Blizzaks added some much needed grip in the cold conditions but pushing the Polo too quickly into a corner resulted in plenty of understeer. The pace at which the Polo can take corners is entirely determined by the amount of grip at the front, with no feeling that the rear end is willing to join in the fun.
In the slippery conditions it was easy to trigger the XDS system, the Polo’s electronic differential, as it tried to shuffle power between the front wheels. It’s an effective system that reduces wheel spin but it had its work cut out at times.
Through the bends the Polo feels secure, resisting body roll and handling mid-corner bumps with ease. Turn-in is crisp, with the helm responding quickly to inputs from the wheel. Keen drivers will bemoan the lack of interaction through the steering wheel and its over-assisted feeling, but it is direct and allows you to tackle bends with confidence.
Those high-profile winter tyres also did a great job of absorbing bumps and jolts from potholes, adding to the civilised feeling inside the cabin. Where cars with big alloys and slim tyres would crash about on my local roads, the Polo just shrugged and carried on.
Cheap To Run
Running costs are becoming an increasing issue for many motorists and that should make the Polo GTI appeal to those who might have considered a larger car. The official economy figure is 47.9mpg on the combined cycle with CO2 emissions of 139g/km. That’s enough to squeeze the Polo into tax band E, which at 2011/12 rates would set you back £115 in the first year and £110 each year after that.
In my week with the Polo I averaged 37.2mpg, some way off the quoted figure but not helped by my enthusiastic right foot. On my usual 60 mile commute the Polo recorded a much more credible 43mpg, not just once but twice.
The thorn in the Polo’s side is its asking price. At £18,935 for a basic three door model you’re looking at a price that’s some way above the competition. What you need to bear in mind is that you’ll get most of that extra money back when it comes to trade-in time, thanks to Volkswagen’s rock solid residuals.
The Final Reckoning
The Polo GTI may bear more than a striking resemblance to the Golf GTI but what’s wrong with mimicking one of the best hot hatches on the market? The result is a handsome supermini with a beautifully crafted interior that also happens to be amusingly fast.
It might not be the most exciting hot hatch from a driver’s perspective but that doesn’t mean that the Polo isn’t capable of tackling your favourite road at an indecent pace. What it lacks in engagement it makes up for in refinement and quality, and if you’re going to be spending a lot of time sat in a car that can count for a lot.
Performance is up there with the best in class, helped in part by the rapid shifts from the DSG gearbox. Personally I would prefer a manual, partly to increase that feeling of connection with the car but also because I’m a bit of a control freak and I’d rather choose a gear than let a computer do it for me.
The Volkswagen Polo GTI is a small hot hatch that packs a powerful punch, has a cosseting cabin and feels like it’s been built to last. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Those are the very same qualities that make the Golf GTI so appealing.
Volkswagen Polo GTI Specifications
|Engine:||1,398cc 4-cyl TSI|
|Kerb Weight||1,184 kg|
|Top Speed:||142 mph|
|CO2 Emissions:||139 g/km (Band E)|
|Official MPG:||47.9 mpg|
|Actual MPG:||37.2 mpg|
|Price (as tested):||*£20,395|
Volkswagen Polo GTI Scores
|PERFORMANCE||Great engine offers impressive performance||8|
|HANDLING||Composed, secure, predictable but lacks excitement||7|
|AFFORDABILITY||Asking price is high but running costs are low||8|
|DESIRABILITY||It’s a Volkswagen. It’s a GTI. Say no more.||8|
|DRIVING SPIRIT||There’s fun to be had despite the strait-laced image||7|
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*Prices taken from Volkswagen website, January 2012