The Volkswagen Polo GTI has forever lived under the shadow of the more famous Golf GTI. Since the hot Polo was first introduced back in 1998, it has been subjected to the constant reminders of how full its big brother’s trophy cabinet is.
I’ve actually owned two older versions of the Polo GTI. Driving the latest 2022 model, I hoped to uncover the same qualities found in its predecessors.
Namely, being a supermini with plenty of performance, a refined and well-equipped interior, and classic GTI styling. Oh, and not being a Volkswagen Golf.
Set the nav for Starbucks
For 2022, Volkswagen has given the Polo GTI a minor facelift, in keeping with the rest of the range. That means new bumpers, an illuminated LED strip beneath the front grille and plenty of GTI badges. So far, so good.
The German company has also extracted an additional 7hp from the GTI’s 2.0-litre engine. It now produces 207hp, but it’s the 236lb ft of torque that dominates how the Polo drives. Spread across the rev range, the pulling power feels unrelenting, making the GTI seem less frenetic than other small hot hatchbacks. Driven carefully, it can easily achieve more than 40mpg.
This fits with the Polo GTI’s grown-up image, and results in performance that you can make use of in the real world. Overtaking on country roads, or even just accelerating up motorway slip roads, is effortless. A 0-62mph time of 6.5 seconds is level-pegging with the rival Ford Fiesta ST, although it loses out to the raucous Hyundai i20 N by 0.3 seconds.
This perhaps matters less in the Polo GTI, though. Its owners are more likely to be heading to a Starbucks drive-thru, rather than a McDonald’s car park to meet other teen tearaways.
Keen to kick down
A seven-speed DSG automatic transmission is the only gearbox offered, and there are times where it frustrates the driving experience. It can kick down to a very low gear, resulting in jerky acceleration, or be slow to shift up when you use the steering wheel-mounted paddles. I am not a manual gearbox purist, but fitting one here really would transform how the Polo GTI drives.
Where the Polo has traditionally fallen short versus rivals is in terms of handling. A lack of steering feel was a constant barb thrown at its predecessors, although the new 2022 version does much to overcome this. The steering has more weight, and while a Fiesta ST does inevitably feel a touch sharper, carving through corners is still fun in the Polo.
Standard electronically controlled suspension dampers also help, firming up when you engage Sport mode. Moving them to the Normal setting delivers a surprisingly refined ride, without the bounce and shake of other hot superminis.
Touring, not boring
This civility extends to an interior that is fitted with an extensive list of standard equipment. Climate control air-con, fancy matrix LED headlights and Volkswagen’s Digital Cockpit dashboard are all included. However, a new steering wheel with haptic feedback touch pads is an annoying reminder that traditional buttons still work best.
Neat GTI touches include figure-hugging tartan-trimmed sports seats, plus plenty of red stitching. This all helps justify the £27,805 starting price.
At its core, the latest Polo delivers on the ‘Grand Touring’ part of the GTI badge. It does not need its neck wrung on every single journey, but offers very usable performance instead. This is combined with confident cross-country ability, plus an interior packed with the latest technology.
Beneath the badges and big wheels, this is a hot supermini that can function, most of the time, as a mature family car. Just like a smaller Golf GTI, in fact.
John Redfern writes for Motoring Research
TOP SPEED: 149mph
FUEL ECONOMY: 41.5mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS: 154g/km