I remember reading about cars like Renaultsport’s indomitable Clio 182, in both Cup and Trophy form, chasing down six-figure supercars in magazine tests on countryside roads. Key to their greatness, first and foremost, was a lack of inertia. The hot versions of the mark two Clio all tipped the scales at under 1,100kg - absolutely tiny compared to the bloated-up cars of 2019 - but as time’s gone on and tighter safety regulations have become mandatory, weight has subsequently increased.
The Polo GTI, for instance, has always been VW’s ‘nearly’ car and you got the sense its true potential was being held back in order to avoid it bettering the Golf. The new car, powered by a detuned version of the Golf GTI’s 2.0-litre, has 197bhp and is capable, thanks to its twin-clutch DSG gearbox, of hitting 60mph in 6.7 seconds.
Its performance stats stack up but looks-wise it’s typical VW fare - subtle, classy, not at all look-at-me and appeals to the more mature hot hatch buyer. Inside, there’s the signature tartan cloth covering the seats and one of the best steering wheels in the business, but otherwise it continues the exterior’s subtly-sporty theme.
Press the starter button and your ears are met with the familiar sounds of the 2.0-litre turbo that’s found in dozens of VW Group cars in slightly different states of tune. When you’re up and running the first things you’ll notice are its superb ride, which is judged to perfection, and the alert front end. The steering hasn’t got masses of feel but the overall feel is positive.
Those impressive performance stats translate onto the road, too. Given it’s front-wheel-drive, the Polo does have a tendency to become somewhat overwhelmed by its power under load, but you’re never in any doubt just how capable it is. The handling, which is neat, is helped by the fantastic turn in which is hyper alert and allows the GTI to feel responsive to your commands. Its DSG gearbox, which is brilliant when it’s left alone to do its own thing, is also responsive when you take charge of the paddles.
However, a key flaw is its tendency to think it knows better than its driver, so if you select manual mode and you’re primed in third or fourth gear, it’ll immediately put you in a lower gear as soon as you put your foot down. All this does is result in a surge of revs and an immediate upchange is required - a real bugbear in an otherwise brilliant gearbox. Manual mode should mean you’re in charge, but in the £27,000 Polo GTI it doesn’t. Thankfully, there’s a six-speed manual which would be my choice.
Despite this gripe, the Polo GTI is better than it’s ever been. It’s a great partner, no matter what you’re doing, and the handy five-door design is great. However, while it’s fast, it isn’t the most engaging and that’s a big problem when its main rival is Ford’s brilliant Fiesta ST. Although the cheaper Ford is the pick from a driving point of view, the VW’s better as a daily proposition thanks to its more grown-up attitude and far superior interior.