SHOOT-OUT | 2021 VW Golf GTI vs BMW 128ti

23 September 2021 - 07:55
By Denis Droppa
The BMW 128ti was created as a direct rival to the iconic Golf GTI.
Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The BMW 128ti was created as a direct rival to the iconic Golf GTI. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

There are few cars as pedigreed as the Volkswagen Golf GTI, or badges more recognisable. A car that started as a pet project by VW engineers essentially invented the hot hatch genre, and ever since the moniker first adorned the Mk I Golf back in 1976 it’s been the benchmark against which all other swift hatches are measured.

The car has certainly wormed its way into the collective psyche; in its week-long stay with us the new eighth-generation GTI garnered regular thumbs-up from motorists, petrol attendants and even a pair of policemen on patrol.

The latest version has the punchy performance and sporty handling of its forebears but embraces a new era with a digitised cabin and hi-tech driver aids.

Then there’s the new BMW 128ti, the latest interloper in the GTI’s hallowed turf. It’s a 1-Series hatch with M Sport suspension, a shot of styling swagger, and a badge resurrected from the Bavarian carmaker’s sporting past. Though not as readily recognisable as the GTI moniker, “Turismo Internazionale” has heritage, as it was used on sporting Beemers since the 1960s including the well-known 2002 TI, and most recently on the BMW 325ti Compact of the late 1990s.

Like the GTI it has front-wheel drive, and the two protagonists have almost identical power.

How does the beefed-up Beemer stack up to the pedigreed GTI? We lined them up for a comparison test to find out.

The Golf GTI’s cabin fully embraces the digital era but isn’t very user friendly.
Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The Golf GTI’s cabin fully embraces the digital era but isn’t very user friendly. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

STYLE AND SUBSTANCE

The BMW 128ti presents a youthful vibe with its red exterior trimmings, M Sport brakes with red brake callipers, and extended Shadowline trim with black BMW kidney grille and black mirror caps.

The red-themed bling continues inside the cabin with contrast red stitching throughout, and an M Sport steering wheel.

The latest GTI adopts an evolutionary design and is instantly recognisable as a Golf, but it’s sportingly embellished with a gaping honeycomb grille inset with a quintet of fog lights on each side that reference a chequered flag. The traditional red stripe adorns the nose while the grille is optionally illuminated.

Inside is where things get complicated. Existing VW owners will find nothing familiar in the interior interfaces of the new Golf GTI, which fully embraces the digital era with a cabin almost entirely bereft of buttons. Infotainment functions are accessed on an impressive-looking touchscreen and both it and the digital instrument panel have personalisable, colour-changing displays.

It’s all very modern and hi-tech, but accessing features requires a sometimes time-consuming navigation though the digital labyrinth. Finding icons became easier through familiarity, but a more serious issue was the frustratingly slow and laggy operation of the infotainment touchscreen, which takes the driver’s attention off the road.

Random error messages also popped up in the GTI’s instrument panel during high-performance testing. The Golf 8 has had prior software issues with the infotainment system and last year Volkswagen recalled 56,000 cars to fix the problem.

The BMW 128ti’s interior feels more premium and the controls are easier to use.
Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The BMW 128ti’s interior feels more premium and the controls are easier to use. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Also, the trusted audio volume knob is consigned to history in the Golf; in its place are digital sliders which take some getting used to.

The BMW’s cabin interfaces are more user friendly and still offer the choice of digital or analogue inputs, including the faithful iDrive controller located between the front seats. The dash is cluttered with more buttons but they give quicker, more intuitive access to various functions.

The 128ti also presents a more premium interior look than its VW rival. Its red-stitched garnishings are sporty without being garish and the finishes are BMW’s usual solid business-class fare.

The Golf has a soft-touch dashboard and mostly swanky trimmings to complement all the digital dazzle, but the perforated leather “Vienna” seat upholstery is a let-down and looks cheap at the price. Overall the VW’s cabin doesn’t radiate class and breeding like the Beemer.

The BMW also has a little more rear legroom on its longer wheelbase (2,670mm vs the Golf’s 2,627mm), although both cars comfortably accommodate four adults.

The BMW also has a slightly larger boot (380l vs 374l) but the Golf has a biscuit-sized spare wheel for emergencies while the BMW relies only on its runflat tyres to cope with punctures.

The Golf has a generally better list of standard features including an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, and a wireless smartphone charger. The BMW hits back with standard satnav, which costs extra in the Golf.

Both cars can be specced-up with a raft of extra-cost options including active cruise control, lane keeping assist and parking cameras, to mention a few.

With its red accents the 128ti is more striking from the rear than the GTI.
Picture: DENIS DROPPA
With its red accents the 128ti is more striking from the rear than the GTI. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

PERFORMANCE

There’s little to differentiate the two rivals when lifting their bonnets: both have four-cylinder, 2.0l petrol turbo engines pushing out an identical 180kW of power. The BMW has 10Nm more torque but largely negates the advantage by weighing 57kg more.

In a head-to-head sprint the GTI edged the BMW in both standing-start and overtaking acceleration but it was a very close call (see comparison chart). Interestingly both cars were 0.2 seconds quicker than their factory-claimed 0-100km/h figures, the GTI recording 6.1 seconds and the BMW posting 6.2 seconds.

The 128ti is the more vocal of the two with a throatier rasp, though the GTI does generate half-decent “Vrr-pa” in its Sports setting.

Transmission-wise there is little to criticise in either car. The Golf’s seven-speed DSG and the BMW’s eight-speed Steptronic both proved slick and responsive enough to seldom warrant usage of their steering wheel paddle shifters.

RIDE AND HANDLING

The GTI is the more assured handler, more forgoving of rough treatment as it dances through turns with composure and finesse.

The BMW is edgier, and more likely to get the tail dancing in a mid-corner throttle lift. It also has slightly more torque steer and squeals its front tyres more, although the latter fortunately doesn’t cause any fun-sapping early understeer. Like the Golf, the BMW has a limited-slip differential that keeps the nose hugging the apexes and allows the throttle to be thrust early out of corners.

The Golf’s brakes were also better, with more instant bite than the BMW’s. The GTI’s clean, forgiving handling will probably deliver better laptimes while the more highly strung 128ti demands a little more of the driver — without being less fun.

The GTI test car had the advantage of adaptive chassis control, a R14,800 option which allows the suspension to be softened or stiffened to suit the conditions or the driver’s mood. It’s an exceptionally smooth and refined car that provides drive-all-day comfort but at the press of a button it firms up to maximise the car’s corner-attacking ability.

Even so, the BMW’s nonvariable suspension provided an impressive balance between ride comfort and dynamic prowess. It didn’t wallow more than the GTI in corners, and also provided decent long-distance waftability.

VERDICT

Setting aside subjective brand loyalty and heritage, this is a tough choice.

The GTI has more composed handling and is cheaper than the BMW. The VW is the high-performance bargain here.

But the Golf’s dodgy digital controls are offputting, and the simpler-to-operate Beemer is an easier car to live with day to day. It also has a more premium interior and a sportier sound.

Struggling with that infotainment system would be vexing, but it’s still the Golf GTI that gets my vote because it hits such a sweet spot in driveability.

BMW 128ti vs VW Golf GTI.
Image: Denis Droppa BMW 128ti vs VW Golf GTI.

* Performance tests conducted at Gerotek with Racelogic Vbox.

SECOND OPINION - Brenwin Naidu

Shared nationalities, evenly-matched in configuration, ambition and, to an extent, pedigree: this is a close one.

Volkswagen touts its contender as the most digitised expression of the breed yet.

And when you fumble your way through its unfriendly infotainment system, you wonder if that priority may have eclipsed the sporting essence of the car.

It dispels those reservations with an excellent launch control system, an electronic differential that quells any inkling of waywardness and a well-damped suspension that is never flummoxed. By contrast, the interior of the BMW is festooned with buttons.

While employing a mechanical differential, the 128ti shows a propensity for torque-steer. It is the livelier car, goading driver into exploring the limits more so than the anodyne Wolfsburg rival.

A decidedly firmer ride, with buzzier engine acoustics, gives the Bavarian contender a real immersive streak. For those reasons it would be my pick of the duo.