Competent, but there’s more fun to be had for less money elsewhere

What is it?

This GTI version of the new Polo is the latest in a line of fast Polos that began with the 1991 G40; though none of which to date has quite hit the mark in the same way that most Golf GTIs have.

It arrives a short time after the Seat Ibiza Cupra, and at the same time as the Skoda Fabia vRS, poignant not just because all three are based on the same platform, but because all three also use precisely the same powertrain - a 1.4-litre turbocharged and supercharged TSI petrol engine, mated to a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox as standard. There’s no manual option on any of them.

Compared to the Skoda and Seat, the Volkswagen demands a premium price: as I write it’s the wrong side of £18,000. In fact, it’s not just more expensive than its VW-group siblings, it’s also more expensive than the standout car in this class – the Renaultsport Clio 200.

What’s it like?

We’re fans generally of the Polo at Autocar. It’s a refined and well-sorted car with a fine interior.

So if there is a supermini that can justify an £18,000 plus price tag, the Polo may be it – certainly, the GTI feels very well appointed and equipment levels are strong. As I write I haven’t driven the latest Fabia vRS but, certainly, the Polo is a class above the Ibiza Cupra inside.

But a hot hatchback should be about more than just a decent interior and the refinement that, in fairness, is continued from cooking Polos into this GTI model. It rides acceptably on 45-profile, 17-inch rubber despite a 15mm drop in ride height over the standard car, and sound levels are well suppressed.

If the Renaultsport Clio and Ford Fiesta Zetec S have taught us anything though, it’s that refinement and an interesting cabin are not necessarily anethemas to delivering an enthralling drive.

And it’s here that the Polo fails to quite hit the spot. With 178bhp and weighing 1184kg it’s certainly quick enough – 0-62mph is claimed to take 6.9sec and it just about feels like it – but there isn’t enough interaction or engagement to really trouble the best cars in this class.

There’s enough ground-covering pace – grip levels are par for the course and traction is very good thanks to an electronic differential lock. The steering, though, for all its accuracy, delivers little back to the driver and there’s little adjustability in the chassis.

The Polo will only ever partly allow disengagement of its stability control and even on the road it’s easy to trouble it. The GTI rolls a bit, grips, reaches its limit, the tyres squeal so you know about it, the body is a bit unsettled, an ESP light flashes, then you just sit it out until the corner ends and you head off again. Competent, but very sterile.

Should I buy one?

See the VW Polo GTI test drive pictures

On pure driving grounds, we’d say not, when there’s more fun to be had for less money elsewhere.

But there are people – you and I might not be them – for whom driving dynamics do not define a hot hatchback; for whom a pleasing interior and mini-Golf looks are more important; and who will never drive at more than four- or five-tenths, if that.

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In which case, the Polo GTI isn’t a shabby choice. It’s not a bad car. Far from it. I just think it’d be more appropriate if the ‘I’ was knocked off the end of its name tag.

See all the latest VW Polo reviews, news and video

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Join the debate

Add a comment…
turbinecol 30 January 2014

in retrospect

Interesting to read this review some 3 years on. This Polo GTi certainly hasn't been embraced by 'petrolheads' as suggested by some posters - it's been a real also-ran in the market next to the ClioRS, Pug 208GTi and of course the refreshed Fiesta with the ST which proves that you can have a lot more fun without being stupid at the wheel.
Be interesting to see what the refresh Polo GTi comes up with - whether the manual box will add some involvement.
289 13 March 2012

Re: Volkswagen Polo GTI

Lanehogger wrote:
Without wanting to nit pick isn't the current Fabia, for whatever reason, based on the same PQ24 platform as the previous Fabia, Polo and Ibiza instead of the all-new PQ25 platform

No, the Fabia always gets the new platform before the Polo...PQ25

vRS FAB. 13 March 2012

Re: Volkswagen Polo GTI

ThatOne wrote:
I have the Skoda Fabia vRS, and in the most boring possible finish. On top of that I'm an oldie. So there I am at the lights, and some young guy pulls up alongside in some fancy car he doesn't know how to drive. The light goes green and the guy is left way behind, wondering how he got stuffed by some old grandad in a retiree-mobile. Now imagine a lightly used country road, with me and my "old man's car" catching up with another wannabe pilot in, say, a BMW, a car you really have to learn to drive at its best. He sees me in his rear-view and I wave cheerily, and off we go. If he's driving faster than is safe and legal I don't play: there's enough other opportunities around to keep me happy. But if it is a good opportunity I can hold my place a few car-lengths behind, whatever the beemer-boy can do. Now that requires a car that will not be at 100% of its potential. Driving a car on the public road at 100% of its potential is lunacy. There are three courses of action for avoiding a sudden hazard: slow down, speed up, steer. If you are at 100% you will be able to slow down, you might be able to steer, but you won't be able to accelerate. Roughly speaking driving at 100% of a car's ability deprives the driver of 50% of its potential hazard avoidance actions. I like the semi-auto box! More top competition cars have something basically similar than a classic manual box, unless you count all USA motor-sport as top competition. What is true about a semi-auto box is that you really have to learn it to get the best out of it. Once you've forgotten all your under-informed fixed ideas, and got used to obtaining all that is on offer, you will enjoy it immensely. Road-testers who cannot get the best out of a VAG dsg box are not up to the requirements of their job; VAG dsg technology is not exactly new enough for them to not be able to get into it. All in all the Fabia vRS needs you to get to know it; once you do the car will always reward you with a slick, efficient driving experience, and sometimes serve you a little innocent sport as a bonus. And always with enough percentage of its potential to keep you and other road users safe and avoid "thrashing the mechanicals". I'm sure the Seat Ibiza Cupra and the Polo GTI give similar pleasure. I turned down the Ibiza because it's too "obvious" to fool anybody and the cabin is nowhere near as well assembled as the Fabia's or the Polo's. The Polo is just too expensive; it has an aesthetic advantage, but it doesn't justify its extra cost compared to the dull but equally well put together Fabia. Anyway my number one pleasure in a car is the driving experience, and I can't see the outside of a car I am driving... unless I suddenly become a pretty young man cruising past shop windows to admire myself in my Audi TT 180 bhp, or Peugeot RCZ, or some other automobile triumph of surface over substance.

What is oil consumption like?