TEST DRIVE: BMW 128ti – The Best 1 Series For Sale, But The Best Hot Hatch?

The 128ti offers considerable weight savings and improved driving dynamics over the M135i

The Bavarians have made something that was unthinkable just a decade ago. A sporty, front wheel drive competitor in the hot hatch space. The pure front-wheel drive BMW 128ti has arrived and is not an M or M Performance car, but the answer to the booming hot hatch world and its key competitor – the VW Golf GTI Mk8.

Last week, I had the chance to drive and review the new 128ti in Germany. Surprising as it may seem, I preferred it over its more powerful brother – the M135i – but we weren’t entirely the perfect patch. Let’s dive into the details and explain my thoughts in connection to the old and new moniker – the Turismo Internazionale badge.

The History Of The ti Moniker

BMW 2002ti at the BMW Museum in Munich

To understand more about the new ti, we need to look back in the history of BMW. Since the 1960s there have been the BMW 1800 ti and 2002 ti followed by the 323ti Compact and 325ti Compact of the late 1990s. All these models were in essence standard vehicles built sportier than its siblings. In case of the 128ti, the badge was used on a car that doesn’t offer more sportiness, but instead considerable weight savings and a decrease in power. The result is a more agile nature and less complicated set up which you will come across in the M135i.

TEST DRIVE: BMW 128ti – The Best 1 Series For Sale, But The Best Hot Hatch?
Courtesy of Vincent Toth @msck64

80 Kilos Lower Than M135i xDrive

Where the M135i and its xDrive system would only send a maximum of 50 per cent of its 306 hp to the back when things get slippery, the 128ti however only has front wheel drive and shaves off 80 kilograms due to the removal of the rear wheel drivetrain. It is still 1445 kg, which isn’t featherweight, especially compared to MINI’s offering the form of the GP3. This track-focused car is a whooping 190 kgs lighter, has the same performance coming from the same twin-scroll-turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

In the 128ti, the 2.0 liter motor is producing ‘only’ 265hp which is roughly 40hp less than the other two cars, and 400Nm – 50Nm less. Both numbers are up to the GTI levels. The engine is hooked up solely to an eight-speed automatic gearbox. There is no manual available, but there is a limited slip differential fitted as standard. The powertrain set up allows you to go from naught to 100kmh (62mph) in 6.1 seconds and up to a wholly predictable 250kmh (155mph) top speed. The sprint time is considerably slower than the MINI and the M Performance model, and while driving you notice the lower powerband. Especially at the top end, the 128ti lacks the oomph.

Courtesy of Vincent Toth @msck64

The other differences are in the details, and you will notice this when you are used to driving this particular set up. The key aim was to remove the underwhelming and difficult character of the M135i and create a more sporty and fun package. To do so, the engineers at BMW lowered the M Sport suspension by 10 mm, added firmer anti-roll bars and anti-roll bar mounts, fitted 8% stiffer springs and shock absorbers and made the differential 5% slower. There’s a slower steering ratio compared to that of the M135i to offer an improved handling and to create a dynamic harmony between all adjustments.

Improved Handling And Steering Input

The outcome is a lovely combination of sportiness and sophistication that you expect from a BMW which should react more normal and direct that its bigger brother. Where it is fun on one end, it is also a bit too polished on the other end not offering loads of engagement. The lack of power in comparison to the GP3 and M135i is something you will only miss when you are used to it. Other than that it offers just enough power to give you confidence in the newly improved handling and joyfulness. You could argue that a manual gearshift is sorely missed, but we have bothered BMW long enough to understand that the auto box is the only option we will ever have.

TEST DRIVE: BMW 128ti – The Best 1 Series For Sale, But The Best Hot Hatch?
Courtesy of Vincent Toth @msck64

To distinguish the fun 1 Series, the Germans added a plethora of red design touches both to the inside and outside of the car. In the photos embedded here, you will notice the red ti logo on the sides, red details on the bodywork front, rear and sides, red calipers of the M Sport braking system. Those are combined with the Shadowline trim with black BMW kidney grille and black mirror caps, the optional BMW Individual lights Shadowline for the headlights and the 18-inch Y‑spoke 553 M bi-color light-alloy wheels, which were shod in Continental winter tires. The tires, of course, impacted the handling as such and showcased a noticeable increase in understeer, but less than what I experienced in the M135i last year also running similar sized winters.

On the inside, the large Race Red surface in the backrests of the standard sport seats is combined with embroidered “ti” badge in the central armrest, contrast stitching in the other armrests, door panels, instrument panels, steering wheel rim and airbag cover. The interior lighting is set standard to red to finish off the red touches inside the cabin.

To round up the package, I have to admit that I haven’t had the chance to drive the new VW Golf GTI and can’t comment on how both compare to each other. What I can say is that the 128ti isn’t as focused as pure-breds like the Toyota GR Yaris, Honda Civic Type-R, Renault Megane RS or a Hyundai i30N. In the end, it offers a great mix of comfortable driving and unexpected sportiness that are the underlining ingredients of a good hot hatch.

Even more so, it makes in my opinion for the best F40 1 Series package out there right now.

TEST DRIVE: BMW 128ti – The Best 1 Series For Sale, But The Best Hot Hatch?
Courtesy of Vincent Toth @msck64

Still personally, I can’t ignore the questionable looks of the current 1 Series. Where the M135i was never my favorite, both on looks and the cumbersome driving characteristics, the 128ti fixed one of those aspects. But it still has that grille only its creator might adore and a side profile and roofline resembling a majority of the current competitor hot hatch designs.

Of course, there are plenty of hatchback with four doors, from Honda, Renault or Hyundai, or Mercedes (AMG A35 which I know is 4WD). So the options pool is quite diversified and it could come down to what brings you the biggest smile at an affordable price.

[Photos: Vincent Toth | instagram.com/msck64]