Is the Polo all the GTI you need? Volkswagen's smallest hot hatch certainly makes a strong case that the answer, for most people, is yes.

As the Golf GTI is the most iconic hot hatch in the Volkswagen stable and the Golf R the best-performing, the Polo GTI is rather an overlooked member of the German brand’s hot hatch fraternity. However, when you look at the current Polo GTI, you do have to wonder just why it’s so overlooked, especially at a time when the price of cars and the price of fuel is rising.

Certainly, the Volkswagen Polo is a prime example of how much vehicle prices have risen, with the facelifted 2022 model now costing nearly $6000 more than the pre-facelift model did last year. That means the Polo GTI here sits at $38,750 before on-road costs – hardly cheap, but far less than the $53,100 Mk8 Golf GTI. However, it also promises fuel consumption of just 6.5L/100km, which is important when fuel is regularly trading for more than $2 per litre.

Plus, with Volkswagen Australia having ditched the manual gearbox for all Mk8 Golf variants, it means you now aren’t missing out on three-pedal availability by going for the cheaper Polo GTI. Could this then be all the GTI you need in 2022? We grabbed the keys to it to find out.

With no Polo badges visible on the outside of the GTI model, there’s every chance that people will think you’ve opted for the larger Golf. Of course, there are plenty of details such as the wheels, exhausts, headlights, and overall dimensions that will give it away when parked up, but blasting past someone there’s every chance you’ll have them fooled. It even sounds like you’d expect a GTI to – a four-pot rasp with inimitable upshift blips from its DSG transmission.

Having mentioned the dimensions, though, it must be said that if you’d woken up from a coma you entered 20 years ago, you’d also be fooled into thinking this was the new Golf. I myself own an ageing Mk4 Golf GTI which this Polo feels very much identical in size to. If that doesn’t tell you how much bigger even subcompacts have gotten these days, I don’t know what will.

What is unquestionably better than it was back then is packaging, as where an old Golf feels like a small car inside, the Polo is positively spacious considering what it is. Even at 6’2″, I can easily fit in the back with the front seat positioned where I’d have it, which can’t be said for hatchbacks in this class in years prior. There are, of course, some small compromises to be made in a subcompact – the centre console storage cubby is tiny, and there’s no rear centre armrest – but really the mix of maximal interior space in a small exterior package is one that’s just brilliant.

As ever, Volkswagen’s array of technology is great. The new 10.25-inch Digital Cockpit Pro instrument cluster is brilliantly clear and customisable, while the $1500 Sound and Tech Package fitted to my tester is a must-have, with it adding a slick 9.2-inch infotainment touchscreen with sat nav and wireless Apple CarPlay (up from an 8.0-inch screen without nav and wired CarPlay) and a rather brilliant six-speaker 300-watt Beats audio system.

The only worrisome feature in the new Polo – and a few other new Volkswagens – is the capacitive touch sliders in place of traditional buttons and knobs. In practical terms, to change the temperature or radio volume, you slide a finger over these panels to go up or down quickly, or tap them in a specific spot to go up a smaller amount. While I can see the thinking behind them, I can also see why in October, the company announced it will be ditching them after so many complaints. Simply, they’re just not easy enough to use while driving as they’re so much fiddlier.

Otherwise, though, it’s the usual GTI fare inside the Polo, with tartan cloth seats a vibrant and distinctive centrepoint of a cockpit that certainly feels premium enough for a subcompact – although you’d hope it would in one nudging $40k. It’s also worth noting that if you opt for the $300 red paint of my tester, you lose the typical red trim on the dashboard and centre console for a more subtle grey.

Thankfully, there’s a big step up in less obvious tech that helps justify the price hike as well. A centre airbag is one of the key 2022 upgrades, taking the total airbag count to seven. All variants also now score autonomous emergency braking with cyclist detection, lane-keep assist, and front and rear parking sensors.

Style and GTI models also add matrix LED headlights with adaptive high beam for the first time, while adaptive cruise control has become standard and the 18-inch wheels the Polo GTI rides on are also now standard fit – previously, these were only optional. Boot space has also grown to 351 litres, up from 305. Factor in all these less obvious features and you can see where the money has gone.

What remains unchanged in all 2022 Volkswagen Polo models, however, is the powertrains on offer, including the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder found under the bonnet of the GTI. Developing 147kW and 320Nm, it’s a touch less powerful but torquier than its only real rival at this point, the Hyundai i20 N. However, the Polo GTI is offered exclusively with a six-speed ‘DSG’ dual-clutch automatic transmission, while the i20 N is a manual-only proposition.

As a result, the heavier Polo is a fraction slower, completing the 0-100km/h sprint in a claimed 6.8 seconds. At that rate, it’s hardly an explosive performer, but the breadth of torque on offer means it delivers its power incredibly smoothly and progressively. If there’s anything here that feels particularly premium, it’s the engine.

But the transmission is what reminds you it’s a hot hatch, with the older and more reliable six-speed DSG delivering crisp shifts as it proficiently alternates between its perfectly-spaced ratios. With an automatic this good, even a die-hard manual purist like myself has to concede that it’s simply the better option.

Tight, twisting backroads are where the Polo GTI shines, its front-wheel drive layout and short footprint making it a dream to duck and weave around hairpin bends. With suspension that feels controlled but forgiving and a steering rack that’s responsive and perfectly weighted, it’s an easy car to drive hard, which is precisely what you’d expect from a hot hatch made by Volkswagen.

What it does lack, though, is drama, which again is to be expected. With all the smoothness and refinement and premium touches, it doesn’t have that raw edge that you’d expect from something like a Renault Clio R.S. (which no longer exists), Peugeot 208 GTI (which also no longer exists), Ford Fiesta ST (which is no longer sold in Australia), Toyota GR Yaris (which is a lot more expensive and impossible to get your hands on at the moment), or the aforementioned Hyundai i20 N (which is all that’s really left at this point).

While you’d likely choose one of these options for a backroad blast – at least, if you still could – those who are rational will see that the Polo is the one you’d choose to live with. I even managed to match the 6.5L/100km claim on daily driving duties, although a lot of time spent pushing it as hard as I could saw the final figure increase to a still very reasonable 7.9L/100km after 550km of driving.

Really, it’s this or the Hyundai if you’re after a sporty subcompact, and that makes the decision as easy as choosing between hard cheddar and brie. If you want something more refined, subtle, and easy to live with that has a slick automatic transmission, the Polo GTI is the way to go; if you’d rather row your own gears and let everyone know you’re an enthusiast, go for the i20 N.

For what it’s worth, the i20 N does present a big initial saving, but there’s no denying that the Polo is the more mature hot hatch – as a GTI-badged Volkswagen always has been. The real story here, though, is that the Polo GTI will now do just about everything a Golf GTI will in the real world, short of the outright speed. With a $14k saving on the table and money consciousness at an all-time high, there’s no shame in going for the smaller GTI – it’s arguably now all the GTI you really need.

2022 Volkswagen Polo GTI List Price: $38,750 | As Tested: $40,550
  • 8/10
    Performance - 8/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Practicality - 8/10
  • 7.5/10
    Value for Money - 7.5/10

Pros: Balanced yet forgiving suspension, slick engine and DSG combo, packs a premium array of interior and safety technology
Cons: Not the fastest nor the most thrilling hot hatch, massive price hike compared to the pre-facelift model, no manual gearbox on offer

In a nutshell: It might not offer much in the way of drama, but the 2022 Volkswagen Polo GTI is an utterly solid hot hatch that’s just as good on the daily drive as it is on the tightest backroad you can find. Even more impressively, with a vast array of standard tech and enough interior space, it does everything a Golf GTI does – sans outright pace – for over $14k less. That’s a win in my books.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Volkswagen Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel expenses were covered by the author.

Patrick Jackson
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