Volk­swa­gen Polo GTI

VW is prac­ti­cal, fast and ma­ture. Ques­tion is if it has the fun to match new Ford

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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.

Driv­ing

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.

Prac­ti­cal­ity

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.

Own­er­ship

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.

Run­ning costs

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.

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