THE SUN shines down on Valencia, the keening whistle of punished tyres pierces the warmed air and the Circuito Ricardo Tormo is enjoying the full catalogue of my signature racetrack moves.
Which is to say, the comically baggy choice of racing line, the feebly tentative corner entrances, the fumbling exits, the whimpering and unaccountably hesitant straight-line acceleration phases, to name only those.
But then isn’t this precisely the point of this kind of testing — to reach the limit of your talent and then find out whether the car is any help to you? My advantage in this context is that I reach the limit of my talent very quickly and then stay there, perfectly placed to feel the traction control’s blessedly remedial interferences, the suspension’s supportive flickers, the steering’s tiny corrective nudgings.
Not that my fingers registered anything particularly subtle last week in Spain, while clutched tight around the wheel of the new Volkswagen Polo GTI. But the fact that I walked away at the end of the five laps, having at no point buried this brand new piece of retickled German machinery up to its axles in gravel or wiped it the length of the retaining wall, is perhaps all the testimony anyone could reasonably need to the efficiency of the car’s new, improved electronic nannying devices.
Anyway, how many Polo GTI owners will be hot-trousered weekend track-addicts? According to the promotional film we were shown during the press presentation, the likely customers for this car are people who will only just have time for a bit of enthusiastic road-driving between their hectic schedules of mountain biking, flinging themselves into remote Alpine lakes and skateboarding while holding hands. (If this doesn’t sound like your lifestyle then perhaps the Polo GTI isn’t for you. On the other hand, maybe ownership of the Polo GTI induces the lifestyle, in which case it could be worth giving it a try.)
You regard the Polo, quite likely, somewhat less optimistically, as the Golf’s less talented, slightly squarer and much cheaper sibling. Possibly you own one and justify your purchase as a maverick stand against the Golf’s slightly disturbing ubiquity. (Unofficial statistics reveal that if you laid every Golf in the UK end-to-end, you would pretty much have a description of the M4 westbound between junctions 5 and 11 most Friday nights.)
Then again, VW says it has sold 14m Polos in the 30 years of the model’s existence, so even the “relative rarity” angle, though true, is a hard one to play convincingly.
The likely customers for this car are people who will only just have time for a bit of enthusiastic road-driving between their hectic schedules of mountain biking, flinging themselves into remote Alpine lakes and skateboarding while holding hands
Sweeping all that aside, VW, at this particular juncture in the Polo’s history, would rather you thought about the model’s history of performance derivatives dating back to 1985 (the boxy but pokey G40), and that you bore in mind its stand-alone sporting heritage, specifically its world rally championship triumph of 2013 and its fruitful association with the Polo R Cup (a competition created for the Polo and therefore one in which, in fairness, the car was always likely to dominate).
So, here, attached to the well-received Polo update that came out in July, are all the foibles and fetishes of the GTI experience, as seen on the (whisper it) Golf: the peek-a-boo brake callipers, the tarty badging, the sultry lick of red lipstick along the honeycomb grille (and extending into the new LED headlights), the uncommonly ornate door sills, the intimate, waist-gripping sports seats (truly sensational, as it happens).
Then, of course, there’s the traditional red stitching on the steering wheel and the gear fob, and threaded around the standard VW Group dashboard (which is rather flatly ordinary if you are in the unusual position of driving a lot of different new cars, inoffensively clean and clear if you aren’t). If the world ever runs out of red cotton, it’s all over for GT car manufacturing.
You can once again choose a manual gearbox (the last version of the Polo GTI was available only in automatic flavour), which at least means thrifty customers can save £1,200 by opting to change gear themselves. That six-speed manual box is comfortingly smooth to operate and, like the seats, seemingly a gift from a pricier car, but probably not as much fun as the seamless power arcs of the DSG variant, which at least yield some good-value pleasure for the extra money.
Sink the Sport button and the hitherto quietly compliant 1.8-litre turbocharged engine gets a catchy frog in its throat, the dampers stiffen up and the throttle becomes a fraction quicker on the uptake.
On public roads in this mode, the Polo is a bit jolty and jostly, though the engine is generously adept and pleasingly inclined to push on again from the upper registers to squirt you round that slow-moving agricultural implement and tuck you back in again before that oncoming bus arrives.
To the point, indeed, where you could almost imagine you were driving a . . . But let’s not go bringing the family into this again. This is, remember, a thoughtfully constructed, historically justified, entirely fun-to-drive car with a coherent and independent character of its own. And, best of all, nobody’s going to force you to race it unless you really want to.
Giles’s verdict ★★★★☆
Takes you to your limit – and keeps you there
VW Polo GTI specifications
Engine 1798cc, 4-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Power 189bhp @ 4200rpm
Torque 236 lb ft @ 1450rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 0-62mph: 6.7sec
Top speed 147mph
Road tax band E (£130 a year)
Price From £18,800 (estimated)
Release date December 16
Ford Fiesta ST, from £17,250
For A hoot to drive; one of the best-value fun cars money can buy
Against No paddle-shift gearbox
Seat Ibiza SC Cupra, from £18,980
For Seven-speed flappy-paddle gearbox as standard; good engine; fun handling
Against Design looks dated; no option to pay less and choose a manual