The new 128ti is BMW’s bid to beat the Volkswagen Golf GTI at its own game. And, boy, is it a strong effort.

+ surprisingly fun; a compelling daily driver
– detuned for SA; soundtrack a little tame

By: Ryan Bubear

Times have changed, haven’t they? After spending much of its storied history crafting a reputation for eminently sporty rear-driven wares, BMW today also builds a front-wheel-drive hot hatch, powered by a transversely mounted four-cylinder turbopetrol engine. Purists, shield your eyes. This is the 128ti.

2.0-litre engine drives the front axle.

Let’s cut to the chase. The Munich-based firm’s first attempt at a conventional front-driven hot hatch (if you don’t count modern JCW-badged Mini models, of course) is a remarkably convincing one. It had to be considering it’s pitched squarely at would-be buyers of the popular Volkswagen Golf GTI. You see, rather than attempt to conjure up a hard-edged contender to lock horns with the likes of Honda’s razor-sharp Civic Type R and Renault’s kidney-jiggling Mégane RS 300 Trophy, BMW has opted for a more rounded approach.

So, just like the eighth iteration of Wolfsburg’s mid-size hot hatch, the box-fresh 128ti employs a 2.0-litre lump driving the front axle. Interestingly, the B48 four-pot has been detuned for markets such as South Africa, losing 15 kW and 20 Nm to settle on peak figures of 180 kW and 380 Nm. Why the reduced outputs? Well, with the wick turned down, the newcomer is perfectly positioned to tackle the 180 kW/370 Nm Golf 8 GTI. In addition, the move puts a little more air between the 128ti and the 225 kW M135i xDrive, with the all-paw flagship coming in R120 770 dearer.

BMW
Balance between handling and comfort is spot on.

Despite the SA-spec model’s claimed zero to 100 km/h time slowing some two-tenths to 6.3 seconds and the top speed dropping seven units to 243 km/h, the 128ti still feels suitably alert. In fact, throttle response is near immediate, while the crisp-shifting eight-speed automatic torque-converter transmission (BMW is well aware the typical GTI buyer prefers two pedals to three) does a bang-up job of keeping the punchy engine on the boil, and furthermore offers the use of paddle shifters.

Eight-speed automatic transmission does a bang-up job of keeping the punchy engine on the boil

While modern full-fat M models come fitted with a comparatively complicated drive mode system offering the driver a frankly unnecessary level of fine-tuning, the 128ti’s item is refreshingly simple. It comprises just a trio of settings, with the sportiest configuration furthermore allowing a basic level of adjustment for the steering, engine and transmission. In short, it’s a proper point-and-shoot affair, just as a hot hatch should be.

The Bavarian firm has furthermore opted not to include any pops and bangs on the overrun.

Regardless of the chosen mode, however, the 128ti is perhaps a little too mild mannered in the aural department, even with artificially enhanced engine sound pumped into the cabin. If you’re a staunch opponent of such fakery, this can interestingly be set to “reduced” via the infotainment system. The Bavarian firm has furthermore opted not to include any pops and bangs on the overrun. Make of that what you will.

Where the 128ti really comes into its own is with its ride and handling balance

Still, there’s far more to a hot hatch than the soundtrack. Where the 128ti really comes into its own is with its ride and handling balance. The clever limited-slip differential minimises (rather than eradicates) torque steer and wheel scrabble, allowing the pilot to get on the power sooner out of a bend. There’s a delightful sense of mid-corner balance, too, inspiring plenty of confidence once the tarmac turns twisty.

BMW
Red details abound.

The bespoke tune for the M Sport suspension includes stiffer springs, firmer anti-roll bars and a ride-height drop of 10 mm, while the model-specific 18-inch alloys are wrapped in 225/40 rubber. Though there’s a slight edge to the ride at low speeds, this quickly fades into the background as the driver pushes on. BMW doesn’t offer adaptive dampers for the 128ti, though the passive setup is so well sorted there wouldn’t be a need to spend the money if such an item were to suddenly appear on the list of options.

The “ti” decals on the flanks can be optionally deleted.

While the exterior styling of the F40-generation 1 Series has been described as “bloated” (some have even accused the hatchback of adopting an MPV-like persona), the 128ti cuts a somewhat sleeker figure thanks to its lower ride height and the standard M Sport body kit.

It furthermore gains a black grille, black side-mirror caps, red M Sport brake callipers and crimson detailing for items such as the front air inlets, side skirts and rear bumper’s faux vents. These trim pieces – along with the deletable “ti” decal ahead of the rear wheels – come in black should Melbourne Red or Misano Blue paintwork be specified. 

BMW
The cabin feels suitably upmarket, with loads of neat details.

Inside, you’ll find an upmarket cabin brimming with pleasing little details, from the thick-rimmed steering wheel and M colours on the seatbelts to the appealingly straightforward instrument cluster and red “ti” badge stitched onto the centre armrest. The front sports seats are trimmed in a combination of cloth and artificial leather, and are fittingly figure hugging without feeling too firm of cushion, while BMW’s iDrive system is present and correct. Overall, the 128ti feels decidedly special inside.

BMW
Sports seats are snug.

We should emphasise, of course, this cracking little hot hatch is not a full-fat M product. In fact, it doesn’t even fall under the M Performance banner. Indeed, the 128ti is an entirely different beast to the rear-driven, six-cylinder M135i and M140i models of generations past … and that’s perfectly okay.

BMW
BMW’s intuitive iDrive system, present and correct.

Ultimately, the new 128ti is easily the most compelling derivative in the current 1 Series range. Whereas the underwhelming (and heavier) M135i xDrive is bordering on anodyne, the 128ti is packed with character, proving more entertaining to drive despite its lower outputs.

Though dyed-in-the-wool BMW fans may decry the fact the 128ti settles for a four-pot that drives the front wheels (sans the option of a manual gearbox, no less), this new hot hatch is a refreshingly honest take on the conventional hot hatch recipe, mixing equal parts usability and dynamic talent. In short, it’s a genuine rival for the venerable GTI. Look out, Wolfsburg.

Verdict

4.5/5

The new 128ti has confidently strode onto the hot-hatch playground, aimed a punch squarely at the esteemed VW Golf GTI and left the legend with a bit of a bloody nose. That’s no mean feat considering this is Munich’s first crack at a front-driven hot hatch. Bravo, BMW.

Deep Data

BMW 128ti Steptronic

Price: R687 418
Engine: 2.0 L, 4-cyl, turbopetrol
Transmission: 8-spd AT
Driven wheels: F
Power: 180 kW @ 5 000-6 500 r/min
Torque: 380 Nm @ 1 500-4 400 r/min
0-100 km/h: 6.3 seconds
Top speed: 243 km/h
Fuel consumption: 6.8 L/100 km
CO2: 156 g/km
Length: 4 319 mm
Height: 1 434 mm
Width: 1 799 mm
Wheelbase: 2 670 mm
Weight: 1 505 kg
Luggage capacity: 380 L
Fuel tank: 50 L
Warranty: 2 years/unlimited km
Maintenance plan: 5 years/100 000 km