Volkswagen Polo GTI review – finally worthy of those three iconic letters?

VW's Polo GTI is polished and capable, but lacks the intensity of most rivals

Evo rating
from £21,660
  • Impressive mid-range grunt; competent daily driver
  • One-dimensional handling: adept but not exciting

The Volkswagen Polo GTI has always found itself in something of a predicament. Typically a grown up and mature supermini, the Polo has never quite been comfortable when transformed into its hot GTI variant, and struggled to find favour with enthusiasts as a result. While undoubtedly capable, Polo GTIs have always lacked a certain sparkle that often shines brightly in rivals like the Fiesta ST

Visually, the Polo is not off to a great start. The now five-door-only body is largely shared with the standard Polo save for a few details, itself a pretty conservative and underwhelming design. It does have specific front and rear bumper assemblies, with trademark GTI design cues like the honeycomb grille and red highlights, but even they struggle to lift the Polo GTI above indistinct.

> Click here for our review of the Ford Fiesta ST

Under the skin, however, Volkswagen has made more of an effort. The Polo GTI shares the Golf's MQB platform, albeit in simplified form, a brawny EA888 turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder engine and VW's virtual XDS front diff. This uplift in hardware is a good start, but how does the package come together?

Volkswagen Polo GTI: in detail

  • Performance and 0-60 time > Competitive on-paper figures and flat power and torque curves correlate to a muscular feeling on the road
  • Engine, gearbox and technical highlights > The trade-off being a hesitation to rev. DSG gearbox is typically polished, but there's still no manual option
  • Ride and handling > Entertaining enough at road speeds, but it’s too one-dimensional as the pace rises
  • MPG and running costs > Near-40mpg on paper although as with all performance cars this doesn’t correlate to real-world usage
  • Interior and tech > Solid, ergonomically sound and functional, GTI elements do brighten up the standard interior
  • Design > The exterior GTI addenda is less successful at portraying what’s under the skin. Looks more like a high-spec Polo than proper GTI

Prices, specs and rivals

As of the beginning of 2021, the Polo GTI has been taken off-sale, with what VW has confirmed a small break before being returned to sale later this year. Previously, the sixth generation Polo GTI was available in two models – basic GTI and GTI Plus. The Plus model didn't include any mechanical upgrades, rather added levels of equipment. As standard, all the usual GTI goodies applied, including tartan sports seats, 17-inch wheels, twin exhaust outlets and a subtle, but still obvious, rear wing.

Those Plus models added adaptive cruise control, LED headlights, Volkswagen’s digital dial pack and heated and folding mirrors. Both models were available with options like larger 18-inch wheels, sunroof and an upgraded infotainment system with embedded sat nav if you wished to further bolster the Polo’s standard equipment. Prices for the basic car started at just over £21,660, with the Plus model £1500 more expensive at £23,160.

> Click here for our review of the Toyota Yaris GRMN

The arrival of the new WLTP emissions regime combined with the ebb and flow of new models arriving and old ones departing the supermini hot hatch class is in a state of transition at the moment, with less choice than there used to be. Peugeot’s 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport has been a firm evo favourite for the last couple of years, offering a far more dynamic driving experience than most rivals, dominated by its rev-happy 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine and scalpel-like front end. But along with machines such as the DS 3 Performance it’s no longer offered which perhaps leave the new Ford Focus ST as the most entertaining car in the class.

Like the Polo GTI the Fiesta ST is available in two guises, ST-2 and ST-3, and has the advantage of being offered in both and three- and five-door bodystyles. Prices undercut the GTI, admittedly not by much, but in ST-3 guise it’s as well equipped as the Polo, too. What the Ford does offer though is a manual gearbox and a much more interactive driving experience with a chassis that will entertain in a way that's not possible with the Polo GTI. 

The typically polished Mini Cooper S is also a constant threat, offering a similar combination of a 2-litre turbocharged engine and dual-clutch gearbox in its facelifted guise. The Mini might initially look like a cheaper car too, but despite a lower price tag for the Cooper S Classic it’s considerably down on equipment when compared to the Polo. To match the equipment levels of the Polo, especially in Plus form, the cost discrepancy increases as its tempting options list is raided. Toyota’s brilliant GR Yaris is a more expensive, yet thanks to performance attributes that go way beyond the remit of what many might expect of something with a Yaris badge attached to the boot-lid is actually a bargain at just under £30k for the base. Hyundai's new i20 N is also hoping to bring some fire to a previously benign model line, but that won't arrive until mid-2021.

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