Volkswagen Polo GTI review

Category: Hot hatch

The Polo GTI is a good all-rounder but rival hot hatches will put a bigger smile on your face

Red VW Polo GTI front right driving
  • Red VW Polo GTI front right driving
  • Red VW Polo GTI rear cornering
  • VW Polo GTI interior dashboard
  • Red VW Polo GTI boot open
  • VW Polo GTI interior driver display
  • Red VW Polo GTI front cornering
  • Red VW Polo GTI front left driving
  • Red VW Polo GTI rear right driving
  • Red VW Polo GTI front left static
  • Red VW Polo GTI rear right static
  • Red VW Polo GTI alloy wheel detail
  • Red VW Polo GTI badge detail
  • Red VW Polo GTI rear badge detail
  • Red VW Polo GTI interior front seats
  • Red VW Polo GTI interior back seats
  • VW Polo GTI steering wheel detail
  • VW Polo GTI infotainment touchscreen
  • VW Polo GTI interior detail
  • Red VW Polo GTI front right driving
  • Red VW Polo GTI rear cornering
  • VW Polo GTI interior dashboard
  • Red VW Polo GTI boot open
  • VW Polo GTI interior driver display
  • Red VW Polo GTI front cornering
  • Red VW Polo GTI front left driving
  • Red VW Polo GTI rear right driving
  • Red VW Polo GTI front left static
  • Red VW Polo GTI rear right static
  • Red VW Polo GTI alloy wheel detail
  • Red VW Polo GTI badge detail
  • Red VW Polo GTI rear badge detail
  • Red VW Polo GTI interior front seats
  • Red VW Polo GTI interior back seats
  • VW Polo GTI steering wheel detail
  • VW Polo GTI infotainment touchscreen
  • VW Polo GTI interior detail
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Introduction

What Car? says...

The Volkswagen Polo GTI has always lacked the cachet of its bigger, thrustier Golf GTI sibling, so you might not have noticed that VW's small car has been available as a hot hatch for a couple of decades.

Perhaps in an attempt to fix that, Volkswagen has made this current Polo GTI the most overtly sporty yet. That means you get lots of bespoke decor, including a red strip across its nose, a subtle but athletic bodykit and eye-catching tartan seats.

If the car’s character can follow suit and offer Golf GTI performance and usability in a smaller, more affordable package, the Polo GTI could potentially corner the cheaper end of the hot hatch market. Indeed, with the excellent Ford Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20 N going off sale, it only really competes with the Abarth 695 and Cupra Leon

So, does the VW Polo GTI have what it takes to take on the best hot hatch rivals? Read on to find out...

Overview

As a hot hatch, the VW Polo GTI provides fewer thrills than more focused and capable rivals. Still, it remains a fine all-rounder, offering fun driving characteristics, a pleasant interior and a comfortable ride for the class.

  • Very comfortable by hot hatch standards
  • Great driving position
  • Better infotainment system than some rivals
  • Doesn’t drive like a proper hot hatch
  • Touch-sensitive controls can be awkward to use
  • Hesitant DSG automatic gearbox
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Performance & drive

What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is

When you turn the ignition key, the VW Polo GTI’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine bursts into life before settling into an idle that sounds fairly subdued compared with rivals with fruitier motors. Even so, it bites harder than it barks, delivering a total of 204bhp to the front wheels – a decent amount more than the 178bhp Abarth 695 Competizione.

Just like that rival, you can only have the Polo GTI with a seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox. That tends to blunt initial acceleration when you bury your foot and the car’s electronics decide which is the best gear to be in.

Despite that slight delay from the gearbox, the GTI can officially catapult itself from 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds, which is around the same as the 695 Competizione. The Polo does feel every bit as fast as that number suggests though.

To add to the experience, some artificial noise is piped in through the stereo speakers, but it still doesn’t quite have the same level of drama as the 695’s exhaust, which pops and bangs away. 

Of course, a key characteristic of the best hot hatches is that they’re fun to drive on twisty roads. To help the Polo GTI in this area, Volkswagen has fitted it with Sport Select suspension as standard. That lowers the ride height by 15mm (compared with a regular VW Polo) and lets you firm up the adaptive dampers by pushing a button.

In Sport mode, the car retains a reasonably comfortable ride but becomes more composed through corners and hugs the road better, especially over dips and crests. It’s a fun thing to hustle down a country road, offering decent levels of grip and reassuring brakes that don’t cause the car to squirrel during hard braking.

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An electronically-controlled limited-slip differential helps to maximise traction when exiting corners, but the GTI’s comparatively relaxed set-up means it’s never quite as enjoyable as more aggressive hot hatches – the Ford Focus ST for the example. Ultimately, there’s more body lean through corners and it feels less playful at its limit. 

On top of that, while the Polo GTI’s lighter steering feels more effortless than the Focus ST’s, it's not as sharp or precise. That means you’ll still be able to place the GTI where you want it with relative accuracy, but it never seems quite as nimble on its toes.

So, rather than being designed for thrills alone, it comes across as more of a compromise, with a bias towards everyday usability. In Normal or Eco mode, that becomes even more apparent, with the adaptive dampers, throttle response and gearbox all settling into their softest modes, and making the ride noticeably more comfortable and docile than in rivals.

In fact, on the standard 17in wheels, the ride is hardly any harsher than in the standard Polo, and there’s less road or wind noise at higher speeds compared with rivals. When it comes to the non-GTI car, we quite like those characteristics, but we'd prefer the hot hatch to lean towards thrills rather than comfort. The optional 18in wheels firm up the ride slightly and increase road noise.

Driving overview 

Strengths Comfortable ride by hot hatch standards; quick in a straight line

Weaknesses Not as fun to drive as rivals; doesn’t really drive like a hot hatch

Red VW Polo GTI rear cornering

Interior

The interior layout, fit and finish

The Polo GTI – just like the regular VW Polo – treats you to a brilliant driving position. In fact, the figure-hugging tartan sports seats make the GTI even more comfortable than the non-GTI version.

There’s plenty of seat and steering-wheel adjustment, so you won’t struggle to get comfortable, while standard-fit adjustable lumbar support helps on long journeys.

You sit lower than you do in the standard Polo but your visibility is still excellent compared with in many hot hatches. Rear visibility is bolstered by standard-fit front and rear parking sensors, and a rear-view camera is available as a paid-for option.

Powerful matrix LED headlights come as standard and give you great visibility when driving at night. They allow you to keep the full beam on at all times without dazzling other road users.

The logical dashboard layout makes it easy to find all the controls you’ll use often – it’s just a shame most of them are touch-sensitive buttons and sliders instead of physical controls. What’s more, the flat haptic buttons on the Polo’s steering wheel are also awkward to use, usually resulting in the driver pressing on the wrong function.

The Polo GTI's general interior quality isn’t quite as appealing as the Cupra Leon’s, but is a step above what you’ll find in the more expensive Ford Focus ST and is far better than the interior of the Abarth 695.

You see, unlike in the 695, the GTI's dashboard is built mostly from pleasant soft plastics, with less desirable scratchy plastic kept quite well hidden. You get a bright red slab of plastic across the middle of the dashboard – some will find that attractive, while others might find it a bit garish.

You get an 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system as standard, with DAB radio, Bluetooth, built-in sat nav, and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring. The system has high-quality graphics and responds quickly enough to your prods, so we wouldn’t bother paying to upgrade to the more expensive 9.2in Discover Pro system. 

Our only slight demerit would be that, despite having a few touch-sensitive shortcut buttons around the screen, the system is mainly operated using the touchscreen. That makes it more distracting to use while you’re driving – but that’s a problem you’ll also encounter in the 695 and the Cupra Leon.

Interior overview 

Strengths Great driving position; better all-round visibility than in rivals; impressive interior quality

Weaknesses Fiddly touch-sensitive buttons

VW Polo GTI interior dashboard

Passenger & boot space

How it copes with people and clutter

The VW Polo GTI puts on a good show when it comes to front space, giving even a pair of six-footers plenty of head and leg room. Indeed, it's far easier to comfortable in than the fairly small Abarth 695

It’s a similar story for those sitting in the back, with the Polo GTI offering more knee room and more head room than the 695. It also has a wider rear bench that can seat three people, as opposed to the two seats that you’ll find in the back of the 695. 

Boot space is also another tick in the Polo’s favour, with its 305 litres absolutely trouncing the 695’s 185 litres and not falling too short of the Cupra Leon’s 380 litres. We managed to fit four carry-on suitcases in the boot of a Polo GTI, meaning you shouldn’t struggle to fit a decent sized weekly shop back there.

It misses out on the adjustable boot floor you’ll find in the standard VW Polo but gets 60/40 split-folding rear seats as standard. Even so, with the seats folded down, you get a generous extended loading space with no awkward step up on the seatbacks.

Practicality overview 

Strengths Lots of front space; generous space in the rear

Weaknesses No adjustable boot floor

Red VW Polo GTI boot open

Buying & owning

Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is

When you look at the cash prices of many hot hatches – including the Audi RS3, Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Type R and Mercedes-AMG A45 S – the VW Polo GTI looks like a real bargain. In fact, it undercuts every other hot hatchback except the Abarth 695. Even then, taking a look at our VW Polo deals might help you beat that car’s list price. 

You get plenty of standard equipment, including 17in alloy wheels, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, electronically folding and heated side mirrors, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, two-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control, a 10.25in digital driver display, parking sensors and an 8.0in infotainment system. You’ll need to pay extra for heated seats and keyless entry.

Euro NCAP awarded the Polo GTI the full five stars and a high score for protecting adult occupants in the front. Safety equipment includes automatic emergency braking (AEB), lane-keeping assist, road-sign recognition and a driver alert system that can detect signs that you're getting tired.

When it comes to reliability, Volkswagen didn’t fare that well in the 2023 What Car? Reliability Survey, claiming 22nd place out of the 32 brands featured. That’s above Cupra, which sat at the bottom of the pile, but below all the other main rivals. 

VW’s three-year/60,000-mile warranty should give you some peace of mind and you have the option of extending it if you don’t mind paying a little more. 

Costs overview 

Strengths One of the most affordable hot hatches; plenty of standard kit; good safety rating

Weaknesses So-so reliability record


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VW Polo GTI interior driver display

FAQs

  • It's not as quick as some hot hatches but it still feels plenty fast enough and has an official 0-62mph sprint time of 6.5 seconds.

  • The Polo GTI’s 2.0 TSI 207PS engine gives you a total of 204bhp – plenty more than you’ll get from even the top-spec Abarth 695 Competizione.

  • Yes, it has the same engine as the outgoing eighth-generation VW Golf GTI but it's been detuned so it has less power.

At a glance
New car deals
Save up to £1,380
Target Price from £28,815
Save up to £1,380
or from £326pm
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From £16,784
RRP price range £30,195 - £30,195
Number of trims (see all)1
Number of engines (see all)1
Available fuel types (which is best for you?)petrol
MPG range across all versions 43.5 - 43.5
Available doors options 5
Warranty 3 years / 60000 miles
Company car tax at 20% (min/max) £1,159 / £1,971
Company car tax at 40% (min/max) £2,318 / £3,943
Available colours