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Review: Volkswagon Polo GTI

Volkswagen hopes a high tech specification will set the Polo GTI apart from hot hatch rivals. Steve Walker takes a look.

Many of the best hot hatchbacks have revelled in a raw, back to basics feel but that kind of exuberance has become harder to replicate as small cars have grown heavier and more complex.

Volkswagen’s Polo doesn’t have a fantastic record when it comes to siring hot versions, perhaps because of the maturity and sophistication that usually characterise the standard car. Little has changed where this classy supermini is concerned but today’s GTI version could still produce the goods, not by shunning complexity but by embracing it.

The Golf GTI has been an almost unadulterated hit for Volkswagen but the GTI versions of the smaller Polo, in a word, haven’t. When the original Golf GTI surfaced in the late 70s, it was a small, simple car by today’s standards, brimming with the grin-inducing verve that’s defined the hot hatch down the years. As the Golf grew larger, the Polo was slotted in below it as Volkswagen’s supermini but while the Golf GTI has become an icon, performance Polos have often been overlooked by UK customers in favour of hot hatch models from Renault, Ford and Peugeot.

Today’s Polo GTI tries to fight back with a host of modern technology but it also goes back to its roots. It’s supercharged just like the original G40 Coupe of 1986, a car which was never sold officially in the UK but is one of the performance Polo’s finest hours to date.

The hot hatch game has moved on considerably since Volkswagen unveiled the supercharged Polo GT G40 at the 1985 Frankfurt Motorshow and followed it up with the Polo G40 Coupe production car. The original hot Polo had a 1.3-litre engine and tipped the scales at under 800kg while the modern Polo GTI has a 1.4-litre capacity and weighs close to 1,200kg. If that doesn’t sound much like progress, bear with us because while the supercharged Polo G40 developed 112bhp, today’s Polo GTI has 178bhp courtesy of its supercharged and turbocharged powerplant. Still not impressed? Well, the car also comes with a seven-speed DSG paddle-shift gearbox and an XDS electronic differential as part of its ESP stability control system – all of which would have sounded like gobbledegook in 1986.

"The Polo GTI is one of the most technologically advanced small cars on the market as well as one of the quickest."

There will still be those who favour the simple approach of the original G40 Coupe but there’s a lot to admire about the way the Polo GTI goes about its business. The 1.4-litre TSI engine uses a supercharger to boost performance low in the rev range helping develop 250Nm at just 2,000rpm. The turbocharger cuts in at 3,000rpm taking the engine up to its peak power of 178bhp at 6,200rpm. It all makes for a 0-62mph sprint of 6.9s and a 142mph top speed, easily guaranteeing membership of the hot hatch club.

Part of the problem with GTI versions of the Polo has been that, in line with Volkswagen’s classily low key styling policy, they haven’t really stood out from the less extreme models in the range. This GTI fares a little better with lots of the styling cues seen previously on its big brother, the Golf. There are deeper bumpers with a single wide airdam at the front and a diffuser at the rear with twin chrome exhausts. Red stripes line the honeycombe front grille and the headlight clusters include LED running lights. The hottest Polo also rides on stiffer springs and dampers, 15mm lower than other Polos.

Evidence of Volkswagen’s intention to push the GTI as a standout model from the wider Polo range comes with the deletion of all Polo badging. The car is simply marked up as ‘GTI’ on the grille and the tailgate. There’s more differentiation inside where the Polo’s well-finished cabin gets a sporty feel with sports seats in tartan trim, a flat-bottomed sports steering wheel, aluminium pedals and revised instruments.

Unusually in the hot hatch market, the Polo GTI comes with its DSG twin-clutch gearbox as standard. It’s an expensive item to fit to a small car but the blend of automatic convenience and the sportiness of the wheel-mounted paddle shifters has proved popular elsewhere. Also included are the ESP stability control system with XDS electronic differential technology to help the front-wheel-drive Polo deploy its power effectively. The wheels are 17" items of a design lifted from the Golf GTI with red brake callipers peeping through the spokes.

What are the alternatives to this fiery Polo? The most interesting comparison is with the SEAT Ibiza Cupra which is built on the same platform and has an identical engine and gearbox combination. Other than that, the top supermi-based hot hatchbacks of the moment include the Vauxhall Corsa VXR, the Renaultsport Clio and the MINI Cooper S.

A key advantage of the small capacity forced induction engine in the Polo GTI is the efficiency you get with its performance. The official combined economy figure is 47mpg and emissions are measured at a clean 139g/km. It will all help bring the running costs of the car within reach of its younger target market.

Performance versions of the Volkswagen Polo haven’t gone down as well with UK buyers as those of its big brother the Golf. Volkswagen would like to see a change to all that though, and the latest Polo GTI is the car it has devised for the task. Harking back to the G40 Polos of the 80s and 90s, this GTI has a supercharger but that’s where the similarity to old school hot hatchbacks ends. A 1.4-litre supercharged and turbocharged engine, DSG twin-clutch paddle shift gearbox and XDS electronic differential see to that.

The Polo GTI is one of the most technologically advanced small cars on the market as well as one of the quickest. It sports the usual Volkswagen GTI styling cues and will serve as a tempting option for those who can’t quite stretch to the budget needed for a performance Golf. Volkswagen’s build quality and materials should help set this hot Polo apart from its small hot hatch rivals.

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