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Volkswagen successfully miniaturises the performance Golf’s recipe for the first time - but does the hot supermini have a chassis to match its newly acquired engine?

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“Practical performance” is the new mantra that Volkswagen wants its GTI badge to represent: we’ve had three new or renewed GTIs in the past 18 months, starting with the Golf GTI Mk7.5 early last year, and all have carried forth that message loud and clear.

The sub-brand will continue to have its wilder moments, of course, when its limited-series, end-of-line specials (Volkswagen GTI Clubsport S and the like) will flirt with a more fiery temperament than you might want on your daily commute, but they’ll be few and far between.

Our (admittedly fully loaded) test car comes in at almost £26,000.but in basic spec the new RS Mégane costs but £1500 more

That’s because, by and large, VW wants its GTI-branded Golfs, Ups and now new Polos to sit at the more refined, mature and usable end of a notional hot hatchback character scale that has Renault RSs, Ford STs, Seat Cupras and Honda Type Rs at its other end.

Potential owners could therefore consider ‘GTI’ an initialism of ‘Grand Tourer Injection’ – or perhaps of ‘Girlfriend Test Invulnerable’, if it happened to suit their personal circumstances better. This is how VW GTIs have defined themselves for decades, of course.

However, when you get into the nitty-gritty details of this week’s test subject, there’s quite a lot that’s new and interesting about the latest wearer of the GTI colours: the fourth-generation VW Polo GTI.

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Unlike other hot Polos that have been engineered midway through the lifecycle of the standard hatchbacks on which they’ve been based, this one has been in the product plan from the earliest stages of the conception of the Mk6 Volkswagen Polo, and those of the MQB-A0 model platform.

It therefore has more specialised running gear than any Polo GTI before it, and uses a larger and more powerful engine than any of its direct predecessors. The earliest Polo GTI had 123bhp in 2000; 18 years later, we’re welcoming one with 197bhp that’s almost 2sec quicker from 0-62mph than the original.

But will it measure up as described against the Autocar road test timing gear or are we looking at another lukewarm junior GTI here, as guilty as ever of flattering to deceive?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Polo GTI 2018 road test review hero side

Having started off with a 1.6-litre atmospheric petrol engine and then wavering between 1.8- and 1.4-litre turbo power over the years, the Polo GTI now literally has a bit of what makes its bigger brother, the Golf GTI, special.

Namely, VW’s ‘EA888’- type 2.0-litre turbo four, which powers the current Golf GTI (albeit in a higher state of tune) and which develops 197bhp and a particularly punchy-sounding 236lb ft.

A GTI wouldn’t be a GTI without those three letters attached to its front. The same can be said of the honeycomb grille and the red stripe that runs across it

That beats the latest Mini Cooper S for power and torque, and it’s got both a Ford Fiesta ST and a Renault Clio RS licked for outright mid-range pulling power too. Not a bad start.

The car is available in five-door form only; in front-wheel drive only; and, to begin with, with a six-speed twin-clutch DSG automatic gearbox only (a manual gearbox is joining the range later this year).

Further downstream in the drivetrain, where others in the class now offer proper mechanical limited-slip differentials, VW sticks with what it describes as an ‘XDS electronic differential lock’. Which, you’ve guessed it, isn’t a locking differential at all (although, confusingly, the one described as ‘XDS+’ on bigger VW Group hot hatchbacks is exactly that).

‘XDS’ is actually torque vectoring by braking across the front axle delivered by an extension of the car’s stability control software. We’ll see how well it works in due course.

The Polo GTI’s suspension overhaul comprises shortened, stiffened coil springs, with retuned dampers and anti-roll bars – the car riding some 15mm lower than a standard Volkswagen Polo. There are wheel hubs and steering knuckles unique to the GTI here also, allowing the car its own axle kinematics and roll-centres relative to those of the standard Polo. Suspension is by struts up front and a twist-beam axle at the rear, as is common among hot superminis.

Meanwhile, ‘selective’ dampers (which can be switched between preset Normal and Sport settings) are standard on UK cars (although they’re a cost option in other markets). Also standard are 17in alloy wheels, surrounding enlarged brake discs front and rear; they can be upgraded to 18s at extra cost.

VW quotes an unladen weight of 1355kg for the car, which is a touch heavy by hot supermini standards, even though we trimmed that slightly to 1342kg in the case of our test car, weighed on Millbrook’s scales. It’s a class where every few kilos count, and in which some cars hover at the 1200kg mark.

For a highly equipped, luxury-slanted performance product with plenty of torque, however, you might be minded to forgive the Polo GTI that much.

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Polo GTI 2018 road test review cabin

Despite the Polo GTI’s impressive on-paper performance credentials, it’s not really the sort of car to shout about its sporting abilities on a visual front.

As with the hot supermini’s exterior, the approach VW’s designers have taken to its cabin errs on the side of conservatism. In fact, it’s largely similar to that of a regular, yet generously equipped, standard Volkswagen Polo.

Velvet Red ‘decorative inserts’ in the dashboard have a matt finish and give an otherwise fairly staid cabin a much-needed visual lift

The ‘Jacara’ upholstery, sports seats and GTI badging are about the only thing that set this hotter, faster Polo aside from the cooking models. The Velvet Red dash panel injects some much-needed colour into the mix, too, although it’s worth noting that this is an option on regular Polos as well, albeit in different colours.

Our test car was equipped with Volkswagen’s £650 Discover Navigation infotainment system, which uses an 8.0in touchscreen in place of the same-sized Composition Media set-up that comes as standard.

Its various menus and icons are effortlessly intuitive to negotiate and, along with very low latency, make this the best infotainment system in this class. That VW has not sought to do away with scrolling dials (there is one each side of the display for volume, scrolling and map scale) is also a big tick as far as we’re concerned.

Discover Navigation comes with a three-year subscription to ‘Guide and Inform’, which not only provides information on fuel prices and weather but allows the navigation to plot a course based on real-time traffic updates.

Further increasing the technological appeal of the Polo GTI+ is the standard-fit 10.5in TFT display within the instrument binnacle. It features customisable menus and is fantastically sharp.

In terms of usability, those sports seats are passably supportive and comfortable, yet sit you perhaps a little higher than you might ideally like. Otherwise, the hot Polo’s driving position is largely spot on.

As for space in the rear, there is room for two adults – although head and leg room will likely be a bit tight for taller individuals to sit comfortably over an extended period of time. Boot space is identical to that of the regular car, which means it’s among the best in the class.

There’s 355 litres available with the seats up (identical to the Seat Ibiza), while folding them down opens up 1125 litres. Although there is a relatively wide sill to navigate, the boot floor adjusts for height to make loading and unloading easier. Bag hooks also mean your shopping won’t slide about if you elect to take the mountain road home.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volkswagen Polo GTI 2018 road test review engine

Straight-line performance is a poor measure of a hot hatchback’s appeal, but it does serve to illustrate just how far the Polo GTI has come. Its recorded 0-60mph time of 6.7sec is a mere 0.2sec adrift of the 242bhp Performance Pack-equipped Golf GTI we’ve previously tested, and by 100mph the deficit has grown only to a solitary second.

This despite the fact our dual-clutch car’s launch-control function never quite got to grips with the near-perfect conditions (if you’ll excuse the pun), allowing the front tyres to over-rotate a fraction too vigorously.

As smooth and responsive as that DSG ’box is, in a car such as this you really want a manual. Pity we’ll have to wait until the year’s end to get one

Claimed top speed is nigh on 150mph, and given how readily the Polo accelerated to 130mph along the steeply banked, outermost lane of Millbrook’s high-speed bowl, there’s little reason to doubt it.

Nobody could accuse the hottest Polo of lacking performance, then, and yet there’s a sense it could be even quicker – and without modifications to the engine. The gearing is curiously long (most likely to more easily achieve emissions targets), and while 236lb ft from a mere 1500rpm helps disguise the effects of that out on the road, more closely stacked cogs would make proceedings that much more excitable.

This being an everyday kind of performance car, fuel economy will matter to owners. In this regard, the Polo GTI’s touring economy of 46.8mpg is entirely respectable, and only a small increment shy of what we’ve experienced in the new Fiesta ST (yet to undergo a full road test).

The Fiesta not only uses only three cylinders but can shut one off under light throttle loads. Driven without restraint during track testing, the Polo’s figure fell to 14.0mpg, for an overall economy of 36.6mpg. With its 40-litre fuel tank, that means owners can expect a range of roughly 320 miles between visits to the pump.

If this 2.0-litre unit has a weakness, it is its lack of a distinctive character. We can’t fault the supreme smoothness of the EA888, or its propulsive force, at least until the needle sits beyond 6000rpm, when the balance between power and noise becomes disappointingly skewed towards the latter. It’s unremarkable in tone, however, and the uniformly flat, muted and slightly nasal report from its twin-tip exhaust does nothing to encourage you, the driver, to hold onto gears (though, once hot, the exhaust does emit little pops on the over-run in Sport mode).

In any event, the gearbox will automatically upshift some 250rpm short of a redline set at 6500rpm, even with the gearstick flicked sideways and in Manual mode. The kick-down nipple at the bottom of the accelerator pedal’s travel also remains operational, and so you never have quite the control you’d like over a hot supermini.

Cars equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox don’t arrive until the end of 2018, but for many that will be worth the wait.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Polo GTI 2018 road test review cornering front

If it really wanted to, VW could have given us a car firmer, pointier and more adjustable in its handling than a Fiesta ST or Renault Clio RS. But VW understands its client base perhaps better than any other manufacturer, and so the Polo GTI’s dynamic complexion is less engaging than those rivals (though not, we’re pleased to report, by very much), but demonstrably less demanding to live with.

Even on the drive up the M1 to Millbrook for the track element of this road test, there was a feeling that this supermini shames some saloons costing three times the price, such is the fluency of its ride at speed.

Compression unmasks Polo’s relaxed damping characteristics, the suspension crashing into its bump-stops on undulations with unexpected force

It’s a fluency the Polo GTI never seems like relinquishing, even as you begin to explore its capabilities on more threadbare A and B-roads. This is not the most balletic chassis, but it is remarkably composed, turns in effortlessly, is nicely balanced, and the front axle generates so much grip and stability that you can confidently ‘back’ the car into corners on the brakes and bring the rear axle subtly into play.

That said, hot hatch diehards would, we suspect, willingly trade some of the car’s everyday usability for a fraction more steering weight and closer vertical body control (lateral roll is rarely, if ever, an issue in the Polo GTI).

Millbrook’s hill route is precisely the sort of environment where, as a performance-biased supermini, the Polo GTI should shine. And, in the main, it does, albeit with a sense of imperturbability rather than excitement.

It lacks the body control of a Fiesta ST and the steering response of a Mini Cooper S, but it’s the most fluid of the three when driven briskly rather than flat-out, working its contact patches supremely hard via a combination of its sophisticated suspension architecture and Continental tyres.

While the ESP cannot be entirely disabled, in Sport mode it permits enough yaw for the chassis to feel adjustable through tighter bends. Overall, it’s a quick, competent performance, even if the long gearing does hamper proceedings a touch.

Supple but controlled damping characteristics mean this car’s métier is at about seven or eight-tenths, ultimately, and driven as such it will make fast and sure-footed, but not particularly enthralling, progress along any road you care to point it down.

It’s for this reason that the lack of a mechanical limited-slip diff is not felt too keenly. Rarely does the Polo GTI invite its driver to push so hard that the electronic torque-vectoring ‘XDS’ front axle, aided by particularly adhesive Continental ContiSportContact 5 tyres, wilts into understeer, though push on too hard and that is precisely what will happen.

Commendably versatile the VW might be, but there remain significantly sharper tools among its rivals.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Polo GTI 2018 road test review hero front

VW follows through on the notion that the Polo GTI has all the on-board technology and equipment of a bigger, more expensive performance product by offering the car in both standard GTI and generously loaded GTI+ trim levels.

While the latter makes the car look fairly pricey at just over £23,000, it supplies keyless entry, LED headlights, fully digital instruments and adaptive cruise control.

Polo GTI marginally outperforms the new Fiesta ST in five-door guise, while the Mini’s value collapses comparatively

For that price, it’s a bit disappointing to find that VW asks extra for the top-of-the-line 8.0in Discover Navigation system and for things like dual-zone climate control (£415), but this probably wouldn’t sour the buying experience overall.

With respect to residual values, CAP expects the Polo to outperform all of its rivals, some by more than 10% over three years and 36,000 miles.

VW has yet to offer any finance incentives on the GTI, but even without them could put you in a car via a monthly PCP deal for less than £300 a month. That’s a 6.6% APR deal with no deposit contribution, so it’d be worth haggling down – but it’s no bad starting place.

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VERDICT

Volkswagen Polo GTI 2018 road test review static hero

In its latest, most convincing iteration, the Polo GTI no longer exists as a warmed-up, glorified trim level and makes a strong case for itself as a bona fide sports car. A level of performance granted by an engine shared with its illustrious Golf GTI sibling sets it on the right path, but there’s now a depth of engineering that simply wasn’t there before.

There is fluidity, composure and no small measure of class in the way this supermini conducts itself along the full spectrum of British roads. Volkswagen has also delivered a class-leading interior in terms of both desirability and practicality, and so for a certain sort of driver this car will hold substantial appeal. But not necessarily for Autocar readers.

A usable, quick and vastly competent effort, but not the most thrilling

The Polo GTI’s chassis gives its driver glimpses of fizzle, but it’s not a match for the easily accessible, delicate adjustability of Ford’s Fiesta ST or the Mini Cooper S. In its design, powertrain and handling, it trades on a cold, hard capability instead of character, and in this class we feel that’s rather missing the point.

And yet despite this, we suspect those who do knowingly choose the Polo GTI will be delighted.

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Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Volkswagen Polo GTI First drives