Polo GTI with its G40 ancestor
The letters 'G', 'T', and 'I' don't instantly associate themselves in most car enthusiasts' minds with a VW Polo, but the new Polo GTI does, in fact, represent the third time Volkswagen has attached its most famous badge to the rump of its supermini.
And this time VW is serious about its new baby hot hatch. It's given the Polo GTI a turbocharged and supercharged 177bhp 1.4-litre engine, the same XDS electronic differential trickery as the Golf GTI and the latest seven-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission as standard (an admittedly controversial point).
VW also hopes it'll be a case of third time lucky for the Polo GTI; up until now it hasn't had much success with hot versions of the Polo. Mind you, it hasn't tried all that hard. Despite launching the first Polo in 1975, a year after the genre-defining Golf GTI appeared, it was 1985 before a fast version appeared.
Even then the supercharged 115bhp 1.3-litre Polo GT G40 was only ever built in left-hand drive, and only 500 of them were made. VW tried again when the Mk2 Polo was facelifted in 1990, and right-hand-drive versions were even sold in the UK from 1991. But sadly only 616 of these right-handed 113bhp roller skates found homes by 1995.
VW tried the hot Polo thing again with the first Polo GTI in 2002. But much like the contemporary Golf GTI this was a bit soggy, and 123bhp wasn't really enough to do the badge justice, although VW shifted 3393 in the UK in three years. The 2005 Polo GTI made a move in the right direction, with 148bhp, but it still wasn't going to set alight the desire of many die-hard hot hatch fans.
But the folks at VW believe the time is finally right for a proper fast Polo. And they've invited us to test one on the performance car playground that is the road network above Crickhowell in south Wales - roads more normally associated with very fast machinery in magazine group tests - to prove that the new Polo GTI is it.
They've also brought along a pristine left-hook example of the old G40, the only previous Polo with any real performance kudos. This is partly to emphasize the fact that the new car - like its great grandfather - is supercharged, and partly to let us have a go. Which is awfully nice of them. But more on the G40 on PH soon.
First up is the important business of seeing if the new Polo GTI can provide serious driving fun (if that's not too much of an oxymoron). Although the car's spec sounds good - and 0-62mph in 6.9secs, with a top speed of 142mph is really not to be sniffed at - the first impressions when you get in the car are a little worrying.
Why? Because everything, from the alloys, to the red honeycomb grille, to the tartan seats, to the design of the dash screams shrunken Golf GTI. It's all very pleasant and high quality, but we were merely 'whelmed' when we drove the Golf GTI last year - and a proper VW GTI should, quite frankly, set your pants on fire. And if the Polo GTI copies the Golf's dynamic traits as faithfully as it has copied its cosmetic ones, then that may not be a good thing.
Fortunately it takes no more than a straight or two and a series of twisty bends to realise that our dynamic fears are unfounded; this car knows how to have fun. Yes, it's composed, and refined, and surefooted, and all those other things that non-petrolheads feels are important for everyday motoring, but you also realise more or less from the moment you first pitch it into a corner that the new Polo GTI is going to be a bit of a hoot.
Its steering is weighty but not leaden, responding to the camber and road surface changes with gentle, unobtrusive wriggles rather than smothering any useful information. Turn-in is also eager and, once you're settled into a corner, there's plenty of grip.
The Polo GTI's relative lightness (1184kg) and diminutive stance also mean it's more than happy to change direction, too. But this is a modern VW, so don't expect anything as dramatic as lift-off oversteer; a gentle tucking-in of the nose is all that greets that sort of provocation. Keep the traction and stability control on and you'll find the Polo GTI remains impeccably neutral, even if you try far too hard - although it works its magic in an impressively unobtrusive manner. You might just find it a bit dull and unadjustable mid-corner but, like we said, it is a modern VW...
The brakes, meanwhile, remain strong and fade-free even after quite a few miles of hard driving.
The supercharged, turbocharged 1.4 is a bit of a cracker too, feeling strong, linear and smooth right the way through the rev range - it's only got 177bhp, but it feels every bit as fast as a 197bhp Clio Renaultsport 200 and would, in all likelihood, give a Golf GTI a run for its money over give-and-take roads.
The seven-speed DSG 'box may be a sticking point for some, but it is undeniably effective (although if you're reading this VW, we would like a fully manual setting that lets us nudge the rev limiter without the gearbox changing up for you). It is now oh-so-nearly as involving as a full manual when you're trying to have fun, and of course far more easy to live with if you're stuck in traffic. We are performance purists on PH, so it pains us to say this, but the twin-clutch set-up in this Polo really is pretty good. Which is a good thing - because it's the only transmission available.
The other sticking point might well be the price: It's going to cost at least £18k, which means it's going to have to be measurably better than the £16,700 Renaultsport Clio 200 Cup. In terms of quality, and as an ownership experience, the Polo GTI will undeniably better its French rival. But as a driving machine, the hilariously enjoyable Clio would probably still have the edge.
Where the Polo perhaps scores an unfortunate victory is against the Golf GTI. Because it is a car you are more likely to want to drive hard, and it pushes those hot hatch buttons more effectively than its larger sibling. In fact, the Polo GTI kind of resurrects the chuckable-but-solid spirit of the old Mk2 Golf GTI. And that makes it rather endearing.