Volkswagen Polo GTI Review 2023

Lawrence Allan

Written by Lawrence Allan

7/10
heycar ratingComfy, mature hot hatch
  • 2018
  • Hot hatch
  • Petrol

Quick overview

Pros

  • Comfortable and refined for a car of this type
  • Strong engine performance
  • Smart styling and high-quality interior

Cons

  • Not particularly exciting to drive
  • No manual gearbox option
  • Looks expensive next to rivals

Overall verdict on the Volkswagen Polo GTI

"The Volkswagen Polo GTI has long lived in the shadow of its popular big brother, the Golf GTI. That remains the case today, as the smaller GTI offers a mature, sensible interpretation of what makes a good hot hatch - but lacks the fun factor you'd get from rivals. But this VW Polo GTI review shows there is still some appeal. "

The latest Volkswagen Polo GTI is the most powerful yet, with the biggest engine. It's certainly pretty potent-looking too. All the GTI trademarks are there, from the red pinstripe running through the front grille (and headlights), to the large 17-inch wheels, to the twin exhausts poking out of the rear bumper. GTI logos are abundant both outside and in, and drivers get to enjoy the trad-GTI tartan seat trim.


In 2021 Volkswagen facelifted the Polo GTI along with the rest of the Polo range, sharpening up the front and rear ends and introducing new cabin technology. The way the car drives is relatively unchanged, however. 


It still gets the same 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine as found in contemporary Golf GTI albeit detuned to 200PS (or 207PS from 2021-on). This gives the VW Polo GTI an immediate on-paper boost over the Ford Fiesta ST, which uses a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo engine. It's got lots of torque, too, although unlike key rivals including the Hyundai i20 N there's no manual gearbox option. 


That's likely to put many enthusiasts off in a stroke, although it's only part of the reason why the Volkswagen Polo GTI simply isn't as engaging or fun as the best hot hatchbacks. The car will hit 62mph in just 6.7 seconds - or 6.5 seconds with the more powerful facelift model - which is pretty rapid, but the frustrating reactions of the gearbox and an engine that doesn't relish being revved means you're going quickly but not really smiling. 


The same applies when you take the VW Polo GTI through a series of bends. It rides 15mm lower to the ground than the standard Polo, with beefed up suspension to suit, so it corners with composure and covers ground very quickly. But it isn't anything like as agile as a Hyundai i20 N or as playful as a Ford Fiesta ST, and it struggles to put all its power through the front wheels to haul you out of a corner.


So it isn't very good then? Hold on a minute. While it might not be the most thrilling small hot hatchback it's almost certainly the most comfortable and easy to drive. The ride is almost as comfortable as a regular Polo, high speed refinement is good, and the light steering combined with the automatic gearbox means stress-free drives even in gnarly traffic. 


The Polo GTI feels upmarket inside, too. There’s a lovely GTI-style stitched steering wheel and some bold red trim for the dashboard. The seats are supportive and comfortable, and it feels a cut above a regular Polo, while being a lot nicer to sit in than either the Fiesta ST or i20 N. Equipment levels are comprehensive as well, reflecting the car’s range-topping status.


As with the standard Volkswagen Polo, the GTI version comes only in five-door form. Traditionalists may insist on a three-door hot hatch, but the Polo is a practical small car with space for adults in the rear seats and a good sized boot. 


You can think of the VW Polo GTI as being like a Golf GTI that's shrunk in the wash. The grown-up approach means there's plenty of appeal still to be had, but ultimately we think people who want a small hot hatchback want it to entertain as much as they want it to take care of the everyday. Still, if you want a fast, stylish small car that's nearly practical enough to be your sole family car, the Polo GTI is a good choice. 


Looking for a used car for sale? We've got 100s of Volkswagen Approved Used Cars for Sale for you to choose from, including a wide range of VW Polo GTI models for sale.

The Ford Fiesta ST is constantly up and at ’em. It’s like taking an excited puppy for a walk. With the Polo GTI, that dog has grown up quite a lot. It doesn't thrill or excite as much, but it'll settle down and relax much more easily. 


For some, this will be a matter of preference. What’s harder to ignore is that Volkswagen charges rather more for the Polo GTI when new, something that’s subsequently reflected in second-hand prices. If you’re wavering, the fact you can get a Ford Fiesta ST for less might be the clincher.


Those who are seeking a genuinely usable junior hot hatch will find lots to like here, though. The Polo GTI has a broad array of talents away from simply being exciting on a B-road, and should prove a very satisfying car to live with - if not ultimately that fun. 


All Polo GTIs have the same engine, that Golf GTI-derived 2.0-litre petrol. Volkswagen also doesn't offer a manual gearbox option, either - it's dual-clutch only. That means it's easy to drive but ultimately not very rewarding. 


You can't even choose between three and five doors any more. But that's par for the course these days: the Fiesta ST was the last bastion of the three-door hot hatch and even that is now five door-only following a facelift. 

We’re sure Volkswagen's development engineers are sick of hearing about the Ford Fiesta ST. And so they should be, given how perfect it is. Renault is yet to launch a performance version of the new Clio: similarly, we’re still waiting on a new Peugeot 208 GTI. Surprisingly, there’s also no Cupra Ibiza with the same engine as this. 


Another key hot hatch challenger is the Hyundai i20 N. It's a bit more serious than the Fiesta ST but very nearly as fun (and more fun than the Polo) while also being pretty practical and well-equipped. It can't match the Polo for comfort or cabin quality, however. 


You can never overlook the good old MINI Cooper S, either. Given the prices that Volkswagen charges, it’s a compelling contender, with a similarly wonderful 2.0-litre turbo engine. Got a bit more money? The Toyota GR Yaris is a superb, four-wheel drive, rally-bred hot hatch.


Comfort and design: Volkswagen Polo GTI interior

"Volkswagens have staid interiors, right? Check out the Polo GTI's bright red dashboard as standard. If you're not a fan you can spec a moody grey trim instead, but we like a splash of colour in a cabin."

Like any good Volkswagen GTI, the hot Polo features a black rooflining, plus the classic tartan seats (it’s officially called ‘Jacara’ and is so legendary, Volkswagen even sells socks and scarves in its gift shops boasting the same design). There’s a red-stitched leather sports steering wheel complete with a GTI logo and, on upper-grade GTI+ trim (a more premium version of the regular GTI), a digital driver display that is fully configurable.


The seats are very comfortable. They’re supportive without being over-firm, holding you in all the right places and giving off plenty of GTI vibes, although they aren't as figure-hugging as the best hot hatch seats. The driving position is well-judged, too: you’d expect nothing less of a Polo, and the Volkswagen doesn’t disappoint.


Climate control is standard, with separate temperature adjustment for the driver and passenger. The Polo GTI has ultra-bright LED interior lighting, nice soft ambient lighting to bathe the dashboard in a nice glow at night, and even luxury car touches such as chrome-plated air vent surrounds and chrome finishers for the electric window buttons and (electric) door mirror adjuster.


In 2022 Volkswagen updated the interior of the Polo GTI, improving the infotainment screen, bringing in digital dials as standard and introducing touch sensitive controls for the climate functions and steering wheel buttons. The latter isn't all that welcome because they make the control interface more fiddly (particularly on the move) but it's still a fairly intuitive place to sit. 


The money-no-object sense of quality you used to get in a Volkswagen may be no more, but the Polo is still a solid-feeling car that’s just a bit more premium than some of its rivals. With, that is, a few exceptions. The door panels, for example, are just a bit too hard and scratchy for our liking, and some of the hard plastics on the dashboard itself are more downmarket than they really ought to be.


Fundamentally, though, it has a solid and robust finish that beats out its two closest rivals from Hyundai and Ford by quite some margin. The details within the dashboard are lovely, from the electric window switches to the neat click of the climate control panel and steering wheel buttons. Occupants get out with a tug of a metal-effect door handle, rather than a cheap plastic one. And the soft finish of the red dashboard trim is lovely.


The seats could pass for those in a £30,000 Golf GTI, as could the steering wheel itself. It’s a beautiful thing both to hold and look at. And if you go for the GTI+ (or a facelifted model), the active instruments have the same clarity and quality appearance of an upmarket Audi at twice the price.


As standard, the earlier VW Polo GTI came with Volkswagen’s Composition Media system. This uses an 8-inch  touchscreen mounted high up on the dashboard, set behind a glassy-look black-panel display to successfully mimic the look of a high-end smartphone. It pairs with them via the USB socket, boasting both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity as standard.


As an option, owners could pick the goodie-packed Discover Navigation system. This has loads of extras, from branded points of interest on the navigation mapping, to pre-loaded European mapping to make those trips to the Nurburgring a bit easier. A DAB radio, single CD player, USB connection and Bluetooth are all standard, and owners can even control it remotely via the Volkswagen Media Control app. Rather less useful is the ‘Think blue trainer’, which serves up eco driving tips.


Owners got a three-year subscription to the Volkswagen Car-Net system, which gives online access to information such as traffic, fuel prices, weather and news feeds. The Polo GTI+ has the 10.3-inch Active Info Display in front of the driver, too.


In 2022 the Volkswagen Polo GTI's interior was updated at the same time as the exterior. The trim and general quality is similar, although all versions get the more feature-packing infotainment system as standard now with touch sensitive shortcut buttons down the side. You also get a 10.25-inch digital dial display that's pretty customisable, while there's also a punchy Beats audio upgrade available if the standard six speaker setup doesn't deliver the goods. 


The VW Polo GTI has certainly grown up. It’s to the Mk4 Golf GTI from the early 2000s in terms of exterior size...


The Volkswagen Polo GTI's dimensions make it 4074mm long, 1751mm wide and 1431mm tall. This size is put to use on the inside where there's almost as much space as their was in an old Golf, too. 


There’s a nice, spacious-feeling driving position that doesn’t immediately smack you as being small-car compact. The seats are very adjustable (including for height and lumbar support) and the steering wheel has a good breadth of four-way movement.


While enthusiasts lust after three door hot hatchbacks, they obviously haven't spent much time clambering over bolstered sports seats to get into the rear. Happily the Polo GTI is five door-only this time around.


Rear space is good for the class, with better than average knee room and decent space for feet to slide beneath the front seats. The Polo GTI+ also has dark-tinted rear glass for an upmarket look (and a bit of celebrity-style kudos for those in the rear).


The VW Polo GTI's boot capacity of 305 litres is a little smaller than that of the regular Polo, but is still a good size and bigger than the Fiesta ST's. That increases to 1079 litres with the seats folded. You do get a space-saver spare wheel, which is a convenient extra, and preferable to a tyre repair kit.


All Polo GTIs have Isofix child seat preparation for two outer rear child seats, a trio of three-point rear seatbelts, and three rear head restraints. There are neat practicality touches as well. The front fog lights have a cornering function, lighting up the corner you’re turning into, and on the GTI+, when you select reverse gear, the passenger side electric door mirror automatically whirrs downwards so you can see the kerb.


Handling and ride quality: What is the Volkswagen Polo GTI like to drive?

"Volkswagen says the Polo GTI is not designed not to be the most extreme small hot hatch out there, but the one offering the best balance of ride and handling. The way it drives bears this out. It'll cling on in the bends and deliver eyebrow-raising performance, but you certainly won't be laughing out loud in a manner you might in small hot hatch rivals."

All Volkswagen Polo GTIs come as standard with Sport Selective adaptive damping. This switchable suspension can be run in Normal mode or a stiffer, more hunkered-down Sport setting. It gives the car a feeling of real sophistication, the sort you normally find in a larger car such as a Golf GTI. And in Sport, it approaches the sort of jiggly vibrancy you feel in a Ford Fiesta ST. The Polo GTI also has 15mm lower suspension than normal models, so rolls a lot less around corners.


Ultimately, it doesn't offer the sense of fun or involvement that a Fiesta ST will deliver on a twisty road. It'll go into the corner quickly, pull itself out strongly enough and won't roll about much, but the best hot hatchbacks will make you grin while doing so. The Polo just feels a bit too straight-laced, too mature. 


The steering is a little too light and lacks feedback, while although the Polo GTI employs an electronic differential (called XDS+) to limit power spinning away on corner exit, it'll still struggle to put all 207PS down onto the tarmac. 


However, the Polo feels more grown-up and better able to soothe over long distances, particularly when set in its default Normal mode. The ride is firmer than a normal Polo on big wheels, but not by much, meaning you won't be battered about on lumpy British tarmac. This fully justifies Volkswagen’s claim that it might not the most thrilling, but it may be the most useable small hot hatch overall.   


The 2.0 TSI four-cylinder engine in the Polo GTI, taken from the Golf GTI and Golf R but detuned, is the largest engine you'll find in a hot hatch this size. It gives the compact Volkswagen a really powerful and long-striding feel, with effortless performance always on tap.


Performance is ample: 200PS gives 0-62mph in 6.7 seconds, and that decreases to 6.5 seconds with the facelifted 2022 model's 207PS output. The quick shifts of the standard DSG dual-clutch automatic mean pretty much anyone can extract that sort of time from it, too, although the Polo GTI's biggest limitation is traction as it struggles to deploy all of its power in the lower gears. 


Oddly, the same applies to the 2022 facelifted model, which now has a seven-speed automatic gearbox rather than six. It's clear that VW engineering the gearbox to benefit economy and emissions over outright driver enjoyment.


The engine itself feels muscular with plenty of punch in the mid-range, but it doesn't zip to the red-line like engines in the best hot hatchbacks do. It again gives off a feeling of maturity, but you do find yourself changing up early and not enjoying it to the max. Blame the oddly long gearing - whatever it is, it lacks the zing and charm of the engines in the Ford or Hyundai. 


Gear changes are swift, in that familiar DSG auto way, although they could be snappier still on the downshifts (particularly as it has standard paddle shifters on that sporty steering wheel). Volkswagen would argue this wouldn’t suit the slightly more relaxed demeanour of the Polo GTI, but we would like it to be just a touch sharper - for example, when pulling away from a junction the GTI will take a while to choose the right gear, and if you're in a hurry and as for more power it'll suddenly change down and snap you forward with a lack of dignity. 


As for the brakes, they’re excellent, with the big front and rear discs giving strong retardation (again, though, the pedal itself could be just a bit meatier).


Refinement, by hot hatch standards, is outstanding. The engine is a gem, and settles down into the background at speed with just a mild (and welcome) hum. It never, ever becomes harsh or thrashy when worked hard, with the noise both it and the exhausts make proving mostly pleasant. We’ve mentioned a little bit more attitude might be nice, but pops and bangs don't make for a 'mature' hot hatchback. 


Tyre noise can be a little intrusive at speed – blame the wide rubber – but wind noise is kept at bay successfully. The suspension’s sophistication also isolates harshness and crashy bump-thump from the road surface – it feels like a more premium, grown-up car in this regard.


A branded Beats Audio sound system is optional, with a 300-watt, eight-channel amplifier, subwoofer in the boot and a digital sound processor. As it costs less than £500, and really makes best use of the Polo’s fine refinement, we reckon it’s an option worth choosing.

 


In 2017, the regular Polo scored a top-ranking five-star Euro NCAP crash safety score. It was rated a particularly impressive 96% for adult occupant protection, plus 85% for child protection. Pedestrian protection scored 76%, although active safety assist was a bit more average on 59%.


Six airbags are standard, all five seats have seatbelt reminders and there is an airbag cut-off switch for the front passenger seat (although Isofix is only on the rear seats). As an option, the PreSafe occupant protection system is available. This pretensions the front seatbelts, closes the electric windows and primes the brakes if it detects a critical driving situation. For just £140, it’s a box well worth ticking.


The Polo GTI+ has an Adaptive Cruise Control system that includes Front Assist, radar distance-monitoring cruise control, a speed limiter and a city emergency braking system that auto-stops if it detects pedestrians or other cars in the way. Much of the aforementioned kit is now standard on the 2022 facelifted Polo GTI. 


MPG and fuel costs: What does a Volkswagen Polo GTI cost to run?

"The big engine under the bonnet means the Polo GTI isn't as fuel efficient as some rivals, but it's still pretty frugal given the performance on offer. "

Because of the fact it has a large 2.0-litre engine up front, fuel economy is pretty so-so. The Polo GTI is not as fuel-efficient as a Ford Fiesta ST on paper – that has a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine with cylinder deactivation tech – but from 38.7mpg to 39.8mpg is a decent return for such a muscular motor.


Impressively, despite increasing the power output slightly Volkswagen has managed to up the fuel economy of the Polo GTI with the facelift, too. You can thank the extra ratio of the dual-clutch gearbox for that. Officially it'll do 41.5mpg, which is impressive given it's around 10mpg less than a 1.0-litre Polo. 

Volkswagen scraped into our top 10 brands in the latest HonestJohn.co.uk Satisfaction Index. Owners find the cars dependable and well-made, with over 88% of owners saying they're satisfied overall. 


Like the standard VW Polo, the Polo GTI has been around for about half a decade now with no major issues reported. The engine is a well-proven one and runs in a much lower state of tune here than in, say, a 320PS Golf R. Having said that, a dual-clutch automatic gearbox brings more potential for big bills than a manual one. 

Insurance groups represent a big hike over a regular Polo. The most basic Polo S actually comes in at group one, with a 1.0 TSI SE starting from group eight. The GTI? Straight in at group 26, which is more than double the next-highest Polo. 


And the GTI+ is even pricier, with its extra features and more eye-catching styling pushing it into group 28. Don’t expect to pay anything like the low costs of a regular Polo for the GTI.


The Polo GTI emits a rather high 159g/km of CO2 in standard form, and 160g/km as the GTI+ (due to the weight of its extra equipment). It reduced slightly in 2022 to 155g/km, but that hasn't changed the tax band. This means first-year VED car tax is expensive: a whopping £585. 


That figure reflects the bigger engine in the Polo GTI; the 1.5-litre engine in the Fiesta ST emits just 136g/km, enough for an first year road tax price of just £230. At least it won’t be liable for the ‘expensive car’ premium in subsequent years, so will cost a flat-rate £165. 


How much should you be paying for a used Volkswagen Polo GTI?

"Polo GTI prices start from around £15,500 for 2018 models, and most will still be part of Volkswagen's approved used scheme."

The VW Polo GTI holds its value pretty well, much like the standard hatchback on which it's based. A 2018 model with 60,000 miles on the clock will cost a little over £15,000, but you'll need another £1500 for a GTI+ model. 


£20,000 gets you a 2019 model with 20,000 miles on the clock, and you'll struggle to find a facelifted one on the used market just yet. The days of bargain pre-registered or ex-demonstrator models haven't returned after the pandemic just yet, either. 


The Volkswagen Polo GTI serves up a premium level of standard equipment to reflect its range-topping status. Dual-zone climate control, front fog lights, front and rear parking sensors, 17-inch alloy wheels with 215/45  tyres and the Sports Select adaptive suspension are all standard. There’s even a driving profile switch, allowing owners to switch between Eco, Normal, Sport or configurable Individual modes.


The Volkswagen Polo GTI+ adds even more features. It gets LED headlights, tinted rear glass, rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights, keyless entry and start, adaptive cruise control and the Active Info Display (digital dials) screen.


For 2022, the Volkswagen Polo GTI comes as standard with adaptive cruise control with Travel Assist, the digital dial display, adaptive dampers, parking sensors front and rear, dual-zone climate control and LED matrix headlamps. 


Ask the heycar experts: common questions

That depends on what you're looking for from a small hot hatch. If you want one for sheer entertainment and want to have lots of fun on twisting roads, then there are better options. The Polo GTI manages to give you performance and some driver appeal combined with comfort, refinement and a classy cabin, however.
If you're buying a Polo GTI new you'll need at least £27,805 in 2022. However, if you shop around for a used version of the latest generation model you'll find them from as little as £15,500 on heycar.
The GTI badge stands for Grand Touring Injection. It denotes the most driver-focused version of each car Volkswagen makes. All you need to know is that, for the Polo, it means a lot more power, firmer suspension and sporty styling upgrades.

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