When you read the letters ‘GTI’, whether it’s in the first sentence of a car review or on the grille of a hatchback, you think ‘Golf’ – don’t you?
Bet you just have. Can’t help but. The Golf GTI celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, after all, and although Volkswagen has been trying to for more than two decades now, it has never quite successfully developed its defining hot hatch identity into a proper performance sub-brand.
Meeting the GTI…Polo GTI that is
There have been good attempts to do that (think Lupo GTI) and not-so-good ones (Mk3 Polo GTI, anyone?) since the mid-1990s, of course. But now there’s a new and more concerted bid to turn ‘GTI’ into an established family of models, and it involves the upcoming Up GTI city car and this: the go-faster version of the sixth-generation Polo.
As this car’s key creators will tell you, VW has toyed with the idea of a proper, supermini-sized GTI on previous attempts, committing to cars midway through a model lifecycle and adapting existing mechanical platforms for the purpose rather than designing them from scratch. But no longer.
This Polo GTI has been in the making for the past three years, from the earliest design and specification stages of the VW Group’s ‘MQB-A0’ platform. As a result, the specialised powertrain, suspension and steering components it needs in order to be the best hot hatchback it can be have already been provided – they’re on the shelf, ready to go – while the car’s chassis has already been designed to accept the 18in wheels for the job.
The new Polo GTI gets the Golf GTI’s 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine; it’s slightly detuned to 197bhp and 236lb ft of torque but still strong enough to give the car a sub-7.0sec 0-62mph acceleration claim and top speed within a whisker of 150mph.
It’ll be available in May 2018 with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, or with a six-speed manual later in the year. It gets lowered, stiffened suspension springs, uprated anti-roll bars and upgraded passive dampers as standard, but it can be had with switchable ‘sport select’ suspension as an option (which isn’t ‘DCC’ adaptive damping as such but instead describes dampers with two lots of compression and rebound settings that you can chop and change between electronically via the car’s driving modes).
Compared with the standard Polo on which it’s based, the GTI also has completely different front suspension knuckles, a stiffer torsion beam at the rear, rerated suspension bushings and entirely different axle geometries and roll centres. On the face of it – not just on the face of it, really – it’s a proper piece of performance engineering.
As for standard equipment, potential buyers of the Polo GTI get two trims to choose from and all the luxuries found on an SEL trimmed Polo. Expect to find a sporty looking Polo, with 17in alloys, red brake calipers, a honeycomb front grille, sports suspension, and an electronic locking differential fitted as standard on the exterior. Inside there is aluminium sports pedals, front sports seats and Jacara cloth trimmed seats.
Those opting for GTI+ models will find automatic lights and wipers, tinted rear windows, adaptive cruise control, keyless entry and start, LED headlights and electrically adjustable, heated and folding wing mirrors added to an already generous package.
Studying the Polo GTI’s blueprint
This car’s suspension tune was signed off by the same guy who was responsible for the handling of the remarkable Golf GTI Clubsport S: VW’s head of chassis development, Karsten Schebsdat.
If this Polo GTI turns out to be the first one truly worthy of the badge, Karsten is probably be an important reason why. He’s got quite a CV, and it’s worth explaining before we get into the GTI in greater detail, because it speaks volumes about him.
The first car he worked on from a clean sheet was the original, epoch-making Focus. When he joined Volkswagen in the early 2000s, it was to help create Wolfsburg’s response to the Focus: the Golf Mk5. And later that decade he moved to Porsche, where he had a hand in every GT-badged version of the pre-facelift 997-generation 911. Apparently, Clarence Seedorf is the only footballer to have won the Champions’ League at three different clubs (thanks Google); he must be the only footballer with a CV to rival Karsten’s, I reckon.
But before we get too carried away, we should remember that Schebstad was creating a GTI, not a Renaultsport RS or a Ford ST, and those three letters have come to stand for a particularly driveable, pragmatic and rounded blend of affordable performance over the past decade or so – and not by accident.
So the fact that this new hot Polo isn’t as firm-riding or as pointy and lively in its handling as the last, yobby but brilliant Fiesta ST probably won’t surprise you. That doesn’t mean it’s not a giggle to drive, however, or that it’s missing too much in the way of pace, grip, dynamic purpose or performance flavour. Far from it.
It simply means that Volkswagen understands how the majority of GTI owners want to use their cars: every day, for every journey, whatever the road or the weather might throw up – and they don’t really want to be made to suffer for their fun, either.
As we already know, the new Polo’s cabin is a very spacious, expensive-looking and well-equipped place to be, but the GTI takes that rich, upmarket ambience up a notch. ‘Clark plaid’ tartan cloth sports seats go with the territory, of course – and although the Polo’s are a touch small and short in the cushion, they clench your backside very comfortably and securely enough, and they look great.
In front of you, if you’ve paid extra for them, are VW’s Active Info Display digital instruments in new, second-gen form – which means, technically, that this car has a more advanced instrument pack than any Golf, Tiguan, Arteon or Passat.
The car’s driving position feels promisingly low and purposeful for a compact hatchback, and you can’t quibble with the equipment available (6.5in touchscreen infotainment system standard, 8.0in as an upgrade) nor the car’s very impressive standard of perceived quality.
Firing up the Volkswagen Polo GTI
The Polo GTI’s engine starts and settles to an undemonstrative hum, and the car can be driven around in Comfort mode as easily as if it were a mid-range model. With those optional switchable dampers in their Normal setting, it rides smoothly and quietly, asks little of you in terms of steering weight and gets along without much drama or fuss.
If it didn’t, you get the impression it wouldn’t get signed off as a modern GTI, because modern GTI drivers want the option, at times, not to be jiggled, wearied, bothered or asked to invest much in the driving experience of their cars.
Cycle into Sport mode, though, and things change a fair bit. The car’s sports exhaust doesn’t exactly bellow or zing, but it rasps with a certain crackling menace that serves as the right sort of accompaniment to the car’s brisk turn of mid-range pace.
The steering’s got weight and feel now to match its carefully metered directness and precision, while there's a tautness and bite to the body control that wasn’t present before. Now we’re talking.
The GTI’s six-speed DSG gearbox has the familiar manual mode, in which it’s quick-shifting, and for the most part it gives you a dependable sense of close control over the driving forces going into the front axle both under power and on a trailing throttle. This is important in a fast front-driver, I’ve always thought.
It won’t hold onto a gear at the very top of the rev range even in manual mode, though, shifting up automatically well short of the marked 6500rpm redline. And, even in manual mode, the kickdown switch at the bottom of the accelerator pedal’s travel isn’t frozen out from proceedings. One way or another, then, you can have shifts foisted on you in this car – which is a bit annoying and a mistake that it’s unlike VW to make.
Outright performance feels fast but doesn’t take your breath away; by and large, of course, fast superminis don’t – although some of them certainly rev more keenly than the Polo GTI above 5000rpm. Not many have more peak torque than this, however - something that allows the GTI to make short work of the meat of its rev range and makes it easier to drive quickly than most of its opponents.
The fact that its ride is fairly moderately tuned, supple even in Sport mode, also makes it particularly well suited to fast, undemanding road driving – although it doesn’t make it feel soft or inert on a tight racetrack.
Here, VW’s investment in hardware gives the Polo GTI reserves of grip and composure, in both wet and dry conditions, that mark it out as a true driver’s car. You can lean on the car’s outside wheels as hard as you like through a fast bend without running out of handling balance; hustle the car into a slower one on trailed brakes and you can feel the rear axle arc gently but usefully wide to neutralise your cornering line.
You can be needle-and-thread precise with the car, feeling for every available bit of adhesive asphalt; or you can bully it around a track, unloading the rear axle for fun and giving the brakes a really hard time, without fear of overheating them. They’re good brakes, and this is a thoroughly engineered performance car.
Just as on the Golf GTI, the Polo’s stability control system isn’t fully switchable, but the ESP-Sport mode gives you enough freedom to make for a really involving and unintruded track drive. It also just about reins in the inevitable spinning consequence of 236lb ft at the front wheels when you’re too keen with the accelerator pedal, although it does so pretty untidily at times.
Is this best Volkswagen Polo GTI ever?
This is undoubtedly the best GTI-badged driver’s car yet to delivered by Volkswagen outside of the Golf range: a hot hatchback with more credibility than any Polo before it, and a proper GTI – with all that implies in 2017. It’s not a car without room for improvement, mind you – and, while it’s exactly the car that Karsten Schebsdat and his team intended, it might not be the hot supermini to best enliven your weekend driving, either.
For this tester’s money, cars at the affordable end of the hot hatchback spectrum are at their best when they’re a bit less grown-up than this. Driver thrills that are accessible, performance flavour that’s abundant and instant, and handling that’s compelling at real-world-relevant everyday speeds: these are the things that the greatest and most compelling examples do well. And I’m not sure that miniaturising the Golf GTI’s dynamic character, while that trick’s been successfully pulled off here for the very first time, has given us a car that can quite outstrip any of its rivals in those key areas.
I wouldn’t, in short, choose this over a Ford Fiesta ST or a well-specced Mini Cooper S. But then I wouldn’t imagine buying a car like this to be used every day, for every journey, as you would a larger car – or a Golf GTI. And if you would, you’d probably see the appeal.
It would have been quite a coup if Volkswagen had taken on the best in class at their own game and won here, but in fact they’ve brought something new to the fast supermini table that is classy, desirable, practical and rounded enough to wear the GTI badge very comfortably indeed. And it’s no dynamic half-measure, either.