It’s a real titanic tussle in our head-to-head this week, as the long-serving premium titans of Germany square up to one another – it’s the Volkswagen Polo versus Volkswagen Golf grudge match! So which one is better: little or large?
These 2 Have Been Around For A Bit, Haven’t They?
We’ll say. You’re looking at 2 of the oldest nameplates in the automotive industry, right here. The Golf debuted first, in 1974, and we’re now onto our 8th generation of this sector-defining hatchback (see our dedicated review of the newest Golf here). The Polo, meanwhile, arrived just 1 year later in 1975, but strangely we’re only on the Mk6 model at the moment – because the Mk2 of 1981 managed to last for 13 years, mainly thanks to a heavy-duty facelift in 1990 which prolonged its existence. Either way, the Polo and the Golf have been honed and crafted carefully by Volkswagen over the course of almost 50 years of production each.
Which One Has The Most Body Varieties?
It’s the Golf. Over the years, the Polo has been sold as a saloon (known as the ‘Derby’), a 3-door hatch, a small estate and even a coupe, but right now it comes solely in 5-door hatchback format – and that’s true even when it is specified as its high-performance GTI model. The Golf is slightly more varied, with the 5-door hatch, an estate and then, if you’re splitting hairs, an off-road lifestyle variant of the estate called the Alltrack. But, over time, even it has lost its old saloon derivatives (formerly known as the ‘Jetta’ and ‘Bora’), as well as the Golf Plus high-roofed MPV, the 3-door hatch option and also any convertible spin-offs – an example from its past being the Eos.
What Are The Engine Choices?
Both offer a smooth array of engines, in the main (but not exclusively) turbocharged. They are predominantly also front-wheel drive, although there are some all-wheel-drive versions of the Golf (such as the Alltrack and the R). Gearboxes amount to manual 5- and 6-speed units, or a 7-speed DSG twin-clutch unit on certain models, with any plug-in hybrid (PHEV) versions using an old 6-speed DSG.
As with many of the facets of these 2 cars, the Polo has far fewer engine choices than the Golf. The main range is made up entirely of 3-cylinder petrol engines, all with a 1.0-litre swept capacity. The base model, with 80hp, is non-turbocharged, but both the next 2 derivatives – badged the 95 TSI and 110 TSI according to their horsepower figures – do have turbos. The 80hp car has a 5-speed manual gearbox only, while the 110 TSI is exclusively fitted with a 7-speed DSG, and it’s only the 95hp mid-range version where you get the manual as standard and the option of having the DSG at extra cost.
Standing alone is the Polo GTI, which uses a 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder turbo petrol engine developing 207hp. It is only available with the 7-speed DSG alone.
The Golf uses the same 110hp 1.0-litre 3-cylinder turbocharged engine as the Polo for just its entry point, but every other engine in the range is a 4-cylinder unit of some sort. There’s also a subtle badging difference between ‘TSI’ and ‘eTSI’ here – the former is a pure petrol, while the latter is a mild-hybrid version. As a result, all the TSI engines have 6-speed manual transmissions and the eTSI powertrains all have the 7-speed DSG. Power on the petrol side of things ranges from 110hp through 130hp and up to 150hp, the latter 2 outputs coming from a 1.5-litre engine.
There’s then a 2.0-litre TDI turbodiesel 4-cylinder, which makes either 115-, 150- or 200hp, the last of these reserved exclusively for the performance GTD model (see below). The 115hp engine comes with a choice of 6-speed manual or 7-speed DSG transmissions, but the 150- and 200hp derivatives are paired with the DSG only.
After that, there are 2 PHEVs – a ‘regular’ model called the 1.4 TSI eHybrid with 204hp, or the sportier version in the form of the 245hp GTE. Both use a 1.4-litre petrol turbo engine and a 7-speed DSG. And finally, a powerful 2.0-litre TSI turbo petrol makes between 245- and 320hp for all of the GTI, GTI Clubsport and R rapid models of the Golf Mk8. Only the normal GTI can have a 6-speed manual here, with the 7-speed DSG an option; but the auto is the standard (and saloon) ‘box on the Clubsport and R.
Are There Any High-Performance Models Of Either?
Yes, both of them have ‘fast’ versions – but, again, when it comes to the Golf, you get many more options. The Polo’s sole ‘hot’ derivative is the GTI, its nameplate riffing off its big brother – the Golf GTI first appeared on sale way back in 1976, but despite a couple of unusual performance models in the 1990s (such as the supercharged Polo G40), a true Polo GTI didn’t appear in the UK until the 2000 facelift of the Mk3 generation.
The Golf, meanwhile, has a much longer heritage of GTI-dom – there has been a performance version of every 1 of the 8 generations of Golf so far – and it also has a greater variety of speedy models in its past, such as the Rallye, the VR6 and the R32; some of these employing V6 engines, instead of the usual 4-cylinder fare of VW’s hot cars.
In the current range, there are no fewer than 5 performance models… including 2 GTIs! That’s right, there’s a regular 245hp model and then a more hardcore, focused GTI Clubsport with 300hp. Some say the Clubsport is the best-driving Golf of them all, being as it is front-wheel drive and limited-slip-diff-equipped, but it is not the flagship nor fastest version. That honour belongs to the Golf R, which has the benefit of 4-wheel drive and 320hp, enough for 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds and a limited top speed of 168mph with the right options packages.
For those looking for more ecologically minded performance, either the GTE or GTD are worth considering. The former is a PHEV petrol-electric with the same 245hp as the GTI, only it can go up to 37 miles on electric power alone and its CO2 emissions are as low as 27g/km, while the latter is a torquey turbodiesel with 200hp and strong performance, but it’ll do 54.3mpg if you drive it sensibly. Bear in mind, though, that all 5 powertrains are only available in the hatchback body of the Golf – if you want a Golf Estate, you are restricted to the Golf R Estate as your sole performance option. There used to be the choice of having the GTD as a wagon too, but for the Mk8 even that has been stripped away – and the GTE, GTI and GTI Clubsport have never been offered as estates by Volkswagen.
The weird part of all of this is that the Polo has by far the stronger motorsport credentials of the 2 VWs. Whereas the Golf was decent at tarmac-based motorsport and then only ever went rallying with limited success in the 1980s, the Polo R absolutely dominated the prestigious World Rally Championship (WRC) from 2013-2016. And yet, all you can get is a solitary, slightly underwhelming Polo GTI. Hmm…
Can I Get An Electric Or Hybrid Version Of Either?
In a word, for the Polo… no. There aren’t any hybrid models and there isn’t a full electric variant either. Tsk, VW. For the Golf, there’s a little more choice, but while there used to be an e-Golf EV in the Mk7 generation, the advent of the all-new and all-electric ID.3 hatchback means a fully electric Golf is no longer a ‘thing’. So the best you get is an eHybrid or GTE, both of which are PHEVs.
Do Volkswagens Still Come With No Kit At Base Spec?
Thankfully, no. Life is the entry-level grade for both cars but, on the Golf, you get more kit for your money than you do on the Polo, if you catch our drift.
That said, a Polo Life comes with 15-inch alloy wheels, LED lights all round on the outside, a leather multifunction steering wheel, the 8-inch Digital Cockpit instrument cluster, wireless App-Connect for smartphones, electric windows all round, electrically adjustable, folding and heated door mirrors, manual air conditioning, automatic headlights and wipers, and even cruise control with a speed limiter. There’s a good spread of advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) as well, although the infotainment is only ‘nav-prepped’, rather than ‘nav-equipped’.
To that end, a Golf Life is a little more generous. It has the same LED exterior illumination, auto lights and wipers, and electric door mirrors as the Polo, but it gains bigger 16-inch alloys, nav-equipped Discover Media infotainment, a larger 10.25-inch Digital Cockpit Pro cluster, Keyless Go, 10-colour interior ambient lighting, full climate control, uprated Adaptive Cruise Control with a speed limiter, and front and rear parking sensors too. It also has enhanced ADAS compared to a Polo Life. Check out our Golf trim guide for a more detailed look.
Which One Is Best To Drive?
Realistically, both do much the same solid, safe, slightly stodgy schtick when it comes to driving manners. This isn’t surprising, as the Polo has long been modelled on the Golf’s behavioural traits, so what you get with both of them is some of the most grown-up dynamic experiences in each class – as in, the Polo is more refined and assured than the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Peugeot 208 et al, while it’s much the same story for the Golf in the sector above, where it competes with the Toyota Corolla, Skoda Octavia, Renault Megane, Honda Civic and more.
Therefore, what you’ll benefit from in either Volkswagen is a smooth, comfortable ride, excellent sound suppression in the passenger compartment, and a general feeling of stolid quality from both. What they won’t serve up is much in the way of driving excitement. The Polo and the Golf have good grip and nicely calibrated steering, but they don’t serve up much joy if you throw them through the corners with a bit of gusto.
That’s less true of the performance models but, again, it’s the Golf which has the edge here. The Polo GTI has never truly blossomed into a great hot hatch. Again, like the regular variants in its line, the Polo GTI is more cultured than a Fiesta ST or Hyundai i20 N, but it’s never anything like as thrilling as those 2 rivals when you want it to be.
The Golf is better, although both the GTD and GTE are ‘performance’ models more in concept and name than they are in the cold light of reality. The GTD doesn’t really have enough oomph these days to qualify as ‘fast’, while the GTE is markedly heavy because it’s a PHEV and so feels cumbersome in the curves.
That leaves the GTI, GTI Clubsport and the R as the choice of the keenest enthusiasts. For sheer pub bragging rights, the AWD R wins hands down – it’s much quicker for 0-62mph than either version of the GTI and it has all the traction advantages of drive being sent to all 4 wheels. Yet, for all that, and for all we’ll happily accept the Mk8 R is the best ultra-Golf we’ve seen so far (that means any other generation of R or R32)… we’d be putting our money into the Clubsport.
Once it is up and running, the fact it is only 20hp and 20Nm down on the R, and considerably lighter too, means the GTI Clubsport feels every bit as fast and gratifying as its supposedly bigger brother. And with just 2 driven wheels, it requires more effort from its driver, which in turn leads to more reward when you get it right. As to the regular GTI, it’s good – but there are plenty of rivals which are better and more satisfying to steer, not least the Hyundai i30 N and Ford Focus ST.
And Which Volkswagen Would You Recommend?
For this head-to-head, the Golf. The Polo has always been in the shadow of its illustrious forebear, even if it only landed in showrooms a mere year after the Golf Mk1 debuted. Neither of these 2 Volkswagens can lay claim to being the most exciting thing to drive in their classes, granted, and there’s a good argument to say the notably touchscreen-centric human-machine interface of the Golf Mk8’s infotainment system can be infuriating to operate, but overall the Golf offers that bit more choice, equipment and ownership feelgood factor throughout its range than the Polo does. If we could afford it, we’d be going for Golf.
Oh, and if we wanted an electric Volkswagen hatchback, and we were worried that neither of these 2 could truly fulfil that ecological brief? Then we’d be looking at the ID.3. Consider that it’s very likely that VW’s showy new zero-emissions vehicle is going to make the Golf redundant at some point later this decade, and you realise that the Polo and Golf’s long eras of dominance are possibly drawing to an end.