VW Golf 8 GTI vs BMW 128ti

VW Golf 8 GTI vs BMW 128ti

The Golf GTI has always been the go-to hot hatch for everyone from the casual to devout petrolheads. With an image most manufacturers would kill for, the GTI has thrived where so many car companies have failed and in the 45 years it has been on sale it has only had a few blips from being the best choice out there.

One of the key elements to the Golf GTI’s success has been that it’s just utterly classless – you can go to a meet in a McDonald’s car park in Basildon or park it outside the Royal Opera house and it blends in. Understated looks, just a hint of sportiness and yet ‘still a Golf’ so people won’t sneer at you for being too frivolous.

Other manufacturers have tried to replicate this and some have managed to get close – like Audi with the S3, but that never had the driving experience as nailed as the GTI, so whereas it had a win for the badge it still fell short. And whereas BMW have made hot hatches before with the M135/140i models they were always a little more expensive and the RWD drivetrain made them a little more ‘niche’. Until now. Because with this latest 1-Series, BMW has turned things on its head and made what many BMW fans are calling absolute sacrilege – a front wheel drive BMW hot hatch – the 128ti.

So it was on a slightly blustery and wet day that I arrived at a car park in the New Forest in the GTI to spend the day driving these two new hot hatches back to back on a variety of roads and compare them.

Looks

Now as ever, looks are entirely subjective, so you should take this with a pinch of salt and make up your own mind, but I can at least give you my thoughts. Starting with the GTI, it’s a mixed bag really. At first glance I wasn’t convinced about the Mk8 Golf’s front end, the odd droopy looking headlights reminded me of a sloth. But in GTI guise, with the wide lower grille featuring five smaller fog lights each side and red detailing through the lights and across the nose it grew on me massively to the point where I now think it’s a properly good looking machine. Side profile is pure Golf (could be a Mk6, 7 or 8 from the side) and the rear is arguably it’s best view, with the wide angular rear lights, old-school GTI badging and twin round exhaust pipes. But this is where my first major gripe comes up – the wheels. This GTI came with the standard 18-inch alloy wheels (very rare for a press car) and they are (to my eyes at least) a really awful design. It seems the only reason they would be this bad is so that people upgrade to the much nicer 19-inch wheel option. Not good.

It doesn’t get a whole lot better with the BMW sadly. The 1-Series, being BMW’s first FWD car has wildly different proportions to the last 1-Series but body wise it’s actually a great shape with a rising beltline and short overhangs. The nose is the biggest issue, with a massive grille that on this model is all gloss black which makes it look even bigger. It’s a clever thing though, with vanes that close behind it for aero, that only open when the engine gets hot. Sadly this means it looks even worse most of the time as it just looks like a massive fake black grille. The rest of the nose is good though, with sleek headlights and an angular lower bumper with the first of some red trim pieces.

This is part of the ‘ti’ package and includes the bumper parts, lower side sills, rear bumper inserts and a ‘ti’ sticker just ahead of the rear wheels. Many people aren’t fans and for them they can be changed to gloss black for no charge, but I think they look great on this grey paintwork, or especially the standard white paint where they really stand out and complement the red callipers. Speaking of the wheels, this was another rare press car with standard wheels, again 18-inch items but a far nicer design than on the Golf. Another key point on this was that they were wrapped in the no-cost optional Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres – a great tyre than shows how serious BMW is about the handling on this 128ti.

Interior

There has been a trend in recent times, for the eradication of buttons in car interiors and nowhere is this more evident than in the latest VW Golf. Look across the very sleek and modern looking dashboard and you’ll see a mere smattering of buttons and in fact most of the time what you think is a button, is actually a touch-sensitive button. There’s a small pad with a touch button for the drive mode, climate, driver assists and parking modes, then that’s it bar the large screen in the dash. Well, below that sits something that could be described as a button, but I would describe it as ergonomic hell. It’s a touch sensitive bar, which houses the controls for the volume and climate temperature and is operated by either tapping, or sliding your finger along it. Which simply doesn’t work. Same goes with the buttons on the steering wheel, more slide-or-tap buttons that honestly just fail to work most of the time.

This is a wider issue with the whole buttonless idea though – when most of the functions you want to use are within a sub-menu on the main screen, or if it’s a touch or slide button, you simply have to look at where you’re pressing. With a physical button you get to learn where they are and work them automatically without looking, like a muscle memory. I can only see these non-buttons as being dangerous in the long run. VW have always been the masters of a great interior so it’s heart breaking to get into the Golf and find that it is so bad to use. This GTI had a DSG gearbox, so where the gear lever was you now find a little stubby knobble that you nudge fore and aft to select your gear. Elsewhere it’s better, with the usual tartan trim on the seats and despite the functionality issues the steering wheel looks and feels fabulous when in use. There was wireless charging on this car and two USB-C points which along with wireless Carplay/Android Auto made connection to your phone a doddle.

Inside the BMW it was thankfully a lot more normal. This car had the optional full bright red leather interior, which personally I find unnecessary as the standard black cloth interior looks great with red stitching and trim as part of the ‘ti’ pack. There’s also a nice ‘ti’ stitched into the armrest which gives a little lift. The interior will be very familiar to anyone who has owned a BMW in the last 10 years, their design hasn’t changed a great deal and that is, to me at least, a good thing. Still very driver-focused, there’s a large centre screen with a climate control panel below. This had the Tech Pack which added a bigger screen and the digital dash, but again I don’t think any of that is necessary. A standard 128ti is a very well specced thing.

Stats

The recipe for both cars is remarkably similar, which isn’t surprising these days, with both having a 2.0 litre, four cylinder turbocharged petrol engine under the bonnet, powering the front wheels via a limited slip diff (electronic in the VW’s case). The BMW gets a little more out of it though, with 261bhp to the Golf’s 242bhp and 400Nm vs 370Nm.

The 128ti only has the ZF 8spd automatic gearbox, whereas in the Golf you can have a six-speed manual or like this car, VW’s excellent 7spd dual clutch DSG ‘box.  Both cars weigh in at near enough 1450kg and have 380 litre boots.

Despite the extra power though, the BMW is actually slower to 62mph than the VW with 6.1 seconds playing the VW’s 5.9 – very odd and can only be down to the slower shifts of the traditional auto gearbox as logic would dictate it would be quicker, weighing the same with more power. Both top out at a restricted 155mph too.

Again, despite having more power and torque, the BMW is oddly the more economical car, averaging 40.9mpg to the VW’s 37.2mpg and emitting less CO2 at 157 g/km. May not seem like much but that’s another 40 miles on a tank which means a lot to some!

One place that BMW has been really aggressive though is the pricing – the 128ti comes in at £33,885 against the Golf’s £35,025with the DSG ‘box, while you’ll find that the finance and lease deals are far better on the BMW thanks to a large amount of manufacturer support.

The Drive

Now we’re getting to the good stuff – these are hot hatches after all. So it’s into the GTI first and a set of rather nice, twisty roads over a 3-mile loop ahead of me. Settle into the car and you realise that despite the lack of buttons, the driving position is absolutely spot on – the wheel has plenty of adjustment, lots of adjustment on the seat too so you can find the perfect position with great visibility and no obstructions (looking at you, GR Yaris).

Within the first 200 metres it’s very evident that VW has dialled this GTI back a little compared to the standard Mk7.5 GTI. The ride is quite soft in standard mode (it has DCC so the different modes affect the suspension) yet actually way too harsh in Sport, uncomfortably so in fact. But the DSG shifts are less aggressive, the steering a little less frenetic and overall it just feels a lot less sporting – which makes sense. You see there’s now the permanent GTI Clubsport model above this, a 300hp, FWD DSG hot hatch which is a lot more aggressive and focused. So that means the standard GTI can be reined in a bit, made more comfortable and less edgy.

When you really start to push on is where it becomes most evident, with a lack of communication coming through the wheel, quite uncontrolled wheel travel and a general numbness that you wouldn’t really expect from a GTI. It’s surprising and disappointing, but again not exactly unexpected when you look at the range now. The upside is that if you’re buying a Golf GTI for the image, looks and kudos then you’ll have a far more usable car. On the motorway it’s supremely comfortable, great seats, standard-fit adaptive cruise control helping to deal with traffic and generally doing a great job of being a good car. Just not a great GTI.

And this is made even more evident when you jump into the 128ti. This thing is an absolute terrier in comparison – you notice it from the second you pull away. Okay, the ride is noticeably firmer – this has standard passive suspension so there’s one setting for all modes and they’ve definitely gone towards the sportier and firmer end of the spectrum here. But it’s a firmness that works with the car, it’s been perfectly judged with the damping unlike in the Golf, so it doesn’t jar.

And it really works with the 128ti because you can tell from the off that it’s a much more focused hot hatch. It certainly feels quicker than the number suggest too, once you’ve grabbed some traction and are into 2nd gear the shove in your chest is quite impressive and overtaking is a breeze. In the corners you can feel the proper mechanical limited slip differential working its magic – tip it in and get on the power early and you feel the nose tighten and it just grabs the car, scrabbles through and chucks you out the other side – addictive stuff. The flip side to that is when you accelerate in a straight line the car hunts around and pulls you across the road quite a bit.

It would be absolutely brilliant were it not for the slightly lackadaisical auto gearbox, which is just that little bit too slow to react on upshifts and downshifts. This car is a dual clutch gearbox away from greatness, it really is. To me the 128ti feels like a proper old school hot hatch, a bit angry, a bit compromised but above all, down a twisty country lane it is FUN.

Verdict

This really is a tricky one, as the VW is a much better looking car, but the BMW is the better drive. VW has the better gearbox, BMW better interior. But for me, this is about which car is the better hot hatch and using that as the basis the winner simply has to be the BMW 128ti. It’s a properly fantastic thing to drive and is exceptional value for money. I think the GTi Clubsport may have seen the verdict flip the other way, but that widens the price gap by a further £2000. As their first ever FWD hot hatch, BMW has done exceptionally well with the 128ti and for that they have to be applauded. I can only imagine what the next one will be like.