BMW 128ti (2021) International Launch Review

BMW 128ti Drive10

BMW has plucked the famous ti badge from its timeline to invigorate the new 1 Series. The 128ti is a hot hatch in the formula most of us recognise – front-engined and front-wheel-drive – and it seems squarely set on seducing Golf GTI customers. International correspondent Richard Lane got the chance to drive it in the UK. 

Two years ago, BMW axed arguably its most distinctive product. That product was the 2nd-generation 1 Series – the market's only exclusively rear-wheel-driven premium hatchback and, as if that wasn’t enough, the only one available with 6-cylinder power. Its existence meant that if you shelled out for one of the top-ranking 1 Series derivatives, you'd get something undeniably special for your money.

BMW’s subsequent decision to switch the 1 Series onto the front-driven FAAR platform (already serving the X1 SUV) duly went down about as well as Porsche’s 2013 clanger of withholding a manual gearbox from the 911 GT3. In both cases, the business case was there – but approval from enthusiasts was certainly not. Yet, unlike the GT3, whose maker backtracked and now offers its finest driving machine with three pedals once more, the 6-cylinder 1 Series isn’t coming back. Four cylinders sitting transversely, and sending their efforts to the front axle (unless equipped with xDrive), well, that's how it’s going to be.

But before we get too wistful, we need to be straight with ourselves: the old M135i and M140i cars, replete with their creamy 3.0-litre inline-6 motors, weren’t perfect. Because they carried so much weight in their front ends, they were considerably less agile than many of their serious hot hatch rivals. What's more, an underdamped rear axle meant that the driven tyres' contact patches could feel worryingly vague on trickier, low-grip roads. In truth, they weren’t really hot hatches at all – they were grand tourers in hatchback bodies: unique and, in the right circumstances, brilliant, but costly to run and not the quick-footed firecrackers needed to challenge the established hot-hatch benchmarks. Which, interestingly, is exactly what the new 128ti is designed to do.

What special about the 128ti?


BMW has given the ti a racy exterior in the hopes of dipping into the "boy racer" crowd.

Until very recently, the idea that the pre-eminent purveyor of rear-drive sedans might directly challenge the Volkswagen Golf 8 GTI in its own backyard would have been patently absurd. However, that is exactly what the new 1 Series architecture permits, and BMW seems to have put plenty of effort into making sure the 128ti lands with a proverbial bang. It has even reprised its 2nd most alluring moniker – ti, for Turismo Internazionale – for the first time since the 1990s. Less welcome is the decision to celebrate this revival with jarring red accents, but if those are the only blots on the 128ti’s copybook, game on.

Behind the redesigned front bumper sits a detuned version of the same twinscroll-turbocharged 2.0-cylinder 4-cylinder engine found in the M135i xDrive range-topper. Here it makes 180 kW and 380 Nm (in South African-market spec) instead of 225 kW and 450 Nm. Drive is directed to the front wheels through the same mechanical Torsen limited-slip differential found in the M135i, although the locking ratio has been reduced fractionally. Without the stability provided by the more powerful car’s driven rear axle, BMW claims there was a risk the 128ti would be too fighty if the ratio remained unchanged. What's more, that would have gone against what BMW is aiming for with its newcomer: something coherent, deft and fun... but not necessarily white-knuckle wild.

The detail changes, therefore, run much deeper than chucking the rear driveshafts back in the parts bin and tweaking the differential. Compared with the M135i, underbody bracing has been removed from the 128ti's front (and added at the back), with the aim of shifting the distribution of stiffness rearward and making the front-end less prone to understeer and the back, well, more lively. For the same reason, as well as to improve turn-in response, the suspension geometry has been altered, notably with the reduction of toe-in at all four corners. In order to maintain that all-important dynamic harmony, the speed of the electromechanical steering has then been marginally slowed from what you experience in the M135i. Again, the aim was for pin-sharp handling, but without unpleasant surprises.

Helping the 128ti’s cause is the fact that it weighs 80 kg less than the M135i, so in terms of power-to-weight, it trails its range-topping sibling by only 12.5 kW per tonne. It also comfortably beats the 180-kW Golf 8 GTI by this measure, although neither is anywhere near the head of the field. The BMW’s 135 kW per tonne is monstered by the 171 kW per tonne of the 65 kg-lighter, 235 kW Honda Civic Type R.

If you want to bring four-wheel-drive rivals into play, the 225 kW Mercedes-AMG A35 is the closest thing to the 128ti in spirit and customer profile, and it manages not much more, with 144 kW per tonne. These are fairly dry figures, admittedly, but revealing ones for hot hatches, and the new BMW does adequately well.

The inside bits


Digital instrument dials make a comeback in the 128ti, other 1 Series models use a different theme.

When you slide aboard the 128ti, you will be pleasantly surprised by its interior – the seats, for example, might look vaguely 1980s-inspired, but they’re among the best in the class for offering reasonably comfort as well as adequate support in the twisties. In terms of ergonomics and perceived quality, the Bimmer also has among the finest hot hatch cockpits around. BMW’s iDrive retains plenty of solid-feeling physical controls, and elements such as the leather airbag cover, contemporary plastic finishes and red stitching leave several notable rivals feeling dreary.

Even the Golf 8 GTI feels one or two notches below the mark set by the 128ti, and – hallelujah – BMW has even supplied some deliciously simple digital instrument dials to replace the unclear sidewinders found on every other 1 Series. I sincerely hope it will catch on in the rest of the range. However, you will also notice that there’s no traditional gearstick, and that’s because the 128ti is offered solely with Aisin’s 8-speed torque-converter automatic transmission. BMW claims the gearing for any manual would have had to have been overly long for emissions tests and that market research shows uptake would be minimal.

There’s probably truth in those statements, but the 128ti purports to be a "proper" hot hatch, yet you can’t have it with a manual 'box. And, in light of that, you might be left wondering just how proper it can be. Well, in some respects, it’s very proper; and in others, a little underwhelming. First, BMW has been brave with this car; it nailed its colours to the mast by fitting passive dampers. Should the chassis feel too soft on back roads, there’s no push-button rescue service to raise the level of control. Equally, if BMW’s set-up feels like skateboarding down cobbled streets when you’re on the motorway, that’s your lot.

What's it like to drive?


A few chassis tweaks here and there are meant to stiffen up the rear and reducing understeer.

Fortunately, the Bavarian marque has struck an unusually fine balance between ride and handling with its newcomer. And while there’s some low-speed jostle that can sometimes feel only just the right side of punishing (please, stick to the 18-inch alloys) once you’ve got some speed up and begun to work the dampers, the 128ti flows with what could be called "forgiving poise". It’s almost exactly the blend of comfort and control that I want in a hot hatch: serious enough that the car immediately feels lean and toothy and capable enough to deal with frequent crests and troughs without making your heart skip a beat, but also compliant enough to live with on a daily basis. Overlaid on this is the revised steering, the gearing of which is measured without ever feeling ponderous. It’s a world away from the frenetic rack in the Renault Mégane RS, although still crisply responsive around the dead-ahead position and, thereafter, more convincingly weighted than that of the Golf GTI (it’s best left in Comfort mode; Sport is too artificially heavy.)

Its overall effect is to endow the 128ti with enjoyable handling precision, which is gratefully received in the era of hatchbacks that are almost as wide as a Lamborghini Countach. As for the engine, it’s more effective than engaging. The B48 2.0-litre motor is now well known, its undersquare design packing a uniformly powerful, if slightly laggy, punch that effortlessly propels you forward from 2 000 rpm upwards, but little to pull on your heartstrings. It’s well-matched to the transmission, whose shifts are crisp and, in Sport mode, theatrically forceful. So, steering, ride and powerplant: all are good or good enough. This leaves the stage set for that vaunted ti-unique handling to shine. Which it does, in part, but not blindingly so. Damp patches on drying roads possibly don’t help, but the promised adjustability didn’t easily materialise.

There are certainly hints that the 128ti can be particularly wieldy. Mid-corner, its nose responds acutely to the throttle closing, and it’s balanced enough that it will indulge being flicked through challenging direction changes at truly exciting speeds. Having said that, you might struggle to summon the commitment needed to really get the chassis going. The 128ti majors on neutrality. It never feels especially keen to adopt any yaw on the way into corners, and while the differential is predictable, it isn’t quite as effective as you'd expect when powering out of bends. Yes, there’s a fair amount of torque steer if you’re lead-footed, although more fundamentally, outright grip often feels limited. Depending on your expectations, it means that, when driven hard, the 128ti can frustrate you equally as much as it can impress you.

Verdict


The 128ti appears to be a balanced offering from BMW, much like the GTI.

There’s more to discover about the 128ti, which will be available in Mzansi soon... A grippy, bone-dry road would, in all likelihood, help the feisty 128ti generate the level of front-axle grip it needs to truly "unlock the devil inside". I certainly hope that that will be the case, because BMW’s first attempt at producing an authentic sweet-spot hot hatch is largely impressive and will deservedly steal sales from the Golf GTI, especially on the strength of its upmarket interior. There’s also something enjoyably gritty and pedigree-feeling in the dynamic character of the 128ti when you explore its talents on the right bit of road. However, for a self-professed driver’s hot hatch, you might just want something even more distinctive; something that offers even more driver engagement, more of the time... perhaps even something with an extra pedal.

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