Understated supermini gets more power and fewer buttons

What is it?

What if we told you there was a new hot hatch, with compact exterior dimensions, but powered by a 204bhp 2.0-litre engine? The Ford Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20N make do with 1.5 and 1.6-litre engines, so a big lump in a supermini makes for a bit of a hot rod.

As you’ll have surmised from the title, that car is the VW Polo GTI, and it’s been around for a few years. And yet, the Ford and Hyundai, and to a lesser extent, the Mini Cooper S, get all the limelight.

The main reason is that the others are simply more exciting to drive. The Volkswagen Polo has just been facelifted, but despite some mechanical changes, it’s no surprise that the GTI still can’t touch its rivals for driving thrills.

And that’s OK. There is absolutely a place for something small, with a bit of go, but without the hard ride, nervous engine, shouty exterior, or manual gearbox normally associated with a hot supermini.

The headline changes include more power for that 2.0-litre EA888, from 197bhp to the current 204. The dual-clutch gearbox has gained an extra gear ratio to become a seven-speed. A six-speed manual was announced at one point for this generation, but never actually came to the UK. And it sold poorly in other regions, anyway, so the Polo GTI will remain automatic-only.

Less welcome are the interior updates. Entry-level Polos get good old physical controls for the climate control and on the steering wheel, but in the GTI, those are replaced with touch-sensitive controls. Using the climate control panel isn’t too onerous, but the steering wheel controls will drive you mad as the car speeds up on the motorway because you accidentally brushed the cruise control adjustment.

The facelifted Polo gets a new, slightly cheaper-feeling gear selector, while all GTIs now get the full digital gauge cluster as standard, as well as an 8in touch screen. Finally, the headlights and rear lights have been subtly altered. The clusters themselves are a bit fancier than before: at the front there is an illuminated crossbar and the headlights are matrix LED as standard. At the rear, the indicators are now dynamic.

14 Vw polo gti facelift 2022 fd rear corner

What's it like?

The Polo GTI may not be the most exhilarating hot hatch around, but don’t think it’s no fun to drive at all. The 2.0-litre engine, used to motivating much bigger cars, feels like it might well make more than its quoted output and makes the Polo feel effortlessly quick. There’s a decent burble from the exhaust to boot, even if the engine sounds a bit reedy at high revs.

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While I’m sure a manual would be more fun, it’s hard to argue against the DSG, because its easy-going but effective character suits the Polo GTI’s nature perfectly. That being said, it could be a bit smoother when just pottering about and has the annoying trait typical of modern autos where it lugs the engine in D because it’s tuned for the WLTP fuel economy cycle, but then hangs on to gears needlessly in Sport mode.

The gearbox responds quickly to the paddles, but will upshift automatically a few hundred rpm before the redline, even if you’re in manual mode. That sort of handholding is frustrating in a hot hatch, even a sensible one.

It’s much the same story with the handling: it’s good fun up to a point, but stops short of being truly engrossing. The Polo turns in well, grips hard and could even be persuaded to rotate gently on a trailing throttle if it weren’t for the always-on stability control. The latter point is frustrating, as there is a big, physical button for it in the centre console, which only puts it in a sport mode.

With the optional adaptive dampers in Normal mode, the ride is firm but far more liveable than most hot hatches. Sport ramps up the control, but Normal actually works just fine for most situations.

7 Vw polo gti facelift 2022 fd

Should I buy one?

Prices for the revised Polo GTI start at £27,805, which is nigh-on the same as the Fiesta ST and Mini Cooper S, though the Mini John Cooper Works is a worthier rival. The Hyundai i20N remains a bit of a bargain at £2000 less.

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Presumably, however, list price will be less of a deciding factor than the different ways in which these cars approach the concept of the junior hot hatch. If you’re after the ultimate driver’s car, the Polo isn’t it.

However, the it fulfils the brief of a small but quick everyday car very well, and slightly better than before the facelift. Just now with more annoying touch-sensitive buttons.

3 Vw polo gti facelift 2022 fd pan

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

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Add a comment…
gavsmit 9 June 2022

The Ford Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20N make do with 1.5 and 1.6-litre engines, so a big lump in a supermini makes for a bit of a hot rod.

As you’ll have surmised from the title, that car is the Volkswagen Polo GTI, and it’s been around for a few years. And yet, the Ford and Hyundai, and to a lesser extent, the Mini Cooper S, get all the limelight.
Motoring journalism has really gone down the toilet.
Firstly, the scene is set to make out that the Polo has an advantage over other mentioned hot hatches in having a 2.0 engine. Then questions why they and a third car, the Mini Cooper S get all the limelight, yet the Mini Cooper S has a 2.0 litre engine!
Secondly, the other cars get "all the limelight" because they are better hot hatches and driver's cars than the Polo, and in the case of the Hyundai, a better ownership prospect with a far superior warranty and better performance in reliability and customer satisfaction surveys, not to mention being cheaper and better value for money than the VW Polo.
But VW seems to command the loyalty of some publications, and people, despite their abysmal treatment of UK customers and the public over Dieselgate and are now looking to get rid of a load of UK staff! Why not promote their inferior, unreliable, overly expensive products?! 
artill 9 June 2022

Too many doors - but i could live with that. Ugly kid glass - just why? (car makers everywhere, please make it an option). But auto only. Sorry one step too far for me 

Peter Cavellini 9 June 2022

 Couldn't agree more, what the Golf GTi should have been size wise?