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27 Sept 2022

First Drive: Can the Volkswagen Polo GTI take the hot hatch crown?

First Drive: Can the Volkswagen Polo GTI take the hot hatch crown?

What is it?

The Polo GTI has been a longstanding member of the hot hatch club here in the UK. During its time on the scene, Volkswagen’s compact performance model has gained a reputation as a reliable and refined option, albeit one that isn’t quite as engaging as rivals.

So can this latest GTI take things up a notch? It arrives with a lot of performance and plenty of go-faster technology, but is that enough to put it at the top of the hot hatch list? We’ve been behind the wheel to find out.

What’s new?

Volkswagen has added a number of features to this go-faster version of its Polo. As well as a punchy engine, Volkswagen has tweaked the GTI’s suspension while implementing a new electronic limited-slip differential.

The look of the GTI is more grown-up for this update too. We’ve still got hallmark GTI features like the red accent stripes and check seat trims, but it’s an altogether more coherent and modern-looking car when compared with the model it replaces. We’d argue that it looks far more like a proper GTI, in fact.

What’s under the bonnet?

This latest Polo GTI uses a setup that is broadly similar to that on the previous model. It’s got a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine under the bonnet, driving the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.Volkswagen claims a 0-60mph time of 6.3 seconds (ever-so-slightly quicker than the older car) and a top speed of 149bhp. Outputs stand at 204bhp and 320Nm of torque, too. A clever electronic differential lock comes as standard on the Polo GTI, too, and can help control the brake pressure on the front wheels to enable sharper cornering.

It shouldn’t be a hot hatch that’ll cost the earth to run, either. Volkswagen claims up to 41.5mpg combined (and we saw well over that during our time with the car) while CO2 emissions stand at a reasonable 154g/km.

What’s it like to drive?

The Polo GTI shares many of the traits that you’d find accompanying the larger Golf GTI. This is a car that feels remarkably refined and settled, with neutral steering and well-managed body control. It’s not overly firm, with adaptive chassis control giving you the option to soften off the ride which makes it just pliant enough for UK roads. It feels quick, too, with all 204bhp being well managed – there’s not too much corruption of the steering when accelerating hard, as can often trouble powerful front-wheel-drive cars.

It just doesn’t bristle with feedback like a car such as the Ford Fiesta ST does. And though that torque figure means that the Polo GTI has plenty of roll-on performance, it does mean that you don’t hang on to every last rev when changing gears as you might do in other cars. In fact, you end up driving it more like a ‘normal’ Polo.

How does it look?

One area where we feel the Polo GTI has vastly improved is the way it looks. The older car was a little unassuming and looked just a touch like a standard car with a few extra trinkets, whereas this new version is very much an out-and-out GTI. The sharp headlights with integrated daytime running lights are very appealing in design, while the new ‘crossbar’ light which runs the full width of the front and connects both lights is great to see at night.

There are some subtle GTI badges on the flanks, too, while red-painted brake calipers are a must-have in this segment. Around the back, there’s the central GTI badging which now features on the latest Golf version, while the twin chrome exhaust pipes are a subtle hint towards this model’s elevated performance.

What’s it like inside?

The new GTI benefits from some of Volkswagen’s latest cabin features. The build quality is good, with plenty of high-end materials used throughout and screwed together solidly. The sport seats fitted to the GTI provide plenty of support, too, with good levels of bolstering without being overly firm.

The boot is a little under rival offerings, however. At 287 litres the Polo’s load area comes under the 292 litres you’d get from the Fiesta ST, though it is reasonably square and easy to access. It’s smaller than the one you’d get on the regular Polo, too.

What’s the spec like?

Our test car came in at a smidge over £30,000, but this price tag was accompanied by a healthy level of standard equipment. All Polo models benefit from Volkswagen’s latest technology, including its eight-inch Discover Media Navigation system with full European navigation and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A 10.25-inch digital cockpit with customisable menus and information is also included.

One technological change which isn’t quite as welcome is the haptic feedback-style buttons on the redesigned steering wheel. As we’ve already experienced on the Golf, they’re lacking in preciseness and can make even simple functions a bit of a challenge to undertake.

Verdict

The latest Polo GTI feels a little at odds with what else is on offer today. If you’re after a refined yet powerful hatchback, then the Polo will no doubt appeal. It’s good on the motorway and comfortable enough to live with day-to-day. It’s brisk, too, and feels more than quick enough to live up to that famous ‘GTI’ moniker.

But its character clangs against what people are usually looking for from a hot hatch. It’s not that this is a bad car, but it just doesn’t offer the kind of feedback or engagement that you’d expect from a model in this segment.

  • Model: Volkswagen Polo GTI
  • Price as tested: £30,135
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol
  • Power: 204bhp
  • Torque: 320Nm
  • 0-60mph: 6.3 seconds
  • Top speed: 149mph
  • Economy: 41.5mpg
  • Emissions: 154g/km CO2

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