A new engine and gearbox make for a much improved small GTI - but is it a match for some stellar rivals?

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We didn't get on all that well with the previous Volkswagen Polo GTI.

It was worthy enough in a modest kind of way, but whereas its rivals made a punching bag of your adrenal gland, the Polo merely prodded at your reasoning, forever reminding you how economical and easy to live with it was.

Where the outgoing 1.4-litre TSI was all forced induction fizz and then labored at the top end, its replacement is a grower - more linear at high revs than peaky.

At the heart of its rationale was the powertrain, a tedious combination of DSG auto and twin turbocharged TSI that was its biggest fault, it being about as brawny and thrilling to tussle with as a knackered budgerigar.

Consequently, the best thing about the new version is its wholesale replacement. You can still have a DSG as an option, but we urge you not to. Stick with the standard six-speed manual, which is what we drive here.

Attached to the new ’box is an all-new turbocharged four-pot lump. Better still (and rather unconventionally) it gets larger, at 1.8 litres and is a variant of the EA888 engine lineup, which, in other breathed-on formats, fills out the engine bay of the marvelous Mk6 Golf R. In Volkswagen Polo guise it cranks out 189bhp from 4200rpm, and 236lb ft of peak twist from just 1450rpm.

VW has had a go at the chassis, too; stiffening up the anti-roll bars and reassessing the settings on a suspension that has the Polo’s ride height dipping by 10mm at the front and 15mm at the back. Looks-wise, the morph into shrink-wrapped Golf GTI is almost complete. It’s as chunky as pool cue chalk, with only the reduced track width really giving the game away.

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The bar was low given the spiritlessness of its predecessor, but the changes wrought have delivered much in the way of hoped-for effect. This is a more rambunctious and modestly involving brand of Polo.

Much as fitting a larger capacity engine helped the Mini Cooper S’s overall appeal so the EA888 enhances its new surroundings. There is a bigger presence and soundtrack for a start, married to the kind of ingratiating get-away that doesn’t immediately need stoking up with the throttle to feel brisk.

But briskness there is, should you want it. Where the 1.4-litre TSI was all forced induction fizz and then labored at the top end, its replacement is a grower; still inevitably muscular in the mid range, and more linear at high revs than peaky - but there’s now a decent payoff to keeping the GTI beyond 4500rpm.

And it practically goes without saying that having a manual gear change at the end of it all introduces a level collusion between driver and car that simply wasn’t present before.

The sensation of a bigger, more sinewy lump feeds well into the handling experience too, because the stability bias Volkswagen prefers to engineer into its non-R hot hatches requires a bit of heft to keep it halfway interesting.

Previously, there was a tendency to give up on the whole affair and stay grumpily within the limits; now, with a powertrain worth working, there’s more incentive to engage with the chassis’s ceaselessly high levels of grip.

As the range-topping Volkswagen Polo it gets a pretty comprehensive specification with 17in alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, twin-pipe exhaust and GTI styling pack all gracing the outside. Underneath there is a sports suspension, which is 15mm lower than the standard car, while inside there are sports seats, 6.5in touchscreen infotainment including DAB radio, Bluetooth and a CD player.

Opt for the Sport performance pack (which at just £250, you definitely should) and you get a switch to tweak the dampers a smidgen tighter; press it and together with the new anti-roll bars, the Polo passes off a pleasing impression of its big brother - meaning that B roads pass underneath in a confident blur of front-drive competence and clever isolation.

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It’s all very gratifying, and, combined with the obligatory VW levels of usability that accompany it, it makes forgiving the car’s typical inflexibility beyond the limit (you can’t turn the stability control off, and it wouldn’t matter if you could) all the more forgivable.

That ultimately, in our prejudiced book, leaves it still trailing the superheroes among the superminis. The Ford Fiesta ST and Mini Cooper S are both exciting in ways the Polo never begins to emulate - but we're willing to concede that they both exude a certain showiness that isn't everyone's cup of tea.

Considered from other angles, particularly in its five-door format, the appeal of the Volkswagen Polo's superb build quality, practicality and inviting interior all start to stack up, especially when it stays shy of £20k.

It's still an appeal to a buyer's logic, then, but all things considered, I’d probably now opt for one over a Renaultsport Clio 200. Which isn’t as high a level of praise as it ought to be, but it's still uncharted territory for the Polo GTI.


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Volkswagen Polo GTI 2010-2017 First drives