Skip advert
Advertisement
Group tests

BMW 230i M Sport v Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport

As Golf GTI prices head north of 40 grand, new rivals home into view. Is a lower-rung 2-Series too tough to overcome?

Combine the price tags of the contenders in in this test, as specified, and you reach a grand total of £96,820. And no, Dean didn’t forget to photograph a car. Or two. Such are the peaks the market continues to scale that a pair of seemingly small, punchy specimens start at forty grand apiece. Then hurtle towards fifty with a handful of options.

Advertisement - Article continues below

Plenty of people might never notice, leasing either of these for circa £500 a month rather than buying it outright. And as hot hatch and coupe icons alike drop from the price lists with worrying frequency you might even argue we should be thankful this test remains possible at all.

Each car represents the latest iteration of a very familiar recipe. The Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport is the firm’s topmost front-wheel-drive hot hatch and adds over 50bhp to its base car with 296bhp and 295lb ft peaks from a tuned version of the familiar ‘EA888’ 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine. Here it’s mated exclusively to a seven-speed DSG transmission with VW’s VAQ front differential newly gathered into a dynamics management system for more precise reactions. The headline is a 13-second reduction in ‘Ring lap time over a stock GTI, but buyers are more likely to notice the dashing aesthetic makeover. A 15mm drop in ride height, more aggressive camber up front and its assertive (and functional) rear wing add up to a much punchier looking car than we’re used to from Wolfsburg. 

Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

As standard, it slices a clean line between GTI and R pricing at £41,890, though the car you see here has spiralled up to £49,385 with the help of 19in alloys, a panoramic roof, an upgraded media system and – most crucially to folks like us – the £875 DCC adaptive damping that brings with it a Nürburgring ‘Special’ mode unique to the Clubsport. And you thought the Civic Type R was pricey…

Advertisement - Article continues below

Perhaps surprisingly, then, the BMW 230i M Sport is the cheaper of the pair. It’s £41,065 basic or a plumper £47,435 as tested here in fetching Portimao Blue paint with a trio of major option packs fitted, their most tangible additions being 19in alloys, the subtle rear spoiler, uprated brakes and a Harman Kardon stereo.

Walking into a BMW dealer and asking for ‘one 2-Series, ta’ will open up a whole world of complication given the badge is also applied to a hybrid people carrier, a diesel four-door and an M Division sports car. But this appears the purest and simplest of the lot. It’s BMW doing what it does best, a slender (ish) two-door coupe with pure rear-drive. Its 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine – here producing 242bhp and 295lb ft – even allows me to indulge a gratuitous 2002 reference. The two cars cut similar profiles, if on different scales, this G42 2-Series Coupe fitting neatly into the footprint of an E46 3-Series. It’s fair to say the 230i’s exterior detailing isn’t as clean-cut as either of those classics, of course.

The Clubsport gets off to a promising start, my first few miles in sopping wet conditions where it puts a genuine smile on my face. Every Mk8 Golf I’ve so far tried has been somewhat underwhelming, GTI and R versions being both dynamically fuzzier and ergonomically rowdier than their Mk7 predecessors. Previous experience of the Clubsport in the dry saw it demonstrate a ruthless attitude to grip and slip and it’s certainly a more boisterous partner in the wet, not least because it spins its front wheels right up to fourth gear. Dingier conditions reveal a fallibility that – in a car I’d previously written off as a bit po-faced – can be sympathetically construed as some welcome heart and soul. The rear end is naturally a mite more mobile too, but everything is relative. With the ESC in its middle Sport setting any great movements are usually tidied up swiftly by the car with little correction needed from its driver. The steering is light but quick; never brimful of feel, but you learn to trust it. The delicacy and involvement of that majestic old Mk5 was filtered out some time ago.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

Whatever the weather, the engine punches hard and rips right through its rev range – it’s stronger, livelier and simply more likeable than BMW’s equivalent and it’s clear VW’s constant evolution of this unit has paid off. A much plumper power-to-weight figure ensures it’s tangibly the quicker of our pair in a straight line – when you’re not frittering some of that power away, of course. In the very best LSD-equipped hot hatches you play a game of how early and how aggressively you can spool everything up in a corner. Get a differential really working and you revel in the sensation of wringing the mechanical components for everything they’re worth, but attempt that here and you meet frustration. You need to get on the throttle later and smoother. There’s no harm in finessing your own driving around a car, of course, but I’ve a hunch you might have just as much enjoyment in a stock GTI. The Clubsport name could have given VW licence to make the car less liveable and more aggressive. And it has done so in the past, making it hard to escape this feeling like a missed opportunity for a healthy dose of extra tenacity. 

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

It's flipping firm, mind, with no lack of focus in its suspension. My first few miles saw me shortcut straight to its ‘Special’ drive setting, honed on the ‘Ring and partially responsible for that 13sec saving. Doing so feels nerdy as hell but the myth that Nordschleife development ruins road cars is one I’ll never tire of busting. Indeed, the ride feels nicely judged in ‘Ring mode, making it a shame that the overwrought Sport steering comes with it. A few minutes honing your own setup in Individual will be time well spent. 

That said, there are 15 stages to the optional DCC. And lo and behold, the ideal one sits right in the middle, giving credence to the BMW sitting on passive dampers. But such adjustability can be fun to immerse yourself in. When you truly know a road – right down to every last rut and bump – you can effectively leave the Individual setup fixed on the screen for on-the-fly setup changes. I’m well aware it’s not a traditional way to find thrills but it’s a welcome layer of involvement, at the very least. Such tweaks won’t truly transform how the car behaves, but VW very clearly prioritised tech when the Golf entered its eighth generation and you’ll enjoy this car more if you lean into its thinking. On which note, the engine sounds better with the Sport sound augmentation activated. I know, I know. Send your letters of complaint to the usual address. But its subtle bass adds even more appeal to chasing the redline. Buy a mollycoddled Mk5 if it all offends you too much…

There are moments of magic to be found but in the dry they do require commitment into the corner. The GTI isn’t the only 300 horsepower hot hatch guilty of such things, but the onslaught of grip and tech has doubtless minimised the easily attainable thrills pioneered by its ancestors. And yes, I’ve saved some room to criticise its screen and controls. Why does it take two screen presses to activate the heated seats (twice as many as, y’know, a button) but you’re forever activating the heated wheel without meaning to in tight corners? And it takes so many steps to begin loosening the ESC that it’s easy to assume they’d rather we didn’t bother.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

All of which means there’s an immediate simplicity and rightness to the 230i when you clamber into it after the GTI. A sense of purity. You’re sat lower and more centrally in the wheelbase, a feeling exaggerated by how much of the bonnet visibly rolls out ahead of you. By comparison the Golf seems to perch you high over the front axle.

Despite its more modest power-to-weight figure, the BMW feels more inherently sporty from the off, as a natively rear-driven coupe probably ought to. The range kicks off almost four grand cheaper with a 181bhp 220i, a neat little car but one whose power and grip reach something of a stalemate. There’s a useful slug of extra torque here and while it doesn’t make the 230i animalistic – its M badges allude to its trim level rather than its engineering team – it’s notably livelier than the entry 2-Series coupe. 

There’s a tangible connection to BMWs of old thanks to a cohesive melding of modern technology and old-school temperament. You can drive it smoothly and sedately and still sense how well balanced the chassis beneath you is, its weight distribution close to 50/50. But just start to push, use the throttle a little more assertively out of each corner, and you’ll feel the rear axle work harder and harder without having to yobbishly pitch the car on in entry. There’s clearly great depth to its ability, and more dramatic behaviour to be found, but you can take supreme satisfaction in feeling so keyed into a chassis without overdriving the car. The fact its eight-speed automatic punches home gnarlier shifts than the Golf’s seven-speed DSG (and its extra clutch) is a cherry on top of it all.

All of BMW’s mucking about with our emotions with its curious design avenues and that ridiculous XM? This is its apologetic bouquet of flowers and fancy meal out to let us know we still belong in its affections. One of the simplest, cheapest BMWs of its whole range is welcome proof that plenty of Munich’s marbles remain accounted for.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

Jethro was very fond of the M240i xDrive he ran in Fast Fleet and I’m not sure the 230i lags too far behind in terms of useable performance, its power deficit neatly countered by a 165kg-defter kerb weight and the purity of its layout. There’s plenty of appeal in squeezing a trademark BMW straight-six into a taut little two-door, of course, and the slightly reedy soundtrack of this in-line four does seem undernourished in comparison. And perhaps you might crave some mechanical differentiation from the other attainable performance BMWs, namely the 128ti and M135i hot hatches, which are more natural (though less talented) foes for the Golf. The latter actually costs more than a 230i.

You could also argue its passive suspension setup feels a touch busy on Britain’s more tarnished roads, too, but I doubt you’ll miss the Golf’s 15 stages of damping once you’re ensconced in the BMW. It’s quite refreshing to not spend time worrying about being in exactly the right mode on any given surface, no anxious ‘what ifs’. And it’s always got great body control. Over a particularly rutted lane that’s untied plenty of performance cars before it the 230i exhibits utmost assuredness, every bump beings pronounced but without disrupting your progress. It’s an assuredness that just keeps upping your commitment, digging further and further into the car’s dynamic breadth. The steering – almost inevitably – lacks proper feel and notching into Sport makes it predictably naff, once again encouraging you to curate an Individual setup early into your first stint. But perhaps in the age of EPAS the sign of a good steering system is one you never actively think about. Oh, I’d love to be regaling you with tales of its crispness and constant communication, but reactions this clean, consistent and light are the next best thing.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

The whole thing feels refined and mature, perhaps no surprise given the Two is based upon a shrunken 4-series platform. And there’s probably ample reason to choose it over its bigger, more expensive sibling, such is the quiet comfort it brings to longer journeys, the peace and quiet only disturbed under more aggressive throttle loads and this engine’s workmanlike nature with greater revs. 

‘The Golf is mighty quick – and probably more effective than the 230i for most people – but when you need that last degree of precision, it doesn't have the BMW's sense of integrity,’ observes evo’s latest staff writer Yousuf Ashraf, already wise beyond his 23 years. ‘There's a boisterous energy to the chassis that I didn't expect from a standard 2-Series and you can work it really hard on the way out of corners. The Golf feels lofty and aloof by comparison.’

This magazine’s 25-year timeline is no stranger to an occasional front- vs rear-wheel-drive upset, the Megane 265 Trophy ruthlessly popping the balloons at the Subaru BRZ’s welcome party living long in the memory of all who witnessed it. But today is not one of those days. The Golf GTI Clubsport looks truly fantastic and is easily the quicker of our pair. For some people that’ll be more than enough to sign a lease deal now and get their head around its touchscreen later.

But you’re reading evo, so it’s safe to assume you’re not ‘some person’. You care about a car filtering back as much as the road as its technology allows and providing satisfaction no matter the speed. Today, that car is the BMW 230i. It’s not totally immune to either Munich’s curious aesthetic mood-boarding nor the discombobulation of modern car pricing. Make your peace with either, though, and you’ll discover a deeply talented car.

Skip advert
Advertisement
Skip advert
Advertisement

Most Popular

Fast Ford heaven: a tour of the ultimate Ford garage
Ford Heritage Collection tour
Features

Fast Ford heaven: a tour of the ultimate Ford garage

Who doesn’t love a fast Ford? Prepare for a nostalgia overload as we get a guided tour of Ford UK’s magnificent, newly rehomed Heritage Collection
7 Jul 2024
Speed limiters are now mandatory, but you can turn them off
80mph motorway speed limit
News

Speed limiters are now mandatory, but you can turn them off

The use of mandatory speed limiters on all new cars was approved by the European Parliament in 2019, and they're now coming into force
5 Jul 2024
Analogue Lotus Elise v Alpine A110 R: £100k lightweight specials go head-to-head
Analogue Elise and Alpine A110 R
Group tests

Analogue Lotus Elise v Alpine A110 R: £100k lightweight specials go head-to-head

No-expense-spared restomod Elise by Analogue Automotive makes an intriguing pairing with the lightweight, track-focused A110 R
10 Jul 2024