You’ll probably have expected the 128ti’s cabin to outshine the vastly more humble surroundings of a Focus ST and the only slightly more materially ambitious ones of a Mégane RS 300. Indeed, it does. The BMW’s cabin is a very agreeable place to be. But do glossy material trims, a glaringly wide infotainment system and embossed armrests really matter in an affordable driver’s car? Or might the general comfort, support and adjustability of the driver’s seat and the orientation of the controls matter more?
To this tester, while the Renault offers a good driver’s seat but a more ergonomically compromised layout of controls in front of it than either of the other two cars, it’s the Ford that shades the BMW for driving position credit. The 128ti’s seats have more adjustability than the Focus ST’s, but they’re harder and less laterally supportive. And, for the record, no car here has the low, just-so primary ergonomics of a Honda Civic Type R.
Next, let’s pick a powertrain: the versatile, characterful, exciting kind you’d want in an everyday-use performance option. The BMW’s does pretty well here, at least as far as its engine goes. You’d pick its torquey-feeling 2.0-litre turbo over the Renault’s boosting, popping 1.8, even though it’s a touch too reserved for its own good. But it doesn’t rev like the Ford’s 2.3-litre turbo, and while it’ll hurl the 128ti along at quite the rate, it doesn’t occupy your imagination quite like the Focus’s engine, either. I’ve never known a four-cylinder motor to warble and thrum as genuinely as the Ford’s does when you select Sport driving mode, and the active exhaust switches over to its noisy pipe. It’s a real audible treat.
For a gearbox, there’s just no competition; not for me. I accept that a great many people who buy cars like this would now rather have two pedals than three because that suits them better for the everyday grind. But here’s the thing: a manual transmission doesn’t just better occupy your left hand and left leg, but your brain as well. In the manual-equipped Focus ST, your approach to every corner, and every straight that opens up in front of you after it, is so very different from how it is in either the Mégane RS 300 or the 128ti. You are fully mentally engaged in the process of preparing the Ford for whatever lies through the windscreen; of picking gears for corners deliberately, and then committing to making them work, with the car’s weight and half shafts loaded and set just as you want them.