A hot hatchback exists to provide excitement, performance and effervescence to the driving experience that regular, lesser power models lack. But Volkswagen's hot hatches mix this with a more mature, softly spoken approach than some of its rivals.
For those after a youth-orientated, bang-for-your-buck car, that's made it easy to overlook VW's Polo GTI in the past, in favour of the cars RenaultSport and Ford's ST division have been turning out. For the Polo, that's compounded by its image as the lesser of the two GTI siblings. Why would you have a Polo GTI, if you could afford the real deal – a Golf GTI?
Now Volkswagen has refreshed the Polo GTI for 2015 – building on the mild facelift of the regular Polo model, which we drove for the first time last year. The means you get some mildly different front and rear lights, along with new grilles and brightwork.
Perhaps more importantly, you get an upgraded cabin with a 5.8-inch touchscreen which is available to order with VW's App-in-Car feature, which is essentially what's going to allow you to run CarPlay or Android Auto. So is the Polo GTI the teched-out hot hatch to go for?
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Big brother's little brother?
We'll come to the tech again in a minute, but if you're in the market for a car like this then what will excite you is the Polo GTI gets a new 1.8 TFSI petrol engine, the availability of a 6-speed manual gearbox (the last Polo GTI was DSG auto only) and either 3- or 5-door options. Given RenaultSport limits your options by offering the Clio 200T in a 5-door, auto-box only format, if you're after a GTI in the old-school format then the Polo GTI should be on your shopping list.
Stepping out of a Golf (which we had at the time, so it's worth mentioning) and the Polo feels narrower and – even with the driver's seat ratcheted as low as it'll go – you sit higher. Yet this is a nicer place to sit than the Fiesta ST, because the seat goes lower than in that car, and the interior doesn't have a "designed by Sony in 1999" quality to it. It's all very Volkswagen though – grey, a little bit dull, yet high quality and easy to use.
The magic really starts when you get underway though. On the road the new Polo GTI is something of a revelation: it turns up the excitement factor compared to the car it replaces by some margin. The engine plays a large part in this, as it fizzes and buzzes along eagerly. It's fast to respond to throttle inputs for a turbo and is very willing to rev too. All of which encourages you to take it by the scruff of the neck and just drive it hard like you should want to in a hot hatch.
The real joy of cars like this is that, while the Polo is quick enough, it's not so over-endowed with power that it's a constant risk to your license with its ability to pile on speed. In that regard, it's a nice antidote to the mega-power race that's going on with some of the cars in the class the Golf competes in.
Playing its part in the fun is the gearbox. We drove the manual – deliberately – because, while the DSG is tempting if you're just doing the commute, most people reckoned it was one of the key downfalls of the old Polo GTI. And the auto will add a £1,245 to your bill if you're buying new.
The joy of the six-speed manual is that it's slick and nicely weighted. It may lack the ultra-precise tightness of, say, a Honda gearbox, but it doesn't feel outright disconnected like some of the current Peugeot-Citroen affairs. Instead it simply allows you to make the most of the Polo's 192bhp and makes you more than happy to row up and down the gears.
We've had brief hands-on time with both Apple's CarPlay and Android Auto before now. Although we have reservations about both, if you happen to think you ever might want to use one of them, then on future Volkswagens you're going to need something called Car-Net App-Connect.
App-Connect is VW's new umbrella term for connected car services, and it's the portal through which you'll be able to use Android Auto and Apple CarPlay along with the existing Mirrorlink functionality. But you need to add it as an option when buying the car, for the princely sum of £100. Reservations about these systems or not, it is – as far as future-proofing yourself goes – the first options list box you should tick on a Polo GTI.
Luckily, you shouldn't need to delve much further into the options as otherwise the Polo GTI is pretty well equipped. You do without navigation, heated seats and automatic headlights and wipers as standard – all available as options – but you do get Bluetooth, DAB, a full suite of cable connectivity options, along with a load of Volkswagen's classic GTI styling details, including some great seats covered in that Jacard tartan cloth.
Which leaves only a couple of spec annoyances: the lack of cruise control (which oddly isn't even an option); and the slightly penny-pinching £45 that VW will charge if you'd like to carry a child in the front and therefore need a switch to deactivate the front passenger airbag.
Elsewhere the Polo is a practical and easy to live with small car (particularly in its 5-door format). The boot is big, while the rear seats will accommodate adults and not just children.
The GTI starts at £18,900 for the 3-door, 6-speed manual. That's £1,355 more than the base spec Ford Fiesta ST, although matched kit-for-kit, the Polo GTI is more on a par with the Fiesta ST-2, which comes in at a more even sounding £18,545.
Jekyll and Hyde?
The reality is that, good though the Polo is to drive, it's not quite the riot to chuck around that the Fiesta is. It gets closer than ever before though.
The real joy of this Volkswagen, is that – unlike the Fiesta – put it in sixth gear on the motorway or show it town speed humps and it won't wear you down or shake your fillings out. The ride is much less firm and the refinement simply better in the Polo.
That sums up the joy of the new Polo GTI. It's discovered a real fun side, being better to drive than ever before. But it's still a Volkswagen at heart – mature, easy to live with and more than happy to look after you when you're not in the mood.
Does that make it sound like Jekyll and Hyde? From where we're sitting, it feels more like the best of the both worlds.