There are arguments all over the internet over which car brand invented the hot hatch. Everyone from Peugeot to Triumph has at some point been credited with taking something small and dull and making it quick and fun.
VW is another brand that has been credited with introducing the formula. Whether it did or not, its GTI badge has become a byword for practical but performance-focused machines.
The Golf started it but for the last three generations the smaller Polo has also had its own GTI derivative and following the introduction of the Mk7 its hot version now walks among us.
Volkswagen Polo GTI
Price: From £21,140 Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol Power:197bhp Torque: 236lb/ft Transmission: Six-speed DSG Top speed: 147mph 0-62mph: 6.7 seconds Economy: 47.9mpg CO2 emissions: 147g/km
The Mk7 Polo GTI uses a detuned version of the Golf GTI’s 2.0-litre turbo engine. In the smaller car it produces 197bhp, putting it on level pegging with the Ford Fiesta ST – the segment’s benchmark.
That would once have been unthinkable in a B-segment hatch but given that this car is virtually the same size as a Mk5 Golf (which itself had a 197bhp GTI) it now seems just about right.
It piles on pace neatly, responding quickly to throttle inputs and displaying little lag. Official figures put the 0-62mph dash at 6.7 seconds and on its native autobahns the Polo can reach 147mph.
But hot hatches are about more than just pace and the Polo isn’t as strong when you start flinging it around.
By no means is it bad. It has plenty of composure and control when the road ahead starts to twist and turn. The suspension is 15mm lower, it comes with adaptive damping with a firmer sports setting and an electronic differential.
Any driver will feel confident that they can press on in the Polo GTI and it will cope just fine. But it lacks a certain spark or level of engagement that other models offer.
The Polo’s biggest problem is the Fiesta ST, which rewards enthusiastic driving with a level of feedback missing in the VW. Even the Polo’s smaller sibling the Up GTI is far more engaging, as is the smaller, cheaper Suzuki Swift Sport.
Some people regularly bemoan the death of the manual gearbox but I’m not usually one of them. Modern autos are quick and sophisticated enough to suit most purposes but the Polo is one occasion where I’d rather see a manual. The DSG shifts quickly and smoothly and has a manual override via the paddles but the Polo could do with the added engagement that comes from a proper three-pedal manual.
Where it loses out to the Fiesta and others in outright engagement, the Polo takes the lead in other areas. The interior is neater, more spacious, better thought out and a leap ahead in materials. It’s also more refined in everyday conditions and has a feeling of solid maturity the Ford and others such as the Peugeot 208 GTi lack. And with the latest cabin design it’s also a far less sombre place than quick VWs of old.
Technically, the Polo is very capable and it has plenty of muscle to cover ground quickly but it lacks the spark that makes a truly great hot hatch. It’s simply not as engaging as the class-leading Fiesta ST or VW’s own Up GTI. But if you want a mature, comfortable car to deal with day-to-day drudgery that’s also able to blast along a B-road then it’s worth a look.