Which Volkswagen GTI is the best GTI?
If you’re looking for practical performance, Volkswagen’s iconic GTI models have long been the easy answer. Everyday hatchbacks with great build quality and decades of go-faster engineering have made for some highly appealing cars over the years.
The German car manufacturer is well aware of the nameplate’s popularity and is hoping to take advantage of car buyers’ more upmarket buying habits by expanding its GTI range – you can now get an Up!, Polo and Golf in full-fat GTI trim.
But with three tempting GTIs available, which should you buy? Does more expensive instantly equal better? Is there a secret sweet spot in the range? We tried all three, back-to-back, to find out for ourselves.
This is the most intriguing of the three, and the one that’s recently been highly lauded in the press for being more than the sum of its parts.
First impressions are good – this thing looks brilliant. The Up! city car is already a looker, but with GTI parts its aggressive cuteness is akin to a cuddly toy that's necked a few pints of Stella.
Once we hit the tight, un-sighted country lanes of our test route, it continues to impress. For what feels like quite a tall car, the centre of gravity feels low, so you don’t get the sense the car will topple over if you over-commit to a corner, which is always nice.
With just 115bhp the engine is never going to set your pants on fire, but with little over a tonne to lug about it’s more than up to the job. Once up to speed you never notice it holding you back, while the soundtrack is a distant rumble, like an angry bear snarling at you through thick glass.
Negatives? Just a couple. As a long-legged guy, the lack of reach adjustment on the steering wheel compromises the driving position, and you do sit a touch high. It also has a tendency to bounce about at higher speeds, likely due to stiffer suspension with shorter springs.
Verdict: The Up! GTI is utterly brilliant and is fully deserving of all the praise thrown its way. It’s not perfect and isn’t hugely practical, but for less than £14,000 it’s hard to think of anything that offers more performance value.
As the middle of the three, the Polo could find itself as the sweet spot of the GTI range… or a little bit pointless. Fortunately, it has its own surprising character that makes it stand on its own merits.
The Polo wears its GTI-ness more subtly than the Up!, looking more like a high-spec trim than a proper performance model, while the interior feels like a decent step up from its city car sibling. Its dimensions are also spot on – of the three, it’s the one that feels most at home out on the road, perfectly sized for threading your way across the countryside.
The real surprise is the engine. VW is best-known for offering super-refined cars, so even the GTI models tend not to be too shouty about their potency. Not the Polo – there are no engineered farts and burps from the exhaust, but the engine note itself makes a surprisingly loud and unrefined growl as it gobbles up RPMs.
It’s not a negative, though. This is what gives the Polo its character; it’s the least subdued of the three, and coupled with the super-stiff suspension it would also be slightly tougher to live with day to day. It’s the one that leans most towards fun over refinement.
Verdict: If you’re happy to compromise a little comfort on the commute for a bit of old school pep from the engine, the Polo GTI is a great shout. The fact it feels the perfect size on the road just adds to the enjoyment.
Here’s the big daddy of the GTI world. The one that started it all. It’s been around so long, there’s little to say about the Golf GTI that hasn’t been said already – we know it’s brilliant.
But how does it sit in comparison to the rest of the family? You won’t be surprised to hear that it feels the most grown up inside, with more space than the others and higher quality materials throughout.
However, this grown up nature extends to its driving characteristics, too. It’s totally planted and the engine is subdued and just gets on with the job in the background without making a fuss. It’s the quiet kid in the corner who gets As across the board without breaking a sweat.
Whether this appeals or not will be down to you – for me, it lacks the excitement and drama I want from a hot hatch. I’d take the inferior build quality of a Hyundai for the giggle-inducing capabilities of the i30 N, for example. But if daily comfort is the priority, the Golf is hard to beat.
Verdict: Few in the hot hatch market manage to tread the line between practical hatchback and B-road blaster quite so well. However, if excitement’s your thing the Golf might leave you feeling a little flat.
So which one is best?
Naturally, it’s down to wants and needs, but it’s unlikely you’ll be left disappointed by any of them. The Golf is technically the best of the three – with 226bhp it’s the most powerful, and it has loads of space. It just lacks a bit of fizz.
Then there’s the Up! GTI, which is the opposite. What it lacks in space it makes up for in its ability to deliver fun, and the sense it shouldn’t be able to do what it does only adds to the experience. It’s great value, too.
Finally, the Polo. It feels like the odd one out, the engine lacking the refinement of the others here, but that’s why it remains relevant. It’s actually my favourite of the three, though whether I could live with the ride on a Saturday afternoon pootle to the shops is a question for another day…