► Smallest GTI facelifted
► Now 204bhp, 149mph
► Defiantly easy to live with
Let’s be clear right from the off – despite that punky headline, this facelifted Volkswagen Polo GTI is no new rose, and it’s still not as fun to drive as the best small hot hatch competition. If it’s thrills you want, the Ford Fiesta ST or the Hyundai i20N still represent a better bet than VW’s fastest Polo.
But if you want a quick small car with a more rounded character, then the Polo GTI is worth at least a closer look.
What’s new for the facelift then?
Not a lot that’s obvious from the front, but if you peer really intently at the headlights you’ll spot that they’re now IQ.Light LED matrix items – which is a nice upgrade for a tiddler. This includes the illuminated grille bar; shame these always look a bit limp.
There are new LED lights at the rear as well, plus a mildly more aggressive back bumper. The previous version looked very anonymous from behind, so this does actually mean something.
On the inside the digital dials have a higher pixel density, making them slightly less painful on your eyes at night. Less convincing is the Kings Red Glossy dashboard finish, which appears to be a different shade to the other red GTI highlights and cheapens the otherwise reasonably solid cabin. A Deep Iron Glossy alternative finish is available.
As ever, the standard sport seats are finished in Jacara check; though you can option ‘sports comfort’ seats if you want a roomer option, these only come in VW’s more ordinary ArtVelours fabric. Black headlining and red stitching are as per most other hot hatches you can think of.
Are there any engineering changes?
Tweaks you can’t see are limited to the power output, which is now 204bhp instead of the 197bhp this generation of Polo GTI had at launch – though peak torque remains 236lb ft. Less of a peak, more of a plateau in fact, being available 1500-4000rpm (that’s 100rpm higher than the original spec); this has some implications for the driving experience, which we’ll come back to in a moment.
It’s nothing new, but compared with a regular Polo, the GTI gets only modest chassis changes on paper: a thicker front anti-roll bar, stiffer front coupling rods and stronger axle-locating mounts at the rear.
The GTI is also 15mm lower, and all UK cars are fitted with two-stage dampers as standard. These aren’t the multipoint adaptive items found on more expensive VWs, though Volkswagen still calls it Adaptive Chassis Control (ACC). Rather they offer a choice of just two damper profiles – standard and sport.
What’s wrong with the way the Polo GTI drives?
There’s nothing wrong with it exactly. It just doesn’t ever elevate itself to the heights those key competitors can achieve in terms getting you grinning from your fingertips through to your backside.
This is, unquestionably, a quick car. The official 0-62mph time is 6.5sec, and the combination of VW’s clever XDS traction electronics – which aim to simulate a front LSD – with the standard-fit seven-speed DSG mean this is routinely and repeatably achievable. It sounds ok doing this business, though even in the rortier Sport mode it remains quite a polite and modest kind of experience, rather than an obnoxious one.
As a comparatively generously 2.0-litre four, the motor never feels especially taxed or highly strung versus with the Fiesta ST’s 1.5-litre triple and its manual transmission. But that socking-great expanse of steady-state torque creates little visceral incentive to wring the thing out, either, and since the DSG can’t be convinced to stop upshifting for you, you’re also short-changed on outright control.
This can become frustrating when negotiating twistier sections of tarmac, especially since to enjoy those you’re already having to deal with a less than enthusiastic front end. The Polo GTI’s steering is precise enough, but it gives you very little sense of accomplishment and feedback, and the car always feels reluctant to tuck its nose in – an ultra-sharp contrast to the ceaselessly mobile and dynamic Fiesta.
You can adapt to this by trail braking into the corner, rather than on the approach, the weight transfer helping the Polo to seem keener and more incisive. Driven this way it can certainly cover ground rapidly – and with perhaps little enough fuss and drama to prevent your better half raising more than an eyebrow. But once you’ve learned the knack of it, the GTI’s game is pretty much over. Whereas the ST and i20N will continue to engage by offering you a menu of entertaining postures and options that varies with your driving style.
Is there any reason to consider a Polo GTI at all, then?
The pricing is more competitive than you might expect, there’s plenty of standard kit, and the VW image still means plenty, even if the GTI part comes across somewhat dampened. But the main reason for picking a Polo GTI over any other current small hot hatch is that it manages to be both fast and comfortable.
The standard setting for that two-stage suspension soaks up bumps and surface intrusions in a manner that might haunt ST-drivers’ dreams. From daily driving to big distances, the GTI demands far fewer compromises – so if you’re only occasionally going to be able to take it for a rip through the countryside, there may be a lot of benefits to the way the Polo conducts itself in all other circumstances.
The flip side to this is that when you do start to go faster, that standard setting starts to become a touch floaty, putting the Polo on the cusp of losing control of itself over crests and during repeated sharp direction changes. The Sport setting resolves this, firming the car enough to regain all of the lost composure. But the damping in this mode is brittle, with none of the rich depth and talent the ST exhibits at higher speeds in spite of its inherent hardness.
So as with everything else about the way the GTI drives, which suspension setting you ultimately choose demands a compromise.
VW Polo GTI: verdict
Better to think of this as a small car that is accomplished and fast than a true supermini hot hatch. The Polo GTI is easy to live with, well put together, subtle (aside from that light bar) and – above all – comfortable. But it’s not exciting. And unlike the last couple of generations of Fiesta ST, we won’t miss it when the combustion engine is done.