Final report: does VW’s hot supermini prioritise quality over driving fun? We found out over four months

Our Verdict

Volkswagen Polo GTI 2018 road test review hero front

Volkswagen successfully miniaturises the performance Golf’s recipe for the first time - but does the hot supermini have a chassis to match its newly acquired engine?

James Attwood, digital editor
20 March 2019

Why we ran it: To find out if there’s a truly engaging hot hatch hiding under the prim and proper facade of VW’s hot supermini

Month 4 - Month 3Month 2Month 1 - Prices and Specs

Life with a Volkswagen Polo GTI: Month 4

Is this a cut-price, shrink-wrapped Golf GTI or a quick, well-equipped supermini living in its shadow? Our final verdict reveals all - 13th March 2018

The bootlid of the Volkswagen Polo I’ve been driving around in for the past few months doesn’t feature the word ‘Polo’ anywhere on it. Instead, in the place where VW would normally spell out the model name are three letters: GTI.

Their use as the only branding on the Polo GTI is a real statement of intent. VW’s goal was to produce a small hot hatch that truly lived up to those storied letters, and everything they imply, in the way generations of Golf GTI have. But having waved goodbye to the Polo, I can sadly report that it can’t.

The reality is that it likely never could. The most recent Golf GTI casts a shadow from which the Polo was never likely to emerge. We ran a Mk7 Golf GTI on our long-term fleet last year and it impressed everyone with its seamless blend of hot hatch performance, engaging driving and classy comfort. It truly embodied everything VW’s GTI line represents: our own Andrew Frankel even declared it the greatest hot hatch of all time. That the Polo GTI can’t repeat that incredibly tough trick in miniature shouldn’t surprise.

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Yet by swapping the ‘Polo’ badge for a ‘GTI’ one and the use of tartan seat trim, the Polo keeps inviting comparison with the Golf. And it just doesn’t match up.

VW’s brief for a GTI model is ‘everyday performance’. The Polo has the ‘everyday’ bit covered: it’s as comfortable and refined to sit in as you’d expect from a VW. There are sports seats but they’re firmly focused on comfort, and that shows after long journeys. Before the Polo, I ran a Suzuki Swift Sport, which offered charm in abundance, but that charm wore thin on long journeys. I reckon the Polo GTI is a slightly softer, more comfortable car for everyday driving than, say, a Ford Fiesta ST.

Inside, you get all the luxuries of a VW Group machine, with a classy, intuitive infotainment system and customisable digital dashboard, which has so many display options that I was still trying out new arrangements after several months. The infotainment even has a volume control knob, addressing just about the only criticism editor Mark Tisshaw had of our Mk7 Golf GTI.

Yes, when it comes to the ‘everyday’, the Polo GTI gets a big tick. It’s a well-specced top-end Polo, offering as much class and comfort as you’re likely to find in a car of this size and price point. It’s the ‘performance’ aspect that isn’t quite so convincing.

Not that the Polo GTI doesn’t do performance. It does – plenty of it. It’s powerful, quick and – with Sport drive mode setting engaged – pleasantly rorty. There is no shortage of power or torque for a car of this size. It’s just never as much fun as you’d hope. The steering isn’t quite as responsive as you’d want from a true performance hot hatch so you’re never quite as engaged as you’d like to be.

At times, the Polo GTI can also be a little too raw. Stick your right foot down with too much enthusiasm at any speed below 20mph or so and it will likely result in a touch of wheelspin. Yet, at other times, it can be slow to respond with the power you’re asking for. That’s due to the DSG dual-clutch gearbox, currently the only option. (A manual is on the way, although exactly when remains unknown.) It just doesn’t seem fully in sync with the 197bhp 2.0-litre engine in the Polo and that stops you really exploring and enjoying the power and potential it has to offer.

Ultimately, it’s not that the Polo GTI can’t do everything it set out to do. But the magic of the Golf GTI is how well it blends that classy comfort and performance edge. The Polo just can’t fully realise that ‘everyday performance’ brief in so slick a way.

Now, as a younger sibling, I have sympathy here. At school, my older brother was smart, outgoing and good at just about every sport. I was the quiet, weedy kid with a heart condition. It was only once I went my own way and people stopped comparing us that I really came into my own (which means, of course, I’d never brag that I can now run a marathon way quicker than my brother ever could).

So I stopped trying to think about the Polo GTI as a GTI, to approach it without expectations. And, over the past few months, I’ve warmed to it. How could I not? It’s got all the comfort and class of a high-end Polo, with enough power to offer effortless progress and a performance edge. As an everyday car, that compensates for what it lacks in truly exhilarating hot hatch performance. There was never a time when I was unhappy to drive it.

Basically, I reckon VW took the wrong badge off the bootlid. Because although it can’t quite match up to the weight of a GTI, there’s plenty to recommend as a high-end Polo. While changing the badge, I’d also like to swap the gearbox. I’m eager to try the manual one when it finally arrives. I reckon gaining more control of the gears should make the Polo’s plentiful power more usable, pliable, accessible and fun – offering a better blend of everyday performance. That might even be enough to make the Polo GTI live up to its badge.

Second Opinion

GTIs have never been proper head-turners, but I wonder if this Polo is a little too conservative – especially on the interior styling. I wasn’t expecting so much hard plastic, and while the Clark Plaid seats are iconic to the GTI badge, they just don’t feel as special as the Recaro buckets in a Ford Fiesta ST. I got more of a practical, rather than performance, vibe.

Tom Morgan

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Love it:

Tartan seats The continued use of tartan cloth for GTI models should feel a bit cliché by now, yet it still works.

Pulling power So long as you’re careful with the throttle, the 2.0-litre engine offers all the power you’d want.

Cruising comfort A-roads, B-roads, motorways, short journeys, long journeys – the Polo GTI+ takes them all in its stride.

Loathe it:

Automatic gearbox Frustratingly inconsistent, it makes readily accessing all the 2.0’s power far more annoying than it should be.

Handling It’s not terrible, by any means. It’s just not as responsive and engaging as you’d hope for from a hot hatch.

Final mileage: 8517

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Life with a Volkswagen Polo GTI: Month 3

Form over function, but only if you supersize - 27th February 2019

The Polo’s octagonal cupholders are nicely styled, but not as practical as some. They struggle to house the drinks bottle and oversize Texan thermal mug I take with me for my Sunday morning fun runs (hydration is important etc). Solution: I can just about wedge the bottle in, and can jam the mug in the storage cubby. As a bonus, wedging down the lid adds extra insulation for my hot coffee.

Mileage: 7051

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A rough diamond – or downright raw and dirty? We just can’t decide - 20th February 2019

It usually doesn’t take long to gauge a car’s character, the general disposition and underlying traits that set the tone for driving and spending time in it. But the more time I’ve spent driving our long-term Volkswagen Polo GTI, the more it has confused me. I just can’t figure out exactly what this car is – or even what it wants to be.

In the broadest sense, of course, the Polo GTI is a hot hatch and, as noted in my first report, it offers both plenty of performance and typical Volkswagen sheen and polish. What I’m struggling to determine is where on the scale between rorty performance weapon and slick supermini cruiser the Polo GTI actually wants to be.

My initial theory was that the Polo GTI is a refined upmarket supermini that can ‘do’ performance when needed, like one of those posh Rada-trained actors that gets a job on EastEnders because they can pull off a convincing east London accent. Supporting that theory has been the car’s form when cruising on motorways and A-roads, where it glides along with the sheen of a Joanna Lumley-hosted Bafta ceremony. But take to an A-road with the drive mode set to Sport and the Polo GTI displays enough drama to rock the Queen Vic on Christmas Day. It just all seems a bit staged like, say, a soap opera.

But, in the spirit of the best soap opera plot twists, the more time I spend driving the Polo, the less convinced I am. Purely in the name of scientific rigour, I’ve tried to find frequent opportunities to explore the acceleration and torque of the EA288 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine.

And with those reserves deployed through the six-speed dual-clutch gearbox, that has led to moments of very unpolished wheelspin, and a general excess of revving under acceleration. Go far beyond half distance on the throttle pedal, at almost any speed, and any feeling of refined cruising descends into something a bit more uncouth.

Which, the more I think about it, makes me think I’ve got the Polo’s character all wrong. I’m starting to think it’s not an inherently posh car playing a bit rough, but a properly rorty hot hatch that can scrub up nicely when required. A bit like Danny Dyer putting on his tux for an award ceremony, or something.

That would fit with the Polo using the VW Group’s 2.0-litre EA288 engine – the one from the Golf GTI and a host of other performance models – the power and spec of which can be adjusted for the model it goes in. It feels like VW has pegged the engine to the performance it thought a Polo GTI should have, and then worked to smooth out that power to capture the elusive ‘practical performance’ level it seeks in a GTI model.

Certainly, the Polo can be enjoyably wild, rewarding and fun. So dilemma solved, then? Well no, because I’m still not sure – and I still often feel it’s happier being used to deliver comfy, relaxed VW polish.

Over Christmas, I drove a few friends and family members around and they all remarked on its general class and comfort. But even as they did so, occasional wild moments from the powertrain would suggest the car wanted to do a bit more.

After a few thousand miles in the Polo GTI, I’ve determined this: it’s capable of comfort and polish, yet also plenty of raw – occasionally too raw – performance. I just can’t work out which it’s happiest doing.

Until I work that out, it’s likely to remain a bit of a mystery

Love it:

Tartan seats They’re upholstered in the classic GTI pattern and are plenty comfortable, too.

Loathe it:

smartphone tray My oversize iPhone 7 won’t fit in the tray properly when it has a charging cable plugged into it.

Mileage: 5823

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Life with a Volkswagen Polo GTI: Month 2

Nothing comes for free, so what price the GTI+ performance? - 30th January 2018

The clearest indication of Volkswagen’s desire to make this latest Polo GTI a true little brother to the Golf GTI can be found under the bonnet. As mentioned previously, for the first time in a Polo, you’ll find a version of the Volkswagen Group’s EA888 engine, and a rather good job of providing the hot hatch with plenty of power and torque it does.

Of course, packing a punch of extra performance comes at a cost and, in the case of the Polo, one place that cost shows up (quite literally) is in fuel economy. Granted, how far a car can stretch a tank of fuel is the sort of practical, fiscally minded thing you probably aren’t supposed to think about too much when buying a hot hatch. But I’d argue that if you’re buying a performance-based supermini, you’re likely to be searching for value for money.

When our road testers put the Polo GTI through its paces, they returned a touring economy of 46.8mpg. That fell to 14.0mpg when they pushed it on our test track. Over the full gamut of road test driving, they found it averaged 36.6mpg – and, a few thousand miles in with our long-term test car, that roughly tallies with the figures we’ve been achieving.

What has been really notable so far is how much that fuel economy varies in different situations. Living within the M25 and just a few miles from Autocar Towers, I find that most of my daily driving is of the stop-start urban variety. And on that sort of route, I struggled to get the on-board computer to register an average fuel economy of 40mpg – and, doing the sums, I was getting closer to 32-33.

But after prolonged spells on motorways and A-roads, I was getting close to or just above 40mpg, and without spending the entire time in Eco mode (which uses fewer revs and changes up gears sooner). That’s hardly a disgraceful tradeoff for a 6.7sec 0-62mph time, but it might serve as a note of mild caution to those interested in a Polo GTI as an ‘everyday performance’ option.

And it is, by comparison, notably lower than I achieved with my previous long-term test car, the Suzuki Swift Sport.

Granted, that car was lighter and less powerful (and had a smaller fuel tank, so I found myself at the pumps more often) but such costs will add up over a prolonged period. I’ve yet to sample the Ford Fiesta ST that’s on our fleet – and it’s probably the key rival for the Polo GTI – but it will be interesting to know if that car’s ability to use only three cylinders on light throttle loads makes it more economical for urban use.

It’s the fact that the fuel economy struggles so badly in an urban environment that annoys, because that’s where you’re least able to extract the pleasing performance from the Polo GTI’s engine.

So I’m trying to find ways to improve the fuel economy while driving in the city. Coasting is a little hard, given the auto ’box, but by trying to read the road ahead, judicious use of the Eco mode and more gentle use of the throttle, I’m slowly increasing that average mpg. Let’s see how it goes.

Love it:

DIGITAL DRIVER INFO DISPLAY So many options, and no end of info I can squeeze onto there…

Loathe it:

DIGITAL DRIVER INFO DISPLAY ...in fact, there may be too many options. Still hunting for the perfect layout.

Mileage: 5579

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Life with a Volkswagen Polo GTI: Month 1

Welcoming the Polo GTI to the fleet - 2nd January 2019

Time for a quick recap. You might recall that my previous long-termer was a Suzuki Swift Sport.

I enjoyed it’s fizzy, fun nature enough to overlook a handful of minor niggles and annoyances. But it left me posing a question: would I swap the Swift Sport for a hot hatch which traded some of that charm for a bit more polish? Something like, say, a Volkswagen Polo GTI?

Good question, if a slightly leading one, because shortly before I waved goodbye to the Swift Sport, a Volkswagen Polo GTI duly arrived at Autocar Towers. It’s almost as if it was planned this way…

Anyway, the polish promised by the new fourth-generation Polo GTI was highlighted by our road test team. They cited the class-leading interior and all-round quality, and noted that this is the most convincing Polo GTI yet, one that feels like a proper performance car rather than just a top-spec regular Polo. That’s certainly what VW has pushed for: this GTI has appeared unusually early on in the Polo’s life, and the firm says the MQB A0 platform the car is built on was engineered with this GTI version in mind.

Sounds promising, then – although you can probably feel the ‘but’ coming. In this case our testers felt the Polo GTI traded on “cold, hard capability” instead of hot hatch sizzle. Key to that capability is the EA288 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot engine – the same one you’ll find in the Golf GTI and plenty of other Volkswagen Group performance cars. Here it’s been tuned to make 197bhp and 236lb ft, so I’ll have a fair amount of extra go under my right foot compared with the Swift Sport’s lowly 138bhp and 170lb ft.

Clearly, the Polo GTI has the performance, then, but our testers struggled to find the fun. Their verdict was that the Polo GTI is a good car but not necessarily one for Autocar readers. And, hey, I read Autocar (it’s a good magazine, you should check it out), so let’s put that to the test – because my suspicion is that the Polo’s comfort and class might start to shine through over the course of a few months.

We’ve opted for a Polo GTI+ with a few thousand miles on it already, so we know the engine is nicely loosened up. First impressions are good. The Flash Red paint is stylish without being showy, and the GTI-only styling tweaks – including 17in alloys, twin chrome exhausts, restyled bumpers and GTI badging – add a touch of class over the regular Polo. GTI+ trim adds automatic LED headlights, rear tinted glass and electric door mirrors, while extras inside include a 10.5in touchscreen (regular GTIs get an 8.0in unit).

With that big screen at the centre of the dashboard, everything looks very VW Group-slick, especially with the digital driver info display and – of course – classic tartan seats. I’m not quite as sold on the big swathe of red on the dash: while a valiant attempt to break up the black trim, it doesn’t give the intended premium polish.

The GTI+ costs £22,610, but our options include climate control (£415), the £285 winter pack and Brescia black diamond alloys (£350). Pre-crash prevention and subscriptions to VW’s infotainment and safety services push the cost of our car to a hefty £25,345.

For that money, even if we unlock a huge chunk of character, we won’t be as forgiving of flaws as we were with the £17,999 Swift Sport. Still, initial impressions are that the Polo looks and feels like the premium small performance hatch it’s priced at, although initial driving impressions aren’t quite so positive, largely due to the gearbox.

While a manual version is on the way, the Polo GTI has so far only been offered with a six-speed dual-clutch auto – and it already feels like the lack of a stick shift is going to be a sticking point. It’s got that slight auto hesitation away from a standstill but, more notably, if you press the throttle enthusiastically at low speeds, the ’box seems to struggle. On a few occasions when accelerating in second, it decided to change down to first, resulting in much noise and wheelspin and little premium-polish vibe. It’s proving to be far smoother with a bit of throttle restraint, but the Polo GTI doesn’t feel as accessible as the plug-and-play Swift Sport.

But then, a few days into my time with it, I had to make a long early-morning trip down the M4. Suddenly, the plush interior and smooth, efficient powertrain shone, and several hours of motorway was spent in contented comfort. Then, on exiting the M4, a Welsh road provided evidence of the Polo GTI’s hot hatch handling and response.

The Polo GTI is undoubtedly a very good car, and it does seem to offer a blend of performance and premium comfort. That’s the balance VW has always tried to strike with its GTI models, and something the larger Golf GTI has absolutely nailed.

Mention the Golf GTI, of course, and you’re reminded that its smaller brother has never quite scaled the same lofty heights. And given that we had a Mk7.5 Golf GTI on our fleet last year and universally loved it, you can be sure we’ll return to that comparison in a future update.

For now, the signs are that the Polo GTI might not be a pure hot hatch and isn’t as joyfully fun as the Swift Sport – but it is a more rounded proposition. Gearbox aside, that blend might find some favour with this Autocar reader.

Second Opinion

I share James’s view that the Polo GTI would be more enthusing with a manual ’box. The auto is unpredictable in town and removes a layer of interaction so crucial in a small hot hatch. Also slightly disappointing is the road noise kicked up by those large-ish wheels at high speeds

Lawrence Allan

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Volkswagen Polo GTI+ prices and specification

Prices: List price new £23,020 List price now £23.155 Price as tested £25,345 Dealer value now £21,652 Private value now £17,896 Trade value now £17,308 (part exchange)

Options:Climate control £415, Winter pack £285, Brescia alloy wheels £350, Discover Navigation infotainment £650, pre-crash protection £140, tracker £485

Fuel consumption and range: Claimed economy 39.1mpg Fuel tank 40 litres Test average 39.2mpg Test best 44.6mpg Test worst 31.9mpg Real-world range 345 miles

Tech highlights: 0-62mph 6.7sec Top speed 147mph Engine 4-cylinder, 1984cc, turbocharged petrol Max power 197bhp at 4400-6000rpm Max torque 236lb ft at 1500-4400rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Boot capacity 305 litres Wheels 17in, alloy Tyres 215/45 R17 Kerb weight 1355kg

Service and running costs: Contract hire rate £268 pct CO2 134g/km Service costs none Other costs none Fuel costs £488.84 Running costs inc fuel £488.84 Cost per mile 11.5 pence Depreciation £5712 Cost per mile inc dep’n £1.46 Faults none

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Join the debate

Comments
38

19 January 2019

just because its expensive, it doesnt make it premium, its interior is full of hrd nasty cheap plastic, because it was designed to make a profit, in a £12k Skoda Fabia.. 

19 January 2019

 Great Blog really, I like this blog so much  WhatsApp++   Pokemon Go++  Instagram++ 

19 January 2019

VW really knows how to do interiors. What a beautifully and sensibly laid-out dashborad. Everything (almost) in the right place and there is no need for a tablet to stick out. It would be perfect if the heater/vent controls could be moved up to eye level.

19 January 2019

It's awful from every angle, inside and out. Great job VW.

19 January 2019

Great Job on improving what was once the boring GTI... Improvements dynamically, and looks wise (with even more space) makes for a quality package!

Daz

19 January 2019
I get the impression reading that article that they are struggling to find much enthusiasm for it, other than it being a good cruiser along the motorway - not really the point at all of this car, thinking back to early Golf GTI’s that we’re raw, noisy and involving this is the polo (polar) opposite of that, and at £25k so expensive for what it is.

FM8

19 January 2019
Jimbbobw1977 wrote:

I get the impression reading that article that they are struggling to find much enthusiasm for it, other than it being a good cruiser along the motorway - not really the point at all of this car, thinking back to early Golf GTI’s that we’re raw, noisy and involving this is the polo (polar) opposite of that, and at £25k so expensive for what it is.

Sadly the days of the raw hot hatch are over. Although, having recently had a weekend in an Up GTi, it's not quite gone. That car is a riot drive to drive quickly, although you're not actually going that quick. The previous gen Fiesta ST was about as good as it got. Sadly the new one has gone a similar way to this Polo.

19 January 2019
FM8 wrote:
Jimbbobw1977 wrote:

I get the impression reading that article that they are struggling to find much enthusiasm for it, other than it being a good cruiser along the motorway - not really the point at all of this car, thinking back to early Golf GTI’s that we’re raw, noisy and involving this is the polo (polar) opposite of that, and at £25k so expensive for what it is.

Sadly the days of the raw hot hatch are over. Although, having recently had a weekend in an Up GTi, it's not quite gone. That car is a riot drive to drive quickly, although you're not actually going that quick. The previous gen Fiesta ST was about as good as it got. Sadly the new one has gone a similar way to this Polo.

Have to agree... although not so much increases in bhp in the super mini market as in larger cars, it just doesn’t compensate!! 

I have driven over the years hundreds of cars some very powerful others not so much but if I could pin point the most fun I’ve had was taking a 69bhp Ford KA MK1 for a blast down the A458 as you could really push it to the limits working through the engine and gearbox and chassis without risking your driving licences through speeding. 

I the impression that this Polo is a bit like playing Gran Turismo all a bit one dimensional - fast in a straight line with a few fart pops in between to impress friends, and strong grip but no feel as to what’s happening - perhaps I should go and drive one to find out.. 

20 March 2019

I'm afraid I have to agree as I've tried all three VW GTIs. The Golf is the more polished and my drive pretty much chimes with their long-term impressions. The Polo was close but the DSG spoilt everything as, while it was fine accelerating up the 'box it wasn't so good when pootling around. I was going to wait for the manual version but VW told me that despite the 6-speed manual being available in Germany since last year they have abosolutely no plans to bring a RHD manual version to the UK.

The UP! was surprisingly fun but the steering was very sloppy with less feedback than a standard UP!

Re. the Fiesta ST. My wife had two STs over 5 years and I was one of the unlucky few who just couldn't get comfortable in the heavily bucketted seats, and I'm quite slim. Also the ride was dreadful. The current version is better and almost as much fun as my old S2 Elise but still not comfortable enough to have one every day.

Ho hum . .

Y7otus

19 January 2019

...use the flappy paddles*I use them daily, even bimbling around town in auto mode -stops hunting at roundabouts a treat.Tend to use sport mode in town a lot as well - stops the early upshifts to 6th at 30...*Assuming you have them.

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