If you're looking for a quick and discreet supermini that brings with it the trappings of big car quality, this Volkswagen Polo GTI is well worth a look. This sixth generation version was arguably the first model in the line to deliver a truly enthusiast-orientated driving experience and Volkswagen gave the whole package a more polished look and feel with the late 2021 update that created the car we're going to test here.
Throughout automotive history, there have been cars that would have been remembered far more fondly had they not been overshadowed by far more illustrious stablemates - and here's one of them, Volkswagen's Polo GTI. Part of the reason for that is that in the past, the Wolfsburg brand has never really given this model what enthusiasts would see as a 'proper' GTI engine. But all that changed in 2017 when this sixth generation version was first launched, complete with the rorty 2.0-litre EA888-series turbo engine from the Golf GTI. The Polo GTI's time should have come. It didn't quite work out like that: partly because of high pricing, partly because the manual gearbox option we were promised was only imported in tiny numbers and partly because of the excellence of the competition, mainly this Polo model's long time nemesis the Fiesta ST, a model latterly joined by the equally impressive Hyundai i20N. Undaunted, Volkswagen took the opportunity to rejuvenate this 'AW/BZ'-series Polo GTI in late 2021, as a more polished, quality alternative to those two cars. Does it stack up that way?
Apart from a slight increase in power (to 207PS), hardly any engineering changes were delivered as part of this update, but none were really needed. As with the pre-facelift model, power is delivered to the front wheels via a six-speed dual clutch DSG transmission (for our market, sadly there's now no manual option) and rest to 62mph takes just 6.5s on the way to 149mph. The mechanical spec delivers switchable 'sport select' DCC adaptive suspension lowered by 15mm. Other changes over the standard Polo include different front suspension knuckles, a stiffer torsion beam at the rear, revised suspension bushings and different axle geometries and roll centres. It certainly all delivers a very focused hot hatch, though those who prefer a more playful chassis and more communicative steering might still prefer the livewire Ford. The difference with this Volkswagen though, is that like generations of Golf GTIs, it has a dual personality, able to play the school run supermini without an unwanted motorsport demeanour. But then on the return leg home, with the drive mode and the suspension both set to 'Sport', able to entertain almost as immersively as its more extrovert rivals. Even the engine switches from jekyll to hyde. It's all rather surprising.
The Polo GTI doesn't really go too large on extrovert styling, with much the same low-key, high quality aesthetics as its hot hatch Golf showroom stablemate. Viewed on a spec sheet, there are a lot of changes to the standard car, but the net effect in the metal is muted, discreet and classy. Drop inside and you'll find sports seats with a special GTI checked pattern, which is almost certainly the most extrovert aspect of the Polo GTI's entire attire. A key change with this updated version is the incorporation of Volkswagen's 'Digital Cockpit', a 10.25-inch digital instrument screen which replaces the standard binnacle dials. Soft touch plastics and subtle aluminium detailing are the order of the day and the cabin is a little less austere than before. Volkswagen's even let its hair down and standardised this rather extrovert 'Kings Red Glossy' trim for the dash and front door panels. The other GTI additions are more subtle. Aluminium-look pedals, black gloss instrument surrounds, red-stitched carpet mats and a red-stitched wheel all add a performance vibe. But after that, you have to drill down into the detail. There's a selectable stop watch function on the instrument screen; a Drive Mode button by the gearstick with 'Eco', 'Normal' and 'Sport' settings, plus a configurable 'Individual' menu; and on the centre screen, a 'Sport section' has been added with a 3-dial 'Performance Monitor', giving you virtual gauge read-outs for G-Forces, engine temp, KW output, oil temp and turbo pressure. In the rear, there's a small but significant increase in the room for head and legs that you'd get in either a Fiesta ST or a Hyundai i20N. Out back, you get a practical 355-litre boot, though there's not much further space beneath the floor. Fold the 60:40-split backrest and that increases to 1,125-litres.
The list price, just over £28,000 at the time of our test in Autumn 2022, certainly seems a bit steep for a Polo but this one is an automatic and you do get a lot of equipment included. The only two realistic rivals only come in manual form, Hyundai's i20N costing just over £25,000 as we filmed and Ford's Fiesta ST just under £27,000. This time round, Volkswagen has given the car just about everything an owner might want. That means 17-inch wheels featuring red brake callipers, a 'GTI' body styling pack and LED 'IQ.Light' matrix auto headlights, these allowing for individual settings suiting different driving conditions and environments. You also get rear tinted glass and the no-cost option of a 'black roof pack'. Plus power-folding mirrors and 'ACC' 'Adaptive Cruise Control'. Drivers stuff includes lowered sports suspension with DCC adaptive chassis control, an XDS electronic differential lock and a 'Driving profile selection' driving modes system and the 'Travel Assist' semi-autonomous drive system. What about standard cabin features? Well, there's a 10.25-inch digital instrument screen, sports seats with 'Jacara Red' cloth and a host of little GTI detail enhancements. Infotainment's taken care of by this Polo's 8.0-inch 'Discover Media Navigation' infotainment screen, which gains the brand's third-generation Modular Infotainment Matrix (MIB3) software structure. Plus as before, there's 'App-Connect', which delivers 'Apple CarPlay' and 'Android Auto' smartphone mirroring. And you get a three year subscription to VW's 'We Connect Plus' set-up, which allows you to remotely interact with the car via your smartphone. Key options include larger 18-inch 'Faro' diamond-turned black alloy wheels, a 'beats' sound system upgrade, heated front seats, a rear view camera and the larger 9.2-inch 'Discover Pro' central infotainment screen. You might also want to look at a panoramic sunroof and keyless access.
This being Volkswagen, you'd probably be shocked were this car not challenging amongst the class best in terms of efficiency. Sure enough, even with DSG auto transmission fitted, this GTI variant manages 41.5mpg and 155g/km of CO2. Which looks good compared to this model's manual-only rivals. The Fiesta ST manages 42.2mpg and 151g/km; and the Hyundai i20N can only manage 40.4mpg and 158g/km. That showing has a lot to do with the relatively light weight of the MQB A0 platform that underpins the sixth generation version of this car. If you want to get close to the quoted figures on a regular basis, you'll need to make use of the provided 'Eco' option in the standard 'Driving profile selection', that mode able to focus all of the car's systems on maximum frugality. Plus if you've downloaded the free 'Volkswagen Connect' app that comes with this car, you'll find it includes a 'Challenges' section that sets efficiency driving targets, encouraging you to collect points and trophies, with bonus challenges to improve your scores. Start getting a bit keen with the options and you'll see those famously resilient Volkswagen residuals crumble somewhat. There's the usual unremarkable three year / 60,000 mile warranty. Servicing will be determined by either 'Fixed' or 'Flexible' schedules, your choice of which will be determined by your likely annual mileage. Insurance is group 23E. An optional Service Plan covers the first two consecutive services.
Until this sixth generation model arrived, the Volkswagen Polo GTI was a car that had never really been let off the leash, for fear of cannibalising sales of the more profitable Golf GTI. It had never quite learned to let its hair down. You could argue that it still hasn't in this facelifted form, a car which you could buy and use quite sedately, never really knowing the fiery spirit that lurked within. Potential Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20N customers will continue to ignore it for just that reason, but we rather like its two-dimensional demeanour. If price or weird cabin electronics have put you off a Golf GTI - and we could understand that - but you still want the kind of polished, accessible classy hot hatch a Golf GTI used to be, then this, very possibly, is your car. It's the consummate all-rounder in this class. Other segment rivals will put a bigger grin on your face through a twisting country road, but a Polo GTI is a much better only car than any of them. A compromise then - or a more complete package? You might enjoy yourself more than expected in finding out.