Volkswagen Polo GTI
VW is practical, fast and mature. Question is if it has the fun to match new Ford
MODELTESTED: Volkswagen Polo GTI DSG PRICE: £21,520 ENGINE: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 197bhp
THE Volkswagen Polo GTI is more expensive than its rivals here, at £21,520 in base GTI spec, but it’s also a five-door only, and there’s no manual option yet: it’s DSG automatic only for now. That accounts for the price, but is the Polo able to take class honours in its first group test?
Design & engineering
WHILE the Ford Fiesta ST has a downsized three-cylinder unit, the VW Polo GTI’S engine has actually increased in capacity to 2.0 litres. That’s the same size as the unit in the Golf GTI, the Polo’s bigger brother, although the supermini makes do with less power, matching the Ford at 197bhp. Unlike both rivals here, though, the Polo GTI isn’t available with a manual transmission yet; that version is coming later. Your only option for now is a dual-clutch DSG gearbox.
Under the skin is the VW Group’s MQB A0 small car platform, which means the Polo shares selected parts with the Mqb-based Golf, so it’s more like its bigger brother than ever. The platform features doublewishbone suspension at the front and a multi-link rear set-up. This is an upgrade over lesser Polo models’ torsion-beam system at the back, with the GTI’S more sophisticated set-up tuned for agility. It does have an impact on boot space, though. The GTI also benefits from an XDS differential lock, which uses electronics to simulate a limited-slip diff using the brakes.
The Polo feels more upmarket than the Ford, thanks to good-quality materials used in the cabin that are a match for the MINI’S, plus the large eight-inch Discover Navigation infotainment system that’s well integrated into the dashboard.
WITH a 197bhp engine and dual-clutch automatic gearbox, the Polo GTI is by far the easiest car here to extract performance from: just squeeze the throttle, the DSG drops down a few gears, and you’re off. With launch control the VW recorded an impressive 6.5-second 0-60mph time in our tests on a wet track, beating both rivals, and the automated shifts meant it was fastest through the gears from 30-70mph, too.
However, while the DSG box is brilliant at firing up through the gears in a straight line, it feels out of its depth on a twisty road. It’s not as quick to change gear after pulling one of the steering wheel-mounted paddles as we’d like, and often you’re left waiting for the change at a crucial moment pre or post-corner. In a small hot hatchback that’s very frustrating, because maintaining your flow down the road is a huge part of these cars’ appeal. The manual gearboxes in its rivals are so much more fun to use as well.
Still, the VW’S engine has the most torque of the three, with its 320Nm maximum arriving at just 1,500rpm. It’s flexible enough that you don’t always need to change down to make progress. Longer gearing meant that the Polo GTI was the slowest car from 50-70mph in top gear, though, taking 8.2 seconds, which was more than a second down on the MINI and two seconds adrift of the Ford.
However punchy it is, the engine is a bit flat and isn’t as enjoyable to use as the more characterful units in the Fiesta and Cooper S, despite VW engineering in some pops and bangs from the exhaust. The Ford does this, too, but its engine note is more pleasing.
It’s a similar story with the Polo GTI’S chassis: it’s effective but leaves us a bit cold. The upgraded suspension means there’s loads of grip and it’s agile, but the light steering and more neutral cornering stance ensure it’s not as lively as its rivals. The ride is the smoothest of all three, though, particularly at low speed, where the Ford in particular can start to feel a bit bouncy over small bumps and potholes.
At motorway speeds, the GTI is the quietest car inside, so it will be easy to live with day to day. While it will work for some people, the Polo misses out on the crucial fun factor we look for in hot hatches.
THE GTI version of the Polo has a smaller boot than the standard car: the different rear suspension set-up reduces load capacity by 46 litres, both with the rear seats in place (305 litres) and when they’re folded (1,079 litres).
But the five-door Polo is very practical. It’s easier to get in and out of the back, while the rear seats are more spacious overall than in either rival, with more head and legroom, plus a lighter, airier cabin.
It’s a similar story up front: it feels much more spacious than its rivals. That could be a personal choice for drivers, though, as the sports seats in the Ford and sporty driving position in the MINI mean they’re more comfortable to sit in and drive quickly.
VOLKSWAGEN claimed fifth place in our Driver Power 2018 makers’ chart, which is promising for potential owners, although the brand’s 18th place finish in the dealer rankings is less inspiring.
The Polo scored a full five-star Euro NCAP rating in 2017. Six airbags are standard, plus the VW gets AEB, too, unlike the MINI, where you’ll have to pay extra, and the Ford, where it’s not available at all.
DURING its time on test, the Polo GTI returned fuel economy of 33.5mpg, which was only marginally behind the Ford’s 33.8mpg figure. That means you’ll spend £2,114 a year on fuel; over the same period you’ll pay £2,095 to run the Ford and £2,172 for the MINI.
However, the Volkswagen is the most expensive car to insure, as our example quotes showed it’ll cost £435 a year. That premium is a bit more than the £367 and £423 for the Fiesta ST and Cooper S respectively.