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£18,800 when new
Another little hot hatchback? Yep, the same day we’ve driven Peugeot’s updated 208 GTI. The hot hatch market seems to be a bustling one at the moment, something that warms our cockles immensely. The Polo GTI has been with us for a few years now, but VW has used the supermini’s mid-life facelift as an excuse to give its performance variant a wee overhaul. So it’s more than some new headlights? Much more. A turbocharged 190bhp 1.8-litre engine replaces the outgoing GTI’s turbo- and supercharged 178bhp 1.4, there’s a round of chassis tweaks and a six-speed manual gearbox now comes as standard. The mk5 Polo GTI has been paddleshift only thus far: its seven-speed DSG now sits on the options list. Another carmaker with faith in the manual!
Following Jaguar’s introduction of a stick shift to the F-Type, it’s good news, and it’s justified by sales predictions: just 25 per cent of buyers are expected to specify DSG. That suggests that some of them may have been turned off by the auto-only Polo GTI, and a predicted rise in popularity - the GTI is expected to make up three per cent of Polo sales, up from just over one per cent - perhaps vindicates the decision. Those sticking with tradition are rewarded, too. For complex technical reasons only James May might enthuse about, the engine’s 236lb ft peak torque is only available in the manual; DSG cars top out at 184lb ft. So the manual car is quicker? Confusingly, no. Both transmissions yield a 6.7sec 0-62mph time and a 147mph top speed. And the DSG-equipped car probably feels swifter, thanks to its seamless gearchanges serving up uninterrupted acceleration, shorn of the slight pauses caused by human gearchanges. It’s a blooming good gearbox, VW’s seven-speed DSG, with only very occasional dim-witted changes. But there’s no doubting the manual is more involving, and the much cheaper choice. What about the rest of the car? The Polo GTI carries on where it left off: stable, surefooted and composed. It’s a confidence-inspiring car, one which is a doddle to drive briskly. It rides firmly but without the harshness you could accuse of a Fiesta ST, and while its steering is light and ultimately feelless, it’s as quick and precise as you could ask of it. The front axle is much better resolved than before, with none of the slightly erratic wheelspin out of corners or junctions the old car could sometimes display. The smoother, more measured power delivery of the new turbo-only engine can take some of the credit. Essentially a downsized version of the Golf GTI’s 2-litre, it’s a strong unit with an appealingly hard-edged sound as you ascend the rev range. VW’s ‘XDS+’ also trickles down from the Golf GTI, and acts as an electronic diff, helping pull you out of a corner and tighten your line. We tried the Polo on track, though, and at its limits underseer is still prevalent. That can be avoided with some adventurously late braking, or a smart lift of the throttle, but the oversteery theatrics so readily available in a Fiesta ST are missing. The Polo’s dynamics are nonetheless strong, but it’s far from the wildest car in its segment. European cars get ‘Sport Select’ suspension as a circa-£250 option. Press its Sport button and switchable dampers stiffen the car up, sharpening body control, while the throttle sharpens (good), the steering gains some artificial ‘feel’ (less good) and a sound symposer adds some fake noise as you accelerate through the gears (not good at all). The UK will get an alternative in the form of a similarly priced chassis control option, which will toggle between Comfort and Sport damping modes. Anything else of note? Now more than ever, this looks very much the mini-me Golf GTI. Small styling touches - red flourishes across the car, including a grille frame that bleeds into the headlights - all recall its bigger brother. No bad thing. It’s a smart little car, though we’ve had to dry a few tears from seeing the old Polo GTI’s pleasingly retro ‘phone dial’ alloys replaced by more conventional multi-spoke rims. Happily, those iconic tartan seats remain inside, and very grippy and comfortable they are too. The interior as a whole does a very good impression of a bigger car, and its slick layout - and the resulting cohesive ergonomics - ensure it blows the Fiesta and Clio out of the water for classiness. Only the Peugeot 208 GTI can get close. There’s plenty of big car tech, too, with a flash touchscreen infotainment system, adaptive cruise control and a small handful of active safety systems available. How does it fare, then? GTIs traditionally aren’t the hardest cored hot hatches, priding themselves on being more considered, grown-up all-rounders. The Polo GTI fits that bill rather sweetly, and while it’s largely similar to the car it replaces, those detail changes - an engine with smoother delivery, tighter body control - add a smidge of satisfaction to a driving experience rich in composure. It’s priced reasonably competitively, too. Prices are set to start at £18,800 for a three-door manual, with a £600 premium to gain rear doors and a £1200 price tag for the paddleshift gearbox. Thrill-seekers still need to buy a Fiesta ST, but the Polo’s an appealing alternative for those who like a little more comfort in their lives.
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