Could the BMW128ti be the new Golf GTI's biggest rival?


• The new VW Golf GTI is one of the most anticipated hot hatches of the year.

• BMW's new 128ti could serve as the most complete rival for the Golf.

• Both front-wheel drive, BMW claims 195kW for its 128ti, whilst VW Golf8 GTi makes 180kW.

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Since the debut of Golf's GTi, it never had a direct rival from BMW, with good reason. VW's family performance cars have always been front-wheel drive, whilst compact BMWs were rear-wheel drive. But now, that has changed.

The latest chapter in BMW's hatchback performance car story is front-wheel drive. 

With official statistics and engineering details confirmed for BMW's 128ti, the inevitable Golf8 GTi comparisons have also started. 

BMW Media

Image: BMW Media

Both German hot hatches are front-wheel drive and powered by 2.0-litre turbocharged engines. BMW claims 195kW for its 128ti, whilst VW Golf8 GTi makes 180kW. That immediately cedes a significant peak power advantage to BMW, but VW's Golf GTi has been dominant for decades and is very much the standard for all other hot hatches to be measured by. 

What do you think of the new BMW 128ti, or which one of these two German hot hatches would you pick? Please email us your thoughts here.

Heritage versus image

If we unpack the rivalry between the 128ti and GTi, the traditional roles of BMW and VW are inverted.

In most of the market segments that it does business, BMW is an aspirational brand with a deep legacy. If you think four-door performance cars (M5), luxury SUVs (X5) and compact family sedans (3 Series), there is no questioning BMW's credentials. 

golf 8 gti

Image: Volkswagen Media

In the market for hot hatchbacks, things are different. Here VW is unquestionably the brand with more heritage than any other. BMW does have a history in compact family performance cars that predate GTi, with its 2002ti four-seater coupe, but in the front-wheel drive hot hatchback market, BMW is very much the newcomer. 

How will BMW attempt to conquer traditional Golf GTi customers, who are amongst the most loyal around? Well, with the promise of a bit more power and purer front-axle driving feedback. 

2021 BMW 128ti

Image: BMW Media

XDS versus a limited-slip diff

Although Audi's S3 and the AMG A45 radically altered the way most hot hatch drivers think about performance and mid-corner traction, the fact remains: most hot hatches are not all-wheel drive. They steer and drive exclusively via their front wheels. 

VW and Renault have proven masterful in their engineering approach to solving the issue of both driving and steering, through the same two wheels. 

Meticulously geared limited-slip differentials, with impeccably calibrated throttle control software, have successfully tamed rising power outputs, in most front-wheel drive vehicles. But those differentials add cost and have no applicability to less powerful variants, of the same hatchback model range. 

2021 BMW 128ti
Image: BMW Media

With VW's massive investment in advanced electronics over the past few years, it is not surprising that the Golf8 GTi does not have a traditional limited-slip differential. It uses an evolution of the XDS system, which effectively is a braking intervention, to trigger an artificial limited-slip differential effect. 

The system is remarkably effective, and although it does remarkably reduce the likelihood of torque steer, it also numbs feedback from the front wheels. 

Ignore the 15kW power advantage that BMW's 128ti has over Golf8 GTi, for a moment. The more important issue is how those kilowatts are split between the front wheels, when you try and apply most of them, with a great deal of steering lock dialled-in. 

2021 BMW 128ti
Image: BMW Media

BMW has chosen to equip its 128ti with a Torsen limited-slip differential.

This mechanical torque-sensing differential is more traditional in the way it deals with potential torque steer than an ABS-modulated system. The result is a bit more feel from those front wheels and what they are doing. Which might make the difference, for those in the fortunate position to be able to choose between a Golf8 GTi and 128ti, in 2021.

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