The Polo GTI is often labelled as a junior Golf GTI and with good reason, just like the regular non-GTI Polo is seen as a smaller, more affordable Golf. But does this diminish the appeal of the smaller sporty hatch from Wolfsburg, and does it live up to its potential without biting into the desirability of the bigger GTI?
For a long time now, or at least since the resurgent MK5, the Golf GTI has been the go-to hot hatch, offering performance, fun, practicality and excellent build quality, all without losing its sophistication and poise on the road. The Polo GTI borrows the same formula, but for less money at the expense of some interior space.
Volkswagen has had to have thought this through in order to bring this car to market, perhaps even as far back as 1979 with the introduction of the Polo GT. It can’t afford to hold it back here, though, with tough competition coming from the Ford Fiesta ST, Peugeot 208 GTI, Renault Clio RS, and MINI Cooper S.
Think of the regular Polo but with more go-faster bits added on, a revised suspension tune for sportier handling, bigger brakes, a flashier exterior, and a more powerful engine from the Passat. Here we have the ingredients for a potent hot hatch, perhaps one that’s more potent - pound for pound - than its bigger brother. Is it also an unofficial successor the original GTI? It would make the car quite the bargain if true.
The Polo is also more practical than some of the competition with it being a 5-door hatch as opposed to the 3-door Fiesta and 208. More fun with little compromise?
“…the morph into shrink-wrapped Golf GTI is almost complete. It’s as chunky as pool cue chalk, with only the reduced track width really giving the game away.” - Autocar
The same basic shape paired with the red accents around the honeycomb front grille, lowered stance, dual chromed tailpipes, and even a similar assortment of alloys does make differentiating the Golf and Polo GTI while squinting at a distance trickier.
Still, the family genetics do make it instantly recognisable as a fast VW. And considering the heritage there, that’s hardly a knock against it. Those who lament the basic Polo for being a bit too plain and lacking in visual drama should look at the GTI just for its more aggressive exterior.
It looks faster without being gaudy, and there’s certainly good taste applied when considering exactly what flourishes to add outside as well as in.
Engine and Drivetrain
“…who doesn’t like a big engine in a well-sorted small package… if you don’t, check your pulse, because you might be dead.” - Practical Motoring
In comes the 1.8-litre TSI turbocharged four-pot from the Passat from the EA888 line. It’s definitely got more grunt at 141kW and is therefore able to propel the Polo with an impressive amount of shove at nearly any rev.
Torque, though, is interesting as Volkswagen supplies two different outputs for this measure depending on the choice of transmission. For models fitted with the 7-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic, 250Nm is delivered as early as 1,250rpm. Meanwhile, those with the six-speed manual are treated to 320Nm from 1,450rpm, which in a car this light is no throwaway number, though VW claims that both can accelerate to 100km/h in 6.7 seconds - par for the course for hot hatches.
The 1.8-litre unit is a familiar motor that can certainly stand the ‘abuse’ a Polo GTI owner might inflict upon it, and tolerate it with aplomb, though it’s certainly recommended that daily fast drivers stick with the manual over the dry-clutch DSG option for long term reliability.
“GTI styling cues give the otherwise drab Polo a bit of a lift inside and out.” - AutoExpress
Just like the differences between the Golf and Golf GTI’s cabin, the Polo’s has been given a touch more drama. Red accents are spread throughout the interior, paddle shifters for DSG-equipped cars, alloy pedals, and the supportive tartan cloth sports seats are given the same ‘Clark’ pattern as the bigger car.
Apart from the minor touches, there’s not all that much that’s been done to the normal Polo’s interior. This means everything is very clearly laid out and easy to use and build quality remains a highlight of the cabin.
A ‘Luxury Pack’ can be optioned for the Polo GTI, adding luxuriously finished Alcantara/Leather heated seats and a panoramic glass sunroof as well. Some do argue that the competition does bring more to the table when it comes to an interesting interior, though, and the extra GTI bits don’t do enough to elevate the in-car experience.
Visibility is still excellent and there’s a decent amount of space in the boot, but when it comes to rear passenger room, it’s best to decline a third occupant for the middle seat as things can get genuinely cramped due to the Polo being quite a narrow car and the pronounced hump in the floor doesn’t help matters.
Behind The Wheel
“The Polo is planted, offering ample grip with no sharp surprises. But this solid handling also restricts fun, as the Polo would rather hold its line than dance around underneath you.” - EVO
With 141kW living under its bonnet from the substantially larger engine, getting the Polo GTI up to speed is almost a matter of impulse. Once there, though, the car performs effectively if not thrillingly, even managing a little naughty parp during upshifts using the dual-clutch transmission.
The upgrades to the suspension have quashed the body roll of the base car, and the electronic differential have given it tremendous in-corner grip, but it hasn’t really endowed it with the sort of driver involvement that cars like the Fiesta ST and Clio RS manage to cultivate.
It’s a more comfortable and refined hot hatch alternative, and one can cover ground at a very quick pace. Also, at the limit, some have complained that the electronic systems were too intrusive and cannot be fully switched off - reflective of the core differences between those cars and this one.
Safety and Technology
“…thanks to the updated inclusion of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, satellite navigation is now provided where there previously was none.” - CarAdvice
There are no changes to the original Polo that would alter ANCAP (or any other safety watchdog’s) safety rating, therefore it still stands as a 5-star rated car. Six airbags are standard, and so is stability control, however, the Autonomous Emergency Braking and adaptive cruise control features are missing and unexpectedly so at this price.
There’s the 6.5-inch touchscreen Composition Media infotainment system with support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, though an upgraded unit with in-built satellite navigation, proximity gesture controls, and 3D maps requires an upgrade to the ‘Driver Assistance Package’.
Without question, the most ‘grown-up’ of all the current smaller hot hatch contenders is the Polo GTI. It’s a very capable car with more than ample amounts of power that will still cosset its occupants in reasonable comfort and class-leading refinement.
What it lacks, though, is the kind of driving excitement and brash attitude that some of its rivals have. It could be better equipped as standard. The Polo GTI is quite a likeable car, though, and those looking for a more accessible entry point to Volkswagen’s GTI family shouldn’t have any qualms about choosing the hot Polo.
Autocar - 3.5/5 - “Considered from other angles, particularly in its five-door format, the appeal of the Polo's superb build quality, practicality and inviting interior all start to stack up, especially when it stays shy of £20k.”
Practical Motoring - 4/5 - “Forget the Golf GTI this is the real deal hot hatch from Volkswagen. It’s a similar-sized vehicle to the original Golf GTI and offers a big lump of an engine that makes this thing properly quick.”
CarAdvice - 8.5/10 - “…if you’re after a born-again 1976 Golf GTI, you might be out of luck. However, if you’ve got your sights set on an affordable day-to-day performer with sporting performance to boot, then we’d still highly recommend a drive of the latest Polo GTI.”
CarsGuide - 3.5/5 - “With five doors and a dual-clutch option, though, the GTI makes for a more practical compact hatch, and one that belies its low-key looks with a positively naughty streak.”
EVO - 4/5 - “It’s biggest failing is that its chassis is capable rather than captivating. What’s more, it never feels genuinely quick with a flat performance delivery. If VW could hand the Polo GTI over to the same engineers responsible for the Golf R then the baby GTI may finally be in a position to challenge the class leaders.”
AutoExpress - 3/5 - “Compared to its supermini hot hatch rivals, the VW Polo GTI feels like a sensible choice. There’s still impressive performance on offer and a five-door option boosts its practicality, but a high price counts against it in a sector where fun and affordability matter more.”