Under the bonnet lies a 16-valve, four-cylinder 1.4-litre (turbo and supercharger) TSI engine producing 178bhp. Kicking out a maximum 250Nm of pulling power the Polo has got enough guts to enhance that daily commute. It can complete the benchmark sprint in 6.9 seconds and it has an achievable top speed of 142mph. The figures make for good reading, but the Polo just doesn’t feel all that quick. That said, nipping out to pass slower traffic is child’s play as the engine is peppy, even though the sensation of speed does feel blunted. With that in mind you will need to keep an eye on that speedometer, as it is very easy to get close to the national speed limit without trying too hard. The 1.4-litre unit is mated to a seven-speed semi-automatic DSG gearbox. When in automatic mode the gearbox is smooth and quick but we don’t believe that seven cogs are absolutely necessary – the reasons are not performance related but rather to lower emissions and to improve fuel economy. With only the DSG ‘box available the paddle-shifting PlayStation generation will be happy but purists will disappointed that there is no option of a manual shifter. In auto mode the shifts are seamless and quick. The ‘box has also got a sport mode and yes it will hold on to gears longer and only go up to sixth but it still won’t please enthusiasts. The DSG takes the rawness of that driving pleasure away from the driver and it can't hold a candle to the Clio Renaultsport - and that’s a little disappointing.
Vast improvement in 2015
The facelift in 2015 ushered in big changes, and Volkswagen Polo GTI performance is far better as a result. With 190bhp to play with (a 12bhp hike) from its 1.8-litre turbocharged petrol engine, you’ve now got the choice of the seven-speed automatic gearbox as before (with torque limited to 250Nm) or a lovely six-speed manual where the engine is allowed to deliver 320Nm. Thanks to the way the engine is tuned for each gearbox, performance figures are the same, with the 0-62mph dash taking 6.7 seconds and top speed 146mph.
We can report, though, that the new engine is absolutely brilliant and performance is scintillating no matter which ‘box you pick.
With that said, we prefer the manual. It’s quicker to pull away and more rewarding to drive, so unless most of your driving is in the city, you’ll probably want this over the DSG. You’ll save yourself £1,200 too. Which is nice.
Take the Polo GTI on its own merit and you'll think, yep that handles quite well. Put it up against rivals including the Clio Renaultsport and the Fabia vRS and the VW comes out with the ‘classic’ school report that says ‘could do better’. Don’t get us wrong, the Polo is an accomplished hatch and it has a fair amount of grip but it's not that exciting. There is too much understeer in corners and it never feels particularly ‘planted’ – maybe the light steering and the minimal feedback is to blame but from a car with a GTI badge we expect so much more. A base-level MINI has better handling than the Polo GTI and this is a complaint that cannot be directed at the Clio Renaultsport.
Finally a proper GTI in 2015
Thanks to major handling work during 2015’s facelift the Polo is now truly worthy of wearing the GTI badging. It borrows the XDS+ system from its bigger brother the Golf GTI and for this reason, plus the two-stage traction control, it’s miles better to drive and more fun too. Turn-in is sharper, there’s a more confident stance and VW has also completely revised the steering, providing far more feedback and better weighting too.
The optional Sport Performance Kit adds adaptive dynamics to the Polo, meaning that at a touch of the Sport button you can switch the dampers between comfort and sport configurations. The latter is the one to pick for faster driving, and makes the Polo real fun to thrash on your favourite country road. It’s still not quite as sharp-edged as the Fiesta ST, but it’s far closer than ever before. This pack will only cost a few hundred quid extra, so we’d suspect many Polo GTIs to feature it.