The Polo was never allowed to threaten the Golf GTI's halo – but it makes for solid secondhand purchase
By Tony Middlehurst / Sunday, August 22, 2021 / Loading comments
- Available for £5,500
- 1.4-litre or 1.8-litre, front-wheel drive
- Some 1.4s had serious oil consumption and cam chain issues
- 2015-on 1.8s were a much less risky proposition
- Not as much fun to drive as Ford, Renault, Peugeot rivals…
- … but mature, with excellent cabins
Search for a used VW Polo GTI here
First delivered to UK customers towards the end of 2009, the Mk5 (Type 6R) Polo did something no previous Polo had done: it won the overall European Car of the Year award for 2010.
Admittedly, the cold beam of the dreaded torch of hindsight has led many to question the worth of more than one COTY award-winner, but in the case of the new Polo, it wasn’t that bad a shout. It was a big car, not just for Volkswagen but also literally, being wider, longer and lower than its rather stodgy predecessor. Luckily, thanks to advances in high-strength lightweight steels, it was smaller on one crucial area: weight. Model for model, the Mk5 Polo was 7.5 per cent lighter than the Mk4, and it looked all right too thanks to neat styling mods that had already whizzed up the Mk6 Golf.
With those two pluses of lightness and looks, along with a couple more Polo firsts like a seven-speed twin-clutch DSG auto transmission and touchscreen-controlled infotainment, the Mk5 looked like a pretty exciting jump-off point for a GTI version. Again, there had been some false dawns with some earlier sporty Polos that had turned out to be anything but sporty, but the reveal of the Mk5 GTI at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show gave plenty of reasons to be cheerful. The 1.4-litre capacity of the direct injection engine didn’t inspire the same sort of merriment until you realised that it was both turbocharged and supercharged. This so-called ‘twincharger’ concept was designed to provide meaningful power at all revs in spite of the wee displacement.
The Polo GTI wasn’t the only VAG car to feature this twincharger engine. It had been around since the mid-2000s in various other VWs, Audis, Seats and Skodas, including the Polo GTI’s sister cars the Ibiza Bocanegra and the Fabia vRS. Other manufacturers had dabbled in it long before that, too. Nissan’s 930cc Micra March Super Turbo used twincharging in the late 1980s, and earlier still in the mid 1980s, Lancia’s Delta S4 rally car (and the Stradale homologation road car) had it. All in all, the first twincharged Mk5 Polo GTI of 2010 was an exciting prospect.
The replacement 6C was announced in late 2014 for deliveries in early 2015. We’re calling it a replacement rather than a midlife refresh because, although the usual cosmetic stuff had happened as normal, there was one really substantial change under the bonnet: the 1.4 twincharger unit had been turfed out in favour of a turbocharged (but not supercharged) Audi-developed 1.8 TSi.
So let’s look at the 1.8 for the moment. Despite having been shorn of a sizeable chunk of metal, the new 1.8 GTI was around 85kg heavier than the old 1.4. With an only marginally increased power output of 189hp, that extra beef reduced the power-to-weight ratio from 149hp per tonne to around 147. Nevertheless, the 0-62 and top speed were both improved in the new car because it had been given a near-30 per cent torque hike from 184lb ft to 236lb ft. The only fly in the ointment was that the extra torque was only available if you chose to have your 1.8 with a new and more robust six-speed manual gearbox. In DSG auto guise, the 1.8 had to be limited to the same torque output as the old twincharger.
Unless you lived in India or South Africa, where as far as we know they are still building Mk5 Polos, the Polo GTI 1.8 finished in 2017 when it was superseded by the MQB-platformed Mk6, powered by a 197hp version of the Mk7 Golf GTI’s 2.0 engine.
The connection between the Golf and the Polo has become ever stronger over time. By the time the Mk5 Polo GTI (and especially the 1.8) came along, you didn’t need to do much Photoshopping to change one into the other. The Polo already had many of the Golf’s visual tags: honeycomb grille with red stripe, GTI wing badge, GTI steering wheel etc. Was it as good a car as the Golf, though? More importantly, seeing as how this is a buyer’s guide, does it now represent good value at prices starting from just £5,500? That’s right, five and half grand for a high-quality hatch that will do the 0-62 in six and a bit seconds. Where’s the catch? Read on…
SPECIFICATION | VOLKSWAGEN POLO GTI (2010-17)
Engine: 1,390cc inline four 16v turbocharged and supercharged
Transmission: 7-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],200rpm ([email protected],400rpm-6,200rpm)
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],250-5,300rpm ([email protected],450-4,200rpm, 1.8 man)
0-62mph (secs): 6.9 (6.7)
Top speed (mph): 142 (147)
Weight (kg): 1,194 (1.8 DSG 1,280, 1.8 man 1,272)
MPG (official combined): 47 (1.8 DSG 47.9, 1.8 man 47.1)
CO2 (g/km): 139 (1.8 DSG 129, 1.8 man 139)
Wheels (in): 7 x 17
On sale: 2010 – 2017
Price new: from £18,645
Price now: from £5,500 (1.8 £11,000)
(Main data is for 2010-14 1.4 DSG. Figures for 2015-17 1.8 are in brackets.)
Note for reference: car weight and power data are hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
As noted earlier, there are two different engines to look at here: the twincharged 1.4 TSI from 2010 to 2014, and the turbocharged 1.8 TSI from 2015 to 2017. Let’s take a squint at the EA111 CAVD 1.4 TSI engine first.
The twincharger motor was based on VW’s direct injection FSI engine. The Roots-type supercharger lobbed mixture in up to 3,000rpm at which point the turbocharger took over the boosting duties.
It was an exotic and wondrous thing that dazzled juries around the world into giving it various ‘best engine’ awards. After a while, however, it became clear that the reality of the double-forced induction experience was slightly less wondrous than the concept. The twincharger made lots of exciting sounds – a decent low-speed burble, a promising bassiness through the mid-range, and an amusing whoosh on lift-off – but the longer you held onto the gears, the more it felt like the little 1.4 needed a third form of forced induction to help maintain the rush at higher engine speeds. The sensation of lost power was kind of an illusion. It wasn’t so much lacking in power at high rpm, it was just a different kind of power that didn’t feel as ‘deep’ as what had gone before.
Bigger problems came to light in the ownership experience. Cold-engine misfires had to be addressed by VW with new coil packs, new plugs and factory updates. More worrying was excessive oil consumption, usually the result of oil seals struggling with a pressure imbalance on either side of the turbo impeller. The problem got worse if you were running a decatted exhaust. Some owners were getting as few as 400 miles a litre, making other owners feel grateful for their 1,000 miles, even though that figure wasn’t really acceptable either.
The motor was fuel-sensitive, with pistons and oil rings prone to breaking on ordinary 95RON petrol. Other issues included a timing chain tensioner failure at around 60,000 miles that allowed chain slack followed by potentially engine-wrecking tooth-jump. VW picked up many a tab for that under warranty. You could also get problems with the 1.4’s supercharger clutch when the engine transitioned from supercharger to turbo. Wonky diverter valves - the system that VW/Audi turbo cars were using to vent excess boost pressure – spawned a handy revenue stream for the aftermarket.
The 1.4’s DQ200 DSG dry twin-clutch transmission gave trouble, too. When it was running properly it was okay, though it could sometimes seem a bit random in the way it served up gear changes. Some owners noted bogging down or juddering; others experienced a loss of drive after initial start off even though the engine revs were still rising. Drive would then return with a sudden jolt. These issues were usually traced back to the faulty solenoids for the mechatronic units and/or hydraulic pressure loss problems as a result of cracks in the valve body accumulator canister. Some DQ200s chewed up their selector forks, too, resulting in no reverse or sixth gear.
In late 2012, Volkswagen replaced the ill-fated CAVD engine with a new and much-improved CTHD unit featuring better pistons and rings, a stronger tensioner and some other new bits, but by that stage the writing had been on the wall for the twincharger for a couple of years. Enter stage left in 2015, the 1.8 litre straight turbo EA888.
This was a different beast altogether. As used in the A3 and Leon, it combined direct and indirect fuel injection to help ward off the problems some of the direct injection 1.4s had had with carbon build-up. Although the 2.0 version of the previous generation EA888 could throw up timing chain issues on the Mk6 Golf GTI, the Mk5 Polo GTI’s 1.8 engine established an excellent reputation for itself, with very few problems bar a small number of turbo failures, some broken thermostat housings and the odd electronic glitches that affected quite a few VAG cars. The 1.8 was indeed a very good engine with strong shove through the rev range. Average real-world fuel consumption figures were OK-ish for the performance, at something in the region of the high 30s/low 40s over mixed roads. The fuel tank was small at under ten gallons though.
The 1.8 brought good news on the transmission side because it had the option of a six-speed manual, which, besides being easy to use, was able to handle a lot more torque than the DSG box. You could still have the DSG box with the 1.8, but its torque would then be limited to the same level as the 1.4.
Polo GTIs came with the usual VW three-year/60,000 mile warranty. A Fixed Service plan was available for drivers doing under 10,000 miles annually, while the Flexible Service plan was aimed more at owners doing nearer to 20,000 miles pa. A routine service would be around £180 at a main dealer and nearer to £125 at a specialist.
Compared with the previous and somewhat stodgy Mk4 Polo GTI, the new 1.4 GTI was a step in the right direction chassis-wise. Not only did it have the standard Mk5 Polo’s improved A1/Mk4 Ibiza platform, it had uprated springs and dampers, and a 15mm lower ride height. Unlike the Fiesta ST, the stability control couldn’t be disabled even in the later 1.8, somewhat reducing grin potential, but there was an electronic limited slip diff.
Even so, you had the feeling when pressing on that something sub-optimal was going on beneath your high-quality seats and carpeting. At best it felt competent, at worst a bit dull. Still, the 1.4 was a step forward on what had gone before, and the 2015-on 1.8 was another step on again. Besides inheriting the Golf GTI’s torque-vectoring system and a new two-stage stability control setup, it could be had with adaptive suspension that improved both ride and responsiveness.
Even on the 1.4, Polo GTI braking was unusually good by VW standards, but owners of early cars did report premature disc failure after as little as 18 months or 15,000 miles. The 1.4’s hydraulic steering could seem quite heavy around town, whereas the 1.8’s electromechanical setup managed to lighten the load without losing too much directness or predictability. Power steering pumps have been known to fail though.
Paying £300 for the Sport pack on the 1.8 brought new anti-roll bars and a damper-tightening, throttle-sharpening, exhaust-loudening (by speaker) Sport switch on the dash. Sport weighted up the steering too, albeit not in a massively natural-feeling way. Even at only £300, the Sport button’s worth was debatable as the ride became pretty hard when it was on. If your priorities were all-round handling fun, you were better off saving the £300 and, frankly, whatever money you were thinking of paying for a Polo GTI, and getting a Fiesta ST, Clio 200 or 208 GTi instead. Even the somewhat slower Citroen DS3 seemed to have more personality than the VW. What none of these rivals could match however was the Polo’s sensation of quality, and that was enough to swing the buying decision for many.
Choose a Polo GTI over the equivalent Ibiza Cupra or a Fabia vRS and you’d be paying £1,700 or nearly £2,600 more respectively, but it wasn’t difficult to see where the extra money went when you got into it. The Polo didn’t have the interior design fireworks of a Mini Cooper, but if you placed great store by subtlety and substance, the Polo was the only choice in town. Some early (2015) 1.8s had the odd squeak and rattle, but in general the cabin is a lovely place to be with very nice materials used. The Jacara/Clark tartan cloth was the only motoring fabric that was more desirable than leather.
The 1.4’s afterthought-ish Bluetooth pod was replaced in the 1.8 by a properly integrated infotainment system operated via a 6.5in touchscreen. It was bad news if you wanted to carry on playing your CDs though, as the slot for those was all but unreachable. At least the USB port was well placed below the climate controls. Rather disappointingly for what was after all the range-topping Polo, you only got manual air conditioning as standard: climate control was extra. It was the same story for cruise control. To get factory heated seats, the first owner would have had to have specified either the Winter pack or the Alcantara fabric option.
In an attempt to even up the GTI’s fairly extreme front-end weight bias a little, VW moved the battery to the spare wheel space in the boot, below the space-saver. That stole 76 litres out of the already skimpy 280 litres available, so bear this small boot in mind if you’re going to be needing even moderate carrying capacity – still, you could always create a much bigger and near-flat load bay by folding the rear seats down. Cabin space was also good front and rear.
You could have the Polo GTI as a 3-door or (for £600 or so on top) a 5-door in a choice of red, blue, black, white or silver. In the usual Volkswagen manner, the visual differences between the GTI and the regular Golf were obvious enough – new bumpers, new wheel designs, side skirts, roof spoiler, red grille stripe (which ran into the headlamps on the 1.8), twin-pipe exhaust and a 15mm lower ride height – without being so obvious as to give owners of non-GTI Polos those uncomfortable ‘poor relation’ feelings.
The diamond-cut alloys did suffer from ‘whiteworm’ corrosion. Refurbs cost around £100 a wheel.
Besides being a car, a Polo is also a sweet with a hole in it. That turned out to be a decent metaphor for the first twincharged Polo GTI. Like the mint, where the hole eventually became so big there was no point keeping it in your mouth any longer, the twincharger’s power bias towards the bottom end and mid-range gave you the impression that it was running out of puff when you held onto the gears. In fact, it was more a case of it being amazing in the lower ranges rather than especially poor in the higher ones, but still created an odd impression in a sporty hatch.
According to folklore, the twincharger concept was abandoned by VW on the grounds of cost and complication, but you do wonder how much of the decision was down to halting the erosion of customer goodwill caused by the problems and expense it had visited on disappointed owners. Riskiness wasn’t something that Volkswagen wanted to be associated with.
To some extent, that minimal-risk mindset was reflected in the way Mk5 Polo GTIs went about their business on the road. You wouldn’t be inclined to describe either of them as ‘fun’ if you’d just been driving a rival wearing a Ford, Renault or Peugeot badge, but there were many positives. Compared with the 1.4, the later 1.8 was low on fascination, but it was high on satisfaction and the feeling that you had bought wisely. It was a big improvement overall thanks to its better-judged suspension and the welcome option of a snappy manual box that not only gave you more torque but also got you around the problematic DSG transmission.
Tatty early 1.4s with 100,000 miles are readily available for as little as £5,500. You’ll need around twice that for a 1.8, partly because it’s a newer car but also because it should turn out to be a better one, not just dynamically but also from an ownership-costs perspective, given the 1.4’s fairly ghastly reputation. You could argue that a 100,000-mile 1.4 should have had all its faults ironed out by now, so if you get lucky with that attitude (and maybe spend a little more than £5,500) you could end up with a real bargain in a 1.4. Be careful though.
This 2011 1.4 is wearing its 88,000 miles well. It has service history and will come with a full MOT for £7,395.
At the top of the 1.4 price range, here’s a fully historied five-door 2013 car with 45,000 miles at £11,240. Apply the same highest-price filter to the 1.8 and you’ll find this final-year (2017) 21,000-mile five-door in black at £17,499. It’s a DSG car so it won’t have the full torque of the manual. To get that (and save £500 at the same time) here’s a manual car from the same year at £16,999. It’s a five-door too, but has just 10,000 miles on the clock.
Perhaps the best value 1.8 on the PH Classifieds at the time of writing was this 51,000-miler with 18in alloys and the possible bonus of some Revo performance bits – if the badge on the wing isn’t just a badge anyway. Yours for £11,020.
Search for a used VW Polo GTI here
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