Road test: Polo GTI with spirit of original hot hatch

ONE of the more annoying things to emerge in the 1990s, along with everyone under the age of 20, was the propensity for car manufacturers to take a bicycle pump to their car designs.

Suddenly it was de rigeur to smooth out those sharp edges and corners, with aerodynamic computer modelling coming up with the same answer regardless of model, and an obsession with the idea that bigger is better. Result: a flatulent crop of bulbous, homogenised personality-free caricatures. See the Mini, Beetle and the Golf Marks 3 and 4 for examples of manufacturers taking the very soul of a classic and flushing it down the pan.

Fortunately, now and again these lost souls are reincarnated in other cars. Cars such as the VW Polo GTI, which is about as close to the idea of the original Golf GTI as Volkswagen has come in three decades – although it is actually about the same size as a Mark 2 Golf.

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It’s well proportioned, it’s feisty and it moves roundabouts from the realm of business to pleasure.

Here are some numbers: 1.4 litres, 16 valves, 180bhp at 6,200 rpm, 142mph top speed, 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds, 250 Nm torque, seven-speed, twin-clutch DSG gearbox, 15mm lower ride height than the conventional Polo. Meh. Numbers. Meaningless.

What all this equates to in the real world is a thrilling drive once you slot that automatic gearbox into Sport mode. Squeeze the pedal and that light, pleasing engine burble transforms into an enormously satisfying roar while your face transforms into a big grinning fizzog. The acceleration and meatiness of it all belies the 1.4-litre engine capacity. It feels a lot bigger than it actually is – a promise I’ve made more than once, but it’s true in this case. All that power comes from the fact that the engine is both supercharged and turbocharged

The improved braking and suspension systems, plus that lower ride height and all-singing, all-dancing traction control system add more to the thrill and convince you this thing’s on rails. The ride is firm, but not ridiculously so, and the checked seats are well positioned and comfy, making this is a surprisingly haemorrhoid-friendly hot hatch.

The steering wheel gear paddles are good fun to play with, and are super-responsive. To add to the joy of it all, downchanging automatically prompts the turbo to twitch up, which makes you feel like a better driver than you actually are.

But behind all this grunt, there’s a caring, sharing side to this Polo – its green credentials.

Its official combined fuel economy of 47.9mpg makes it around 25 per cent more efficient than its predecessor, although because this car is around 125 per cent more fun when it’s in Sport mode and is having the bejesus rallied out of it, it’s unlikely that many people will have the discipline needed to achieve that level of economy.

It would have been very unlikely that anyone with retinas and corneas would have mistaken my battered old E-reg Mk2 Polo for a Golf. But this fifth-generation Polo owes a lot of its style to the Golf GTI - from the lattice grille to the checked seats. The sporty vibe is enhanced by the 17-inch alloy wheels and chrome exhaust outlets.

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One problem the Polo GTI has is the stiff competition it faces. The flamboyant Seat Ibiza Cupra is a couple of grand cheaper, a fully kitted-out Citroen DS3 can be had for a grand less, and the Renaultsport Clio 200 Cup variant is also cheaper and may appeal more to speed freaks.

So it’s expensive. But Golf GTIs are even more expensive. And if you want one of them, and can live with the smaller boot space, you might as well get the Polo.


CAR: VW Polo GTI 1.4-litre TSI

PRICE: £18,795


EMISSIONS: 139g/km

PERFORMANCE: Max speed 142mph; 0-62mph 6.9s

FUEL CONSUMPTION: (combined) 47.9mpg