Go-faster strife: BMW E30 318iS vs Mk2 VW Golf GTi (CAR archive, 1990)

Published: 23 November 2016

► BMW E30 318iS takes on Mk2 VW Golf GTi
► Can the RWD 3-series overcome the hot FWD Golf?
► Read our archive test from August 1990 to find out

BMW asked for this one. Its description of the new 318iS as 'a GTi for grown-ups' may be a tongue-in-cheek PR invention, but behind the frivolity there's a serious message. Here, it is saying, is a go-faster compact with modest sporting pretensions and a solid heritage of quality and refinement. Here is a car for those mature drivers who have out-grown the kids' hot hatches and seek something better, but little bigger.

It is not a bad sales pitch for a car that plugs a small niche in the 3-series' expansive range between the £13,275 two-door four-cylinder 318i and the 14,985 six-cylinder 320i. At £14,750 before extras that can elevate the price to a silly figure, the 318iS is hardly cheap, even as a gentleman's racer. But then it is a BMW, and all that stands for in a market sector buoyed by one-up symbols of success. Blue, red and purple M-Technic motifs score bonus points here. 

A GTi for grown-ups, huh? VW might have contrived the same sales slogan for its Goff GTi 16V, still the performance hatchback to beat and no juvenile toy at £13,884 — more with fancy BBS wheels. On price, prestige and exclusivity, there's not much doubt about it: the 318iS does enjoy higher pecking-order status than the flagship, front-drive Golf, just as a des-res detached out-ranks a suburban semi. But taking our cue from BMW, let's be mature about this and stick to grown-up issues, not irrelevent snobbery. 

In the end, it's ability that counts, and that's what we address here. Implicit in BMW's marketing hype for its new model, expected to account for around one in 10 3-series sales, is the assertion that the 318iS is superior to the benchmark VW, the car by which all other GTis are judged. Let us see if that's right. 

Styling and engineering

The 318iS gets its extra vigour from a twin-cam version of the M40 engine that brings 16-valve technology to a much wider BMW audience. Before, it was available only to M1, M3 and M5 buyers. Design priorities included a broad spread of muscle rather than a peaky top end, good economy on unleaded fuel, low emissions — a catalytic converter is optional — and above-average refinement without the balancer shafts that Porsche, Mitsubishi, Lancia and Honda deem necessary to give a four-cylinder engine benchmark smoothness.

Bore and stroke are the same as those of the existing eight-valve M40, introduced in '87, so displacement remains 1796cc. The crankcase, sump, auxiliary drives, pumps and flywheel are identical, too. Other moving parts, including the light-weight pistons, forged-steel crankshaft and conrods, and hydraulically actuated valvegear, are special to the 16V, its twin camshafts driven by duplex roller chain. Semi-sequential fuel injection, a two-stage induction system and solid-state ignition (one coil per cylinder, mounted as an off-engine pack, and no moving parts), both under the control of all-embracing Bosch DME (Digital Motor Electronics), contribute to a pretty high-tech powertrain, not to mention an impressive lump of metal sculpture beneath the bonnet. 

For all that, output is a relatively modest 136bhp at 6000rpm (the 318i yields 115bhp), torque 127lb ft at 4700 (up from 122). Drive to the back wheels is through a five-speed gearbox, though auto transmission is an extra-cost option.

Hanging from beneath the 318iS's ageing face is an airdam that looks incongruously deep for the unsilled sides. Other visual giveaways, apart from the badge, include black-satin window trim, a modest bootlid spoiler that amounts to little more than a lip, and lowered M-Technic suspension — MacPherson front struts, semi-trailing rear arms — like that on the 325i Sport. The all-disc brakes are Sport sourced, too. Steel wheels carrying 195/65 rubber are standard, but the test car had optional cross-spoke aluminium wheels, £1074 the set, shod with 205/55 tyres. Other extras — metallic paint, catalytic exhaust, anti-lock brakes, limited-slip diff and powered sunroof — lifted the price to £18,380, well beyond that of a base 325i which is much quicker, never mind that of the rival Golf. 

VW's GTi 16V, flagship fwd of Europe's best-selling car (730,000 Golfs were registered in Europe last year), needs little introduction here. Power comes from an odd but effective twin-cam conversion of the 1781cc sohc GTi engine, the belt-driven exhaust camshaft directly above the cylinders driving the offset inlet one through sprockets and chain, Better breathing, which increases gas flow by 20 percent, raises power from 112bhp at 5400rpm to 139 at 6100. Torque is also up, but like that of the BMW, the increase from 117 to 1241b ft is quite modest.

Drive is through a close-ratio five-speed manual gearbox — there's no automatic alternative — and the suspension con-forms to what has become an industry norm for front-drive mainliners; Mac-Pherson front struts and linked trailing arms behind, stiff coil spring and dampers rates reflecting the 16V's sporting role. 

Aluminium wheels are standard but the 6Jx15 BBS crossed-spoked ones (and attendant space-saver spare) of the test car cost £509 extra. You also have to pay more for powered windows and mirrors, underlining that in standard form the Golf GTi 16V is not especially well equipped. 

Although similar in power, torque and wind drag — neither of these old and boxy cars is particularly clean aerodynamically — the three-door Golf hatchback has a weight advantage of more than 2.5cwt on the two-door 318iS saloon. 

Performance

With only 1500 miles behind it, the test Golf failed at Millbrook to match the performance of previous looser 16Vs. Even so, it had a slight edge over the BMW in all departments, including a two-second-per-lap advantage at the Castle Combe race track. Even when lugging, the GTi 16V, not noted for its low-rev pep, pulled out a small lead over the 318iS which is marginally higher geared in fourth and fifth. Lower first and second ratios emphasise gearing that's more widely spaced than the Golf's. In the end, though, it's not gearing that gives the VW a performance edge; it's weight that tells. 

Although both engines are quite flexible, hauling smoothly when ambling, neither pulls hard until the tacho needle has cleared 4000rpm. There's no kick point, no sudden surge in either car, merely a progressive intensification of effort. 

The BMW engine, slightly whiney at low revs, sizzlingly crisp when extended, is the sweeter and quieter of the two. Its eager-ness to work energetically without harsh-ness or vibration impresses more than its potency. Even when judged against rival counter-balanced engines, the 318iS is impressively refined. On performance, though, it is a bit disappointing for a BMW twin-cam 1.8, not least because pick-up is little better than that of the lesser 318i that throws its best punch at lower revs. Several much cheaper GTis than the 16-valve Golf have the 318iS well beaten on brio. 

Alienating itself from green-tinted enthusiasts, the Goff 16V cannot run on normal unleaded, demanding either four-star or, if you can find it, super unleaded (the emission-cleaned cat version, with 10bhp less, is not available on right-handed cars). Still, it is agreeably frugal; including performance testing and some hard laps of Castle Combe, our tight test car returned 28.5mpg, suggesting over 30mpg is well within grasp for normal motoring. The heavier BMW drank a little more (unleaded) petrol than the Golf. 

Roadholding, handling 

The VW consolidates its dynamic superiority here. Both cars have assisted steering but the Golf's gets no more hydraulic help than is necessary for tolerably easy parking; properly on the move, the steering is all the better for putting up some communicative resistance. Apart from feeling meatier, the Golf's steering is also sharper and more precise than that of the loose-limbed, low-ratioed BMW, which lacks the VW's crisp responses, and ultimately its agility. Its steering is too light and woolly, and body roll is greater than expected. 

Both cars corner securely — each felt safe and forgiving at its test-track limit —but the pusher BMW is more sensitive to the throttle than the puller VW; cut the power mid-bend at high lateral g and the 318iS will tighten its line, oversteer even, more sharply than the GTi 16V. Modest wallop and fat tyres make the BMW pretty well immune to power slides in the dry. 

No matter what the provocation, the Golf is never likely to wag its tail. Torque-steer is not a problem, either. Under high-rev acceleration there's a hint of fidget on unfavourable surfaces, but never any-thing unsettling. Onlookers may find the GTi's familiar three-wheel cornering antics (see picture) a bit unnerving, but the car feels immensely stable. 

On braking performance, we could not separate the two cars, neither of which suffered from fade on the track. The Golf, though, has the better weighted pedal, firmer and more progressive. 

Accommodation, comfort

Although over a foot shorter than the BMW in overall length, the com-pact Golf is the roomier car. Up front, there's no significant difference. In the back, the extra two inches of headroom and legroom enjoyed by VW passengers represent a telling advantage. 

In both cars, getting into the back is less awkward than getting out, even allowing for easy-tip front seats that push well forward. Four doors, costing £564 extra, would alleviate the problem- on the Golf, but the 318iS is sold only as a two-door. 

Folding rear seats and a hatchback tail make the VW a more versatile carrier than the BMW saloon, of course, though for four-up motoring, the BMW's boot - wide, flat-floored and extending well forward -is bigger than the Golf's. 

Swapping cars at Millbrook for the top-speed runs highlighted two important advantages the 318iS enjoys over the Golf: it is quieter and smoother. Fully extended, the VW is raucously noisy, its engine note harsh and buzzy. That of the BMW is sweeter and quieter throughout the rev range. Neither car rides with great serenity, but the BMW's suspension, stiffened up though it is, feels more supple. High-speed jiggle in the Golf, and relatively high noise levels from engine, slipstream and tyres, underscore the superior refinement of the BMW. 

Both cars have firm, bolster-embracing seats that allow the keen driver to swing along country roads without clinging to the wheel for support. Setting the BMW's to perfection calls for fiddly fine-tuning with knobs and levers. The Golf's height-adjustable seat, reclined by a rotary knob, is easier to place. 

Driver appeal

Ahead on points for performance and handling, the VW retains its narrow lead in the driving department. The action of its golf-balled gearlever, obstructively notchy when rushed, lacks the oily fluency of the BMW's lighter, short-throw lever. However, the 318iS's advantage here was wiped out by a disagreeably sharp clutch and sticky throttle. 

The architecture of the BMW's impressive dash, centrally angled towards the driver, is aesthetically more pleasing than the VW's rather severe business block. its beautiful instruments are more comprehensive and better displayed, too.

Ergonomically, the VW has the better controls. Its (standard) trip computer is among the best, its modes changed by pushing a button on the end of the right-hand stalk. Powered locks are standard on the 16V, but the mirrors, windows and roof-light are manually operated. 

Light controls make the BMW very undemanding to drive. Slim pillars and deep windows also make it easy to place on manoeuvres; heavy rear panels in the Golf obstruct rear three-quarter vision. 

Both are dull to the point of being funereal in their dated interior decor; seat cloth is of check pattern in the BMW, striped in the Golf, but there was little else in the test cars to relieve unremitting dark plastic trim. Close inspection reveals that of the BMW to be of better quality than the Golf's, though both cars are beautifully finished. Powered front windows and mirrors, which cost extra in the Golf, are standard equipment in the BMW. 

Conclusion

As a grown-up’s GTi, the in-between BMW is not totally convincing; the cheaper 318i is almost as quick and the pricier 325i faster and more refined. The 318iS's performance is adequate, no more; several cheaper members of the brat-pack that the BMW seeks to out-rank can comfortably better its acceleration and loose-limbed handling. Still, although the BMW is not soul-stirring, it is a pleasant car that commands respect, not least for its refinement and build quality. 

The Golf GTi 16V measures up to the slogan coined for the BMW more convincingly than does the 318iS. Although harsher and noisier when extended, and knobblier in its ride, the VW is an accomplished car, a fine all-rounder with no serious drawbacks. Strong performance and excellent handling, backed up by carrying versatility and a useful price advantage, edge it ahead of the BMW on points. Its modest advantage over the ordinary eight-valve GTi, though, is not easily justified by a £2500 premium. Cheaper siblings from both camps are the real winners here.

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