You have to feel for the Polo GTI. While the Golf GTI has the much-celebrated history (well, quietly ignoring what went on between Mk2 and Mk5) and its solid position as the dependable, do-it-all hot hatch, the go-faster Polo has always lived in its big brother’s shadow. After all, in the VW only started slapping the GTI badge on the Polo in the 90s, making up for the lack of heritage by pinching things like tartan seats from the Golf Gran Turismo Injection.
The most recent version started off with a DSG gearbox only, before VW sorted that and ditched the quirky 1.4-litre twin-charger engine for a 1.8 with a manual option. And while I was fond of the latter car, it didn’t exactly set the segment alight.
But what about the new one? Certainly on paper, it’s looking rather promising. The engine has - believe it or not - gone against the downsizing trend and has grown again. It uses VW Group’s prolific EA888 inline-four TSI, albeit with a smaller turbocharger, a different intercooler and a lower compression ratio than the version found in the Golf GTI. The result is 197bhp and 236lb ft of torque, making the usual 0-62mph dash doable in a just 6.7 seconds. All of this is stuffed into the bodyshell of the all-new, sixth-generation Polo, which is far stiffer than the old one.
It gets a 15mm drop, tweaked anti-roll bars, springs and dampers. Go for the ‘Sport Select’ option, and you get adaptive dampers, a fatter front anti-roll bar and firmer steering rods, among other things. The cars we drove on the launch in Majorca had these tickled chassis, and lordy, are they capable little rascals.
Even when having its head kicked in on a tight, tricky track, the latest hot Polo exudes an unflappable sense of composure. Chuck it in and you’ll find minimal roll - despite the car never feeling that firm - bags of mid-corner stability, plus plenty of grip and traction on exit. The ESP goes into party pooper mode a little too eagerly, and although it can’t be disengaged fully, it can be turned ‘off’ into an ESP Sport mode that still allows for plenty of slip.
The latest version of VAG’s ‘XDS’ system is here too, replicating the function of a limited-slip differential by braking the inside front wheel during hard cornering. Is that contributing a meaningful amount to the GTI’s barnacle-like front end? Its operation is so discreet, it’s kinda hard to tell. But it’s nice to know it’s there.
The engine is a funny one. You can see the speed building at a healthy rate on the dials in front of you, it makes a moderately meaty noise and it’s nicely responsive, but it never feels that potent. Its delivery is linear, and if you’re expecting a gutsy mid-range, you’ll be disappointed. The manual gearbox version coming later in 2018 might help in that regard - the smooth, effortless shifts of the six-speed DSG are a little too, err…smooth and effortless.
You also might be disappointed by the steering. It’s the usual EPAS blend of speed and lightness, but even for an electric power setup, feedback is poor. Non-existent, really.
While the steering doesn’t inspire much confidence, the chassis does. This new GTI is an exceedingly well-damped, grown-up kind of hot hatch that’ll surprise you with just what it can do. It’s made a sizeable leap forward compared to its predecessor. But maybe it’s just a little too tied down for its own good: its power output is too far within the limits of the chassis, its back-end only willing to wiggle under extreme braking stress when you’ve the space of a track to play with, and it just isn’t a car that seems to want to egg you on.
At one point of the launch I remember getting stuck behind a long train of cars on a brilliantly twisty road, which would normally make me furious. But in the Polo I was quite happy to relax and enjoy the also very grown-up cabin, with its genuinely brilliant Active Info Display II virtual cockpit (we’re expecting that to be standard-fit in the UK), solid build quality, cool colour-coded dash panel and - of course - the tartan-trimmed seats.
For outright thrills and playfulness, it’s still not quite the one to have. For that, you’re better off with a Peugeot 208 GTI in one of its feistier forms, the Toyota Yaris GRMN (if you can stomach the price), or - assuming the switch to an inline-three doesn’t ruin it - the new Ford Fiesta ST.
But that’s how it’s always been with the VW Golf GTI: it’s never been the fastest, loudest or most entertaining hot hatchback. Instead, it’s the safe bet. The one you know you can clock many miles in with ease, while still indulging your inner helmsman on the right road. And a smaller version of that is very appealing indeed.