Volkswagen Polo GTI review - Select Car Leasing
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Volkswagen Polo GTI review

Introduction

The Volkswagen Golf GTI has gone down in folklore. It’s a legend known worldwide, even if not every iteration has been quite the hit fans might have wanted. As the cost of living creeps up, Volkswagen is keen to remind us all that the smaller Polo has a model with the same badge by giving it a mid-life facelift and, with 207hp, it promises to be just as much fun as the Golf.

Select's rating score* - 3.3 / 5

At a Glance

It’s been around a while, solidifying its reputation as a thoroughly sensible hot hatch, but Volkswagen has breathed new life into the Polo GTI with a facelift that keeps it fresh. There are some delightful contemporary touches around the front of the car, including a pair of LED lights that squint through intakes in the bumper. The most obvious is the LED light bar and matching red stripe that runs across the car's width.

Round the side, you’ll find bright red brake callipers peeking out from behind 17-inch alloy wheels, while the rear gets a pair of chrome exhaust pipes. They’re real, too, although the exhaust note you hear inside the cabin isn’t.


Everything else remains as it does on the thoroughly sensible Polo, so you get a good amount of space, a decent-sized boot, solid build quality and easy driving characteristics that make motoring a cinch.

Is that what you want from a 207hp hot hatch, though? We drive it - hard - and find out.


Key Features

An innocuous button by the gear selector has a picture of a car with ‘MODE’ written on it. It might not look much, but it significantly changes the car's character.

Press it, and you’ll switch from Normal to Sport. This turns everything up, although not quite to 11. The steering gets heavier to simulate more feel, and the throttle response is sharper. The automatic gearbox holds onto gears longer and shifts down a ratio earlier. You’ll also release more noise.


Vitally, it makes changes to the suspension. Already lowered by 15mm over the regular Polo and stiffened at both the front and rear of the car, this switch makes things firmer still. At least, in theory, it turns the Polo from a solid hot hatch to a teeth-rattling race car.

In practice, it might compromise the car in places you don’t want to compromise. Happily, there’s an ‘Individual’ mode, so you can have, say, soft suspension with sporty engine sounds, light steering and racing gear changes. Fundamentally, you can make the Polo GTI your own.


Performance & Drive

That short stubby bonnet hides a 2.0-litre petrol engine that produces 207hp, so forget about saving the planet with an eco-friendly hybrid or EV. This is old-school, big-engine-small-car territory, with that power and 320Nm of torque promising entertaining performance.

The numbers back that up, with 0-62mph promised in 6.5 seconds. Without some expensive timing gear and a handy runway, it’s difficult to say how accurate that is, but the feeling in the seat suggests Volkswagen may have been a little pessimistic.


All that force goes to the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox, allowing perfectly timed changes as you snatch the next gear. Foot down, don’t lift, pull back the paddle, and keep going.

Only it doesn’t quite work like that. Even when you’ve taken over manual control, the computers will often override you, selecting the next gear before you really want it. Switch to Sport mode, and it still steps in when it thinks you need help. It takes what could be a rewarding and involving drive and shatters the illusion, suggesting that some software engineers in Germany know better.


The sensations are better in corners. Yes, you can’t escape that the Polo isn’t the most exciting car you’ll ever drive, but the GTI version has been lowered and receives some stiffer suspension. It’s a mature experience, but you can still have some fun with it. Grip levels from the 215mm wide tyres are high, and some clever tech keeps the car in check when at the limit - although, as ever, it might be nice to have just a little more freedom.

For the rest of the time, when you just want to get to the office in the morning or are bodging along the M25, it’s a rather pleasant experience. It’s still firm, but bumps and cracks in the road are dealt with nicely, and few will complain.


Running Costs

A 2.0-litre petrol engine probably won’t be top of your list if you’re looking for economy, but the Polo GTI’s 41.5mpg WLTP figure is pretty good. It also seems achievable, although the onboard computer was showing somewhere in the high 20s after our time with the car. That, in fairness, was a reflection of driving styles rather than a real-world representation. Expect around 35mpg for everyday driving.

The car’s computers work out servicing needs so that dealer visits could be as far apart as every two years or 18,600 miles. Any faults will be dealt with under a three-year or 60,000-mile warranty.

CO2 emissions of 155g/km ensure that company car drivers will face a BIK burden of 36% - just one point down from the maximum of 37%.


Interior

Volkswagen is trying to modernise, well, everything. Across all of its brands, it’s introducing touch-sensitive panels rather than buttons and dials, and it’s worse for it. Gone are the easy-to-use controls on the steering wheel, replaced by a touch-sensitive panel with haptic feedback that leaves you unsure of what you’re doing unless you look away from the road. The same is true of the heater controls, which are now a pair of fiddly touch-sensitive sliders. Switching from an iPhone to an Android would be less painful. Not everything needs to be ‘improved’.

Complaint over. The rest of the cabin is lovely. There’s an 8.0-inch touchscreen in the centre, surrounded by a bold red blade that runs the cockpit width. It’s a touch of visual excitement that hints at the GTI you’re in without being too lairy.


Tartan-covered seats - a nod to classic GTIs of old - offer just the right amount of support. You’re kept in place in corners but never feel like your sides are being crushed.

Space up front is plentiful, while those in the rear get enough to avoid complaints. The boot is a good size, too, with 305 litres of cargo room. That’s a little more than you’ll find in a Fiesta.


Safety

Crash safety experts Euro NCAP have put the Polo through its strict testing regime, giving the baby Volkswagen a full five-star safety rating. Protection of adults in the front seats was particularly impressive, should the worst ever happen.

Avoiding that is helped by a suite of safety equipment, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, alongside a lane-keeping assistant and what Volkswagen calls “IQ.DRIVE Travel Assist." This, according to the marketing blurb, “controls the vehicle almost autonomously” but, in reality, is adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping assist. Keep your eyes on the road.

That’s easier with the Polo GTI’s impressive LED headlights. These matrix-LEDs flick segments of the lights on and off, casting a shadow over oncoming cars and preventing them from being dazzled, all the time while lighting up the remaining road as much as possible.


Options

There’s just one Polo GTI to choose from, so you won’t be confused by a bewildering array of models. You get the GTI with a 2.0-litre petrol engine and whatever kit is listed as standard. If you want anything else, you'll need to pay for it.

Standard equipment is quite comprehensive, though, with a good 8.0-inch infotainment system with navigation and both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. There’s leather trim dotted around the cabin, automatic wipers, dual-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control and parking sensors all around, to name just a few items.

Heated seats add £320, while keyless entry and start is another £360. An uprated beats stereo is available for £480, complete with a subwoofer and 300W total output, although it didn’t sound vastly different to the standard setup.

For the outside, the 18-inch alloy wheels create a significant visual impact at £430, while changing from plain white paint to something more interesting will cost from £230 to £1,040, depending on just how flash you want to get.


Rival Cars

Compact hot hatches are few and far between. There used to be one on every manufacturer's price list, but then the 80s and 90s disappeared, and we all grew up. Still, alongside Volkswagen, a couple persevere.

The most popular is the Ford Fiesta ST. It’s a well-equipped and thoroughly sensible car, but it’s got the fun factor that the Polo is missing. The ride is relatively firm, though, and will get tiring on long journeys.


Hyundai’s i20 N is quicker, sharper and even more fun to drive but also even firmer. The cabin’s not exactly high-end, either.

At a stretch, you could include the Toyota GR Yaris. This provides epic levels of fun and is surprisingly useable every day. It’s very expensive but worth it.


Verdict

It feels as if Volkswagen has tried to distil the all-round capabilities of the Golf GTI into the smaller Polo package, but it misses the mark a little. Everybody will have different priorities, but a small hatchback with 207hp under your control should primarily be fun, and the Polo GTI doesn’t manage that.

Make no mistake, it’s impressively competent and will make swift progress over any type of road, but it trills less than its competitors.

While it might not offer trousers-on-fire levels of excitement, it’s comfortable and spacious, with a wonderful cabin (heater controls aside), making it a pleasure to spend time in. But making the GTI appeal to a broader audience leaves you wondering why you wouldn’t just order a regular Polo R-Line and save some money.

Where to next?

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*Score based on Select’s unique meta score analysis, taking into account the UK’s top five leading independent car website reviews of the Volkswagen Polo GTI

**Correct as of 18/10/2022. Based on 9 months initial payment, 5,000 miles over a 48 month lease. Initial payment equivalent to 9 monthly payments or £2,892.96 Ts and Cs apply. Credit is subject to status.

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