Currently reading: Frontrunners: VW Golf GTI and BMW 128ti vs Honda Civic Type R
Volkswagen’s revitalised Golf GTI and the ‘purist’ BMW 128ti have never faced off – until now
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10 mins read
7 August 2021

A phone rings in Honda’s Bracknell press office. Nothing unusual. Just a journalist, asking if they can borrow a car for an upcoming group test.

With almost any other car, from Honda or another maker, this kind of request would automatically trigger an internal discussion to weigh the risks against the rewards. Because in the end, somebody has to lose these very public contests, and if you reckon that somebody might be you, maybe it’s better not to play (though we would rather you did).

Not this time, though. This time there’s no need for debate. There isn’t even so much as an ‘against who?’, out of curiosity. “Of course you can have one. When do you want it?”

It’s the kind of wild insouciance that emerges when your car subjugates an entire class to its own sky-high standards over the course of several years. It’s a luxury few press offices will ever know, but since its arrival in 2015, the FK8 Civic Type R has lost precisely zero group tests in Autocar, so for Honda the confidence is justified. Machines that fall into a similar bracket include the Porsche 911 GT3 and the last generation or two of the Ford Fiesta ST. Maybe the Tesla Model S in the pre-Taycan era, but that’s probably it. And because it sits in a class so rich in talent and brimming with rivals, the Honda’s achievement is arguably the most impressive of them all.

Now, that unblemished record is not something we expect to end today. Not least because this isn’t any old Civic Type R but one of just 20 UK examples of the 47kg-lighter Limited Edition, which costs £39,000 and is the most finely honed FK8 there will ever be (and yes, Sunlight Yellow is the only available colour). For this triple test, therefore, the big questions are, first, of the recent BMW 128ti and the box-fresh Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport 45, which comes closest to matching the Honda’s level of driving appeal? And second, does that car get close enough to make it a sweeter overall option, all things considered? Because despite its solid practicality and superb ergonomics, the Type R does sit very much at the committed end of the hot hatch spectrum, both in looks and in feel behind the wheel. And that won’t be for all.

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Today, our rendezvous is in South Wales. Matt Prior brings the Honda, with only road roar to keep him entertained because Limited Edition cars lose their infotainment system to save 5kg. Picture editor Ben Summerell-Youde has collected Andrew Frankel’s long-term 128ti en route, and I’ve taken care of the VW. The Golf GTI Clubsport 45 is the right place for me to start, too.

Having driven the BMW last year in pre-production form in Germany, where it hung on gamely to the stubby tail of the M2 chaperoning us, then breezed up to the 155mph limiter on empty autobahns, I know it’s good. Later tests have shown its passive spring and damper system – the only such suspension here today, because the others use multi-mode adaptive set-ups – to soak up UK roads and allow the mechanical Torsen differential in the front axle to get to work effectively. At around £33,000, the 128ti is also the cheapest car here by a long way. Didn’t see that bit coming, did you?

The Honda barely needs an intro. Its oversquare, rev-hungry VTEC engine sets the standard for power in the front-drive hot hatch class, and therefore among our trio, making 316bhp at 6500rpm versus 296bhp at 5000rpm for the Golf and 261bhp at 4750-6500rpm for the BMW. All use four-cylinder turbo units of around 2.0 litres. At 1358kg, the Honda also weighs the least, and riding on forged BBS wheels with semi-slick Michelin Cup 2 tyres, the Japanese/ British car not only looks the most ostentatious but is also the wildest here on paper, even though raw speed isn’t really what the Type R is about. The car’s polished handling and the deep sense of mechanical connection it offers mean it occasionally gets called a ‘front-drive 911 GT3’. And while the Limited Edition isn’t the ideal Civic Type R for road duties, it is the purest expression of the FK8 to date, and therefore functions as the ultimate dynamic benchmark. It’s also the only car here to use a manual gearbox, which ought to count for something when clutch pedals are dropping like flies.

But it’s not Honda that VW needs to worry about. In terms of philosophy, the Golf GTI has in all its 45 years never had a closer rival than the 128ti. Both cars are aiming to entice the same driver: one who wants total usability and premium feel but with strong performance and some killer instinct on an open stretch of B-road. Rather a tall order, then.

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For BMW, the 128ti was also its engineers’ chance to transform the all-wheel-drive M135i from a lardy super-hatch designed to hit spec-sheet targets into an agility-focused hot hatch for people who care less about the headline figures. Which is why they’ve shifted the stiffness distribution considerably, ditched the rear driveshafts, fitted the unique suspension with 10mm shorter springs than even M Sport versions of the 1 Series get, and worked away at the steering, all to create something more responsive and adjustable. Basically, something more BMW (and Mini, as there has been some knowledge-sharing), and something neither Mercedes nor Audi – the old enemies in Munich – has ever even attempted to pull off.

Now the enemy is VW, for which the Clubsport represents a second bite at the cherry. With the Mk8, VW tried to evolve the regular GTI into a more uncompromising beast, with increased spring rates and more direct steering. The problem is, compromise was always the GTI’s forte, and to make matters worse this attempt to transmogrify the car went off half-cocked. When it first arrived, the Mk8 GTI wasn’t all that engaging, yet it was no longer especially supple or fluid either.

Released only six months later (which in itself is remarkable), the Clubsport sticks to the original plan for the GTI but adds the necessary conviction. It receives new control-arm mounts, 10mm-shorter springs, greater negative camber at the front, Golf R-spec brakes and revisions to the tuning for the limited-slip diff-alike front-axle lock. All encouraging things. As for the ‘45’ bit, that’s just some anniversary bling, including a titanium Akrapovic exhaust, unique 19in ‘Scottsdale’ wheels and the decals. Pretty? Not really. But punchy, and it’s all yours for an eyebrow-raising £40,130. Serious money, then – six grand up on the regular 242bhp GTI, though you would get three back by taking the basic Clubsport rather than the 45.

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The good thing is that this new chassis feels better straight away, even during those undramatic but informative first 100 yards. There’s a touch more integrity in the steering pick-up, and the springs yield a more satisfying tautness, even though the ride in general is no worse than that of the base GTI. This example has VW’s optional DCC dampers, which give you not one, two or even five settings to play with, but 15. Which is about 11 too many, even if you’re into configurability, but here we are. During this test, we leave them two notches above the designated setting for Comfort because this seems to generate the best blend of B-road control and sense of flow, leaving some weight transfer to play around with at sensible speeds. As for the titanium exhaust, it looks epic but in reality adds maybe 5% extra fizz to the exhaust note, which still relies heavily on synthesisation. That said, whatever the method, on the move the Clubsport’s cabin resonates with a burble that provides a sense of occasion but that doesn’t feel silly.

The drive to Wales, then numerous passes over an excellent ribbon of B-road, show that, overall, the GTI Clubsport is a well-rounded quick hatchback, with enough refinement to shrink long journeys, a smart interior (hellish infotainment and climate controls aside) and a turn of mid-range pace that not so long ago would have been considered outrageous for the class. The gritty dynamic changes have also had a positive effect when you push the car hard. The GTI now gets into corners more precisely and assertively, not just because the front axle generates extra grip, but because the steering gives you extra confidence. Perhaps that’s in part because the rear axle is so stable, but the gearing of the rack is also sweetly judged and the action mostly uncorrupted even in the face of big throttle openings and dodgy road surfaces. There’s an appealing neatness about the Clubsport when you really get it flying. Along with the very fat band of peak torque and slick DSG-enabled gearchanges, it means the car gives off an air of imperturbability. And that, at least, is very trad Golf GTI. All of sudden, the VW feels rather a difficult hot hatch to beat if it is breadth you want.

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Then you slide into the 128ti, and it exposes its compatriot in two key areas. First is the driving position. The BMW lacks the racy-looking modular seats of the Clubsport, but its own leather sports seats are lowerset and more supportive. The scuttle seems higher, too, and you feel as though you’re sitting right within the belly of the car. Close your eyes and grip a wheel that can be brought well out towards your chest, and you could just about imagine you were in some sort of coupé, whereas in the MQB-platformed Golf you could only ever be sat in a hatchback. The iDrive infotainment array is also  in another galaxy of usability: clear menus, intuitive switchgear, and topped off by the clear dials. The 128ti may look a little graceless from the outside, but from within it generates a sense of seriousness that means it feels more like a bespoke creation and less like a mere derivative.

On the move, it also goes like no other 1 Series, but what’s surprising, given their overlap in customer profile, is how different it feels from the GTI. The BMW feels less zippy and agile. Part of that will be to do with the 35bhp power deficit, but mostly it’s down to the steering response, because the 128ti has a generous sneeze margin before it properly picks up that the GTI does without. The VW simply responds better and with greater linearity. There’s also more weight in the BMW’s set-up, which is no bad thing, but with the fat steering rim and more leisurely gearing, it can come across a little flat-footed next to the VW, which uses a thin-gauge wheel with a light, immediate action.

There are other subtle factors that contribute to the sense that the VW is more spirited. Its DSG gearbox is sharper than the BMW’s torque converter, and the 128ti’s Torsen diff promotes stability and therefore some understeer on turn-in in a way that the electronically controlled, clutch-based VDQ system in the Golf avoids. At speed, the Golf probably also edges the BMW in terms of composure – it just seems to work its suspension with a lighter touch.

However, if I had to choose one, it would be the BMW. The 128ti is not as quick as the GTI and neither is it as exciting superficially. But it conveys that seat-of-your-pants feel more generously, and there’s true life in the steering, which burbles and fluctuates in weight but rarely becomes unruly. A touch more consistency in those first 10 degrees of lock and it would be among the best in class, particularly if you’re no fan of the elasticated set-up in the Ford Focus ST. The 128ti also asks more of its driver than the GTI, and if the questions are asked in the right way, that’s what hot hatches are all about. Not over-endowed with grip, its nose needs to be fed precisely into bends, sometimes on the brakes, after which you can toy with the naturally acting diff to claw yourself forward. Progress in the 128ti feels satisfying because it requires a blend of commitment and sensitivity. It’s an old-school charmer, albeit one screaming out for a third pedal.

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However, given the ‘ti’ badge, this car should be more bubbly in its handling. Despite the BMW’s more pedigree feel, it’s the GTI that is keener to rotate and lets you alter its trajectory by teasing the rear axle out of line. Credit to VW for that, but it’s not enough. With its superior cabin, more stirring driving experience and substantially lower price (which includes a good chunk of standard kit), the BMW does enough to win.

Could I have one instead of the Honda? Actually, despite the Type R’s dreamy levels of feedback and involvement after the softer German pair, I suspect many people really would prefer the BMW, were the choice between the comparatively lavish 128ti and this radio-less, AC-less Limited Edition. Not even the precision in the Honda’s chassis, or its fabulous gearshift, or the eagerness of its 7000rpm engine would make up for the inconveniences. However, opt for any ‘lesser’ Civic Type R and you’re getting 95% of the Limited Edition’s ability with 20% better comfort and isolation, and then it’s set and match.

Today, BMW 128ti beats VW GTI Clubsport and fulfils its brief, but it can’t slay the giant. The Honda isn’t perfect; more easy-going adjustability and extra sharpness in the throttle and steering responses would be nice. But it’s a monument in this class. That it can make two objectively fine rivals feels ordinary, at any speed and on any road, is just remarkable.

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Citytiger 8 August 2021

 I think the real winner is the car that isnt there, the Focus ST. 

artill 8 August 2021

The fact that the Civic drives the best, is the only one with a manual box clearly makes it the winner to me. I actually quite like the looks (unlike the Golf which i think looks nasty, particulaly the front end) but would prefer the version minus the spoiler and 19 inch wheels. But they have all been sold, so thats that until the new one eventually arrives.

why do the others think everyone who wants a quick hatchback has lost the use of one leg? Or doesnt enjoy driving any longer. Can it be that hard these days to offer a manual? Do so few people enjoy driving any more that they just dont sell? (hasnt done Honda any harm it seems).

The BMW looks a little odd, but is very good value, although i am sure the options there to put the price above the other 2 if you get carried away. 

Lets face it, petrol powered hot hatches are living on borrowed time, and once they are EV, they will be a very different thing, even more expensive, heavy, fast in a straight line, and no gears at all. But little to involve the driver.  

 

jason_recliner 8 August 2021
The Civic drives better, looks better and has a better interior than the other two. Hmm, let me think about this...