Following the glut of new superminis released earlier in the year, it’s now time for a new tranche of small hot hatchbacks. Arriving just in time for Christmas is the new 2018 Volkswagen Polo GTI – and it’s bucking the trend.
That’s because as most rivals – including the forthcoming Ford Fiesta ST – use downsized engines, the GTI’s motor has grown. Over the last three generations the power unit has swelled in size from 1.4 to 1.8 litres, and now this car is sporting the same sized 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo motor as it’s Golf GTI big brother. However, with only 197bhp it’s not quite as potent – but then the Polo is a smaller, lighter car, so there’s still plenty of performance.
DSG dual-clutch automatic models will hit the UK first in May next year, while manuals will arrive later. Although pricing and specs haven’t been confirmed, the auto will cost around £1,500 more than the standard Polo GTI’s likely price tag of just under £20,000.
It’s this model we’re testing here, and while it’s not the most involving option, a 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds is impressive nonetheless. But in this class, where a level of engagement matters so much, going against cars such as the Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport, the slightly sterile nature of the GTI’s performance is a little disappointing.
We can’t argue with the raw numbers, or the level of grip on offer, however. The GTI sits 15mm lower than the standard Polo, and there’s also an optional Sport Select Chassis that adds adaptive dampers. The car’s new MQB A0 small car platform means it feels more similar to the Golf than ever, offering plenty of stability that inspires confidence and lets you place the car on the road exactly where you want it.
The familiar 2.0-litre motor serves up 320Nm of torque from just 1,500rpm, so there’s plenty of performance low down in the rev range. However, it does feel like it’s been reigned in so as not to step on its more powerful (and more expensive) sibling’s toes. In this DSG version, the step between second and third means the powertrain doesn’t feel as snappy as it might with a manual box, either.
The transmission itself shifts swiftly enough, although it’s a little clunky at low speed. But it makes the process of going quickly in the Polo GTI impressively easy.
There’s no limited-slip differential unfortunately, and in practice we found the GTI could do with one. Even with the XDS electronic differential lock doing its best to stop wheelspin, the inside front tyre does tend to scrabble for traction on the way out of corners.
The chassis retains its composure in a bend, though. It doesn’t feel too nose heavy, with the rear axle keying into the ground to provide some extra cornering performance.
Body control is good in the sportier chassis setting, but at a more leisurely pace and even in the car’s Normal mode, the damping still feels quite firm. That may be down to the optional 18-inch wheels, so we’ll wait to see whether it can cut it with the best-riding cars in the class when it hits the UK.
A hot hatch has to be many things to many people; it has to be rapid and practical – and with a 351-litre boot (unchanged over the normal Polo and not far off the larger Golf’s 380 litres), it scores well on the second front, too. The five-door body means access to the rear is easy, and there’s plenty of space back there thanks to the new platform.
In the front, the checked cloth sports seats offer enough support, while the infotainment setup is carried over from the standard Polo. That means there’s either a 6.5 or eight-inch touchscreen with sat-nav, and plenty of other smartphone connectivity.
It’s the debut of VW’s new second-generation higher-resolution Active Info Display digital dials that’s bigger news, though. It’s a nice high-tech touch that fits with the 2018 Polo GTI’s more mature image.
There’s more advanced kit available, too, with LED headlights and adaptive cruise with stop and go function both featuring. Emergency braking with pedestrian detection and blind spot assist are standard, so the GTI offers plenty of safety as well.
With claimed fuel economy of 47.9mpg and CO2 emissions of 134g/km for this DSG model, it balances the impressive performance figures with a strong efficiency, too.
But while all these factors matter, the primary focus for a hot hatch like this has to be fun, otherwise you’d buy a standard Polo instead. As capable as it is, it’s a shame the GTI doesn’t offer a little more of this.