The Volkswagen Golf in its many forms has been setting the standard for family cars for more than 40 years now. It’s spawned many imitators over that time and, although you’ll probably find cars now considered better in certain aspects, few can compete with the Golf’s overall package.
While the VW carries a certain level of prestige with its brand these days compared to the likes of Skoda, Ford and Seat – BMW can sell cars on the badge alone. When the Golf was launched it didn’t really have a BMW equivalent, but that changed with the introduction of the 1 Series.
We’re taking a look at the two German rivals head to head, to help you decide which one to choose if you’re torn between them.
There really is no mistaking the Golf, which is impressive considering how much it’s been copied by any number of its rivals over the years. It may not have retained its original styling to the same degree as its Beetle sibling, but it hasn’t strayed too far from its original design.
There are much more head-turning cars in the same class as the Golf these days, but none manage to be classy and classless all at the same time in the way the Golf does. It’s definitely put some weight on over the years, but then again, who hasn’t?
The BMW 1 Series isn’t as obviously appealing to the eye as the Golf, and its semi-estate car rear design isn’t universally popular. However, the recent redesign does make it look more like a small 3 Series, which can’t be a bad thing.
The 1 Series has a wide stance and slightly flared wheel arches, which makes it appear sportier than the Golf in standard trims. But, if you go for the performance versions of either car, the Golf certainly looks more the part.
Volkswagen has always been legendary for the interiors of its cars. They may not be the flashiest or the most luxurious, but nobody does functional high-quality cabins better than VW, and this seventh-generation Golf is no exception.
The wraparound dash in the Golf does look a little plain at first glance but, if you examine it a little closer you’ll see that it’s intuitively laid out and put together using the kind of first-rate materials you’d expect in a Golf. Soft-touch plastics are evident throughout, with some eye-catching metal-effect trims covering the centre console.
All BMW 1 Series models boast a high-quality, well-built interior with chunky controls, a stylish, trimmed dashboard and plenty of leather and metal finishes throughout.
This latest 1 Series offers the same excellent driving position we’ve become used to, while the steering wheel and supportive seats have plenty of adjustment options to cope with all sizes of occupant. Forward visibility is pretty good, but the small back window and thick rear pillars impede rear visibility a little.
The one thing you can say about both the Golf and the 1 Series is that there’s no lack of choice when it comes to engines.
The 1 Series offers some excellent and surprisingly economical petrol engines, but don’t take the model names too literally anymore for telling you what sized engine you are getting. For example, the 116i petrol was rebadged for this year as the 118i to reflect its higher power output, while the engine from the old 118i is now found in the 120i. But don’t start thinking that entry-level models are slow though, as even the 118i will get you from 0-62mph in just 8.5 seconds and on to a top speed of 130mph.
Unless you are going for one of the real high-performance Golf models, it’s more than likely you’re going to be going for a diesel. VW has refined the art of the diesel engine to such a degree that even Bluemotion models now drive like any other Golf. That’s largely thanks to a six-speed manual gearbox replacing the old five-speed, and the inclusion of the smoother and more powerful 1.6-litre TDI diesel.
For outstanding performance, the 2.0-Litre Golf R trumps even the legendary GTI, thanks to its combination of four-wheel drive and 296hp. It offers even sharper handling than the GTI, and the four-wheel drive system gives you a tremendous amount of grip.
But for the ultimate in BMW performance, the range-topping BMW M135i is the winner. Its 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight six engine propels you from 0 to 62mph in just 4.9 seconds, and packs 450Nm of torque.
When it comes to how these two drive against each other, a lot will depend on how you fell about the Golf’s front-wheel drive against the traditional rear-wheel drive of BMW.
All the BMW 1 Series variants corner without any significant body roll and love to show-off that impressive rear-drive agility. If you pay for the optional adaptive dampers, the ride is more comfortable than the equivalent Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class rivals, as well as the Golf. Regardless of which model you choose, you’ll find the BMW 1 Series a fun and agile small car.
But the Golf didn’t get to where it is today by being a poor drive. The Golf delivers class-leading levels of comfort and refinement, while even at motorway speeds, you’ll notice hardly any wind or road noise. It contends with bumps as if they weren’t there, but isn’t so soft and sloppy that it compromises handling and agility in any way.
The Golf is always composed and it continues to inspire confidence in its driver, but if it’s fun you’re looking for, the BMW is definitely the one to go for.
Value for money
There’s no hiding the fact that you can get into a VW Golf for considerably less money than you can with a BMW 1 Series, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The BMW now comes pretty well-equipped as standard these days, so it can be difficult to compare like for like with the Golf.
There’s tremendous economy to be had throughout both ranges if you go looking for it, with as much as 83.1mpg from the BMW 116d EfficientDynamics model, and 88.3mpg from the Golf BlueMotion 1.6 TDI.
Both have extremely strong resale values, but you’ll find the BMW badge means paying more for maintenance and general running costs.
Both of these cars are excellent. They both have great engines, they’re both great to drive and they both exude quality from every pore. However, the Golf’s styling could be considered a little dull these days, while the 1 Series isn’t as spacious, and therefore isn’t as practical as the Golf.
The BMW wins when it comes to overall desirability, and the M135i is just mental if you want performance thrills. But if value for money and practicality are your primary concerns, the Volkswagen Golf is still the one to beat.
If you like the look of either car, head over to the Golf’s and the 1 Series‘ full aggregated reviews to see what the UK’s motoring press thought of them. Check out the Golf in our car configurator or, for more options, visit our deals page to see our latest discounts.