Match: BMW 128ti vs Volkswagen Golf GTI: Putting the record straight

The arrival of Wolfsburg’s 8th generation of Golf GTI coincides with BMW’s introduction of its first dynamic front-wheel drive car, powered by a vulgar 4-cylinder engine. Perfect timing to confront the two Germans directly. And the winner is…

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That’s a 4-cylinder engine of 1998cc with 265 hp and 400 Nm of torque available between 1750 and 4500 rpm sitting under the BMW bonnet. The Golf houses a four cylinder 1984cc engine boasting 245 hp and 370 Nm from 1600 to 4300 rpm. In both cases, the automatic gearboxes inevitably rob the driving experience of some fun. The Golf uses the well-known 7-speed DSG, while the 128 ti welcomes an 8-speed automatic… while its smaller siblings have to make do with a DCT7. Whereas you can still use the BMW gearbox lever in manual mode, on the Golf, only the paddles located behind the steering wheel can be used since this latest GTI adopts a tiny transmission lever. They are too small and badly executed while the BMW ones are only slightly larger and better made . To cut a long story short, we just never used them.

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A different atmosphere

The interiors of our two competitors are not lacking in character, each in its own style. Wolfsburg is playing the nostalgia card, using the checkered seat fabric first seen in the Mk1 GTI. A blast from the past that will have a hard time making us forget the annoyances caused by the digital screens that control almost everything. The touchscreen is slow and you have to take your eyes off the road to control certain functions like the aircon. However, most  functions are controlled by the steering wheel buttons. Eventually, one gets used to it and geeks will find their way around these much quicker than old farts like me! I liked the fact that the lane keeping assist can be easily switched off, even though this has to be done every time  the car is started.

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Otherwise, it would not be funny!  The 128 ti requires twice as many manipulations in the various menus to achieve the same. That said, its interior is much less technology-oriented and we’re happy with it. Some might even find the graphics old-fashioned but tradition is a good thing, these days. We found its front seats less ergonomic than the Golf’s, in particular because their headrests are too front- inclined. The numerous red touches of the BMW give it a touch exclusivity that is less felt in the GTI. For us, the BMW wins hands down without hesitation.

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Let’s go for it!

Let’s now get to the piece the resistance of this match : the cars’ behaviour and road holding. We started with the Golf. At the beginning, we must admit our feelings were not very enthusiastic but as the kilometres went by, we appreciated the efficiency of this eighth generation. It’s a bit like the Porsche 911 and its amazing cornering speeds that never scares you. Not that many emotions behind the wheel, but when you look at the tachometer, you realise how fast cars can go round the bends. The Golf GTI steering is rather well calibrated, neither excessively hard nor too soft and perfectly fits the bill : it is something more of a Grand Tourer rather than made for jumping from one bend to another on B roads. Once you realize that, this Golf can be appreciated as it should be. However, we would have liked to sample its optional dynamic suspension. We suspect it could enthuse it with a bit more character.

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We can’t say the BMW fully succeeds here. Knowing there’s a meaner M135i, what was the point of trying hard and make it pretend to be what it’s not, a true sportscar? Its mechanical self-locking system is there to curb understeer, but the torque coming back through the steering quickly becomes annoying, even more so when the Sport mode is on… making it even more unconvincing. It’s like if BMW wanted to make sure the 128 ti istaken for a real sportscar, something it’s not. Some colleagues claim the compact BMW has a personality of her own, with a playful rear axle.  Unfortunately, we didn’t find a playground safe enough to test it. The suspension also proved to be less suitable for the bad Belgian roads where the Golf GTI feels more at home.

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A matter of budget

The 128 ti costs €5,000 more than the GTI, exclusivity coming at a steep price. Costing €40,340, the Golf features more equipment : it comes with 3-zone aircon, adaptive cruise control and hands-free access/starting as standard, whereas you will have to tick all of these in the BMW’s extras’ list, on top of its € 45,100 starting price. Taxes being what they are in Wallonia, both cars will mean € 4957 just to be on the road plus annual tax of 439,56€. However, the regional CO2 tax hit the Golf harder at € 250 for the Golf whereas the BMW is only liable to € 175. Having quickly lost any desire to test their limits, our average fuel consumption were 8.3 l/100 km for the 128 ti and an excellent 7.8 l/100 for the Golf GTI. Figures that can be improved if you are a fan of the Eco button…

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And the winner is…

Her Majesty the Golf wins as it does everything efficiently and so well, even though it doesn’t really shine in a way or another. Comfort, handling and ease of use put it once again at the top of its class. And above all, it’s a Golf to start with and that still means something to many motorists. Some will say that its reputation is way better than it is but once you figure in the price, we can say that Volkswagen plays a fair game. Contrary to BMW, which continues to sell overpriced cars… but it’s not a problem as there are always customers queuing up to buy them. The 128 ti is a dynamic FWD car and quite an achievement at it but we regret it isn’t a rear wheel drive car with a manual gearbox. It surely had been more fun for us to drive on the winding roads of our green country. (Pictures by Pierre Fontignies)

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