The BMW M135i xDrive is already going up against the Audi S3 and Mercedes-AMG A35 4MATIC in the premium hot hatch segment. Now BMW is setting its sights on the Ford Focus ST, Volkswagen Golf GTI and others, with a new front-wheel-drive rival. The BMW 128ti sees the ‘Turismo Internazionale’ designation return for the first time in two decades. Not since the compact 323ti from the late nineties have those two letters appeared on the back of a BMW, but it’s a tradition that dates back to the 1968 BMW 2002TI.
The car you see in the photos is a pre-production model, hence the light camouflage, but if you look closely you will spot that it appears to share much of the same styling as the 302bhp M135i xDrive. Expect it to have some unique features, possibly highlighting the return of that ti badge. What is already visible are the red brake calipers. These are an aluminium four-piston monobloc design up front that grab onto 360mm discs. The rear axle uses a floating caliper setup with 300mm discs.
By ditching the bulky all-wheel-drive transmission the 128ti instantly saves 80kg in weight, tipping the scales at 1,520kg. Similar to its other hot 1 Series, the ride height of the 128ti is 10mm lower. However, this car gets a bespoke spring and damper setup both to compensate for the reduction in mass and to tailor how it handles. BMW is keen to demonstrate that this isn’t merely a creation to plug a gap in the range. Instead, it wants to get back to its roots of creating real drivers’ cars, to reignite the joy of driving.
With power only going to the front wheels, the BMW employs a Torsen limited-slip differential to enhance traction levels, especially when powering out of corners. Along the fast, sweeping roads around the Nordschleife, the 128ti behaves impeccably. It has a firm ride but never seems overly stiff. Surface imperfections are dealt with efficiently, too. That should bode well for when the car arrives in the UK in early 2021.
The 128ti is a car that truly comes alive in the bends, and it has plenty of grip to give you the confidence to lean on it that bit harder. Adjustments to the calibration of the electrically assisted steering dial back the directness, which makes it less nervous on the front. The result is that the car seems to flow more naturally and fluidly through a corner. As you turn in the steering loads up progressively, and the feedback through the wheel gives you a clear perception of what the front axle is doing. Quick direction changes don’t phase it in the slightest, and it rewards those who want to explore what it is capable of doing. BMW doesn’t buy into the fad of flat-bottomed steering wheels either, and this one isn’t overly chunky either. There’s a good deal of side support from the sports seats that hold you nicely in place during faster bends without sacrificing comfort over a long journey.
So what better way to sample that than to head onto the Green Hell. Within the first few corners, it is clear that the 128ti is something special. It powers strongly out of the bends and through tighter radii corners you can feel the front diff doing its thing, making it feel as if there’s an invisible hand grabbing the nose of the car and pulling it around the apex. You can give it the full beans on corner exit, and it won’t leave you fighting against an armful of torque steer. It’s non-existent in this car.
Although the engine produces less power than the M135i xDrive, it doesn’t seem all that much slower, thanks to the weight reduction. It thrives in the upper revs, with peak power of 261bhp available from 4,750rpm and lingering up to 6,500rpm - 250rpm higher than the M135i. It sounds far better than the M135i as well, with a more natural and harder-edged note resonating throughout the cabin. It is slower in the race to 62mph, taking 6.2 seconds, which is 1.4 seconds slower than the M135i, but in the grand scheme of things that’s not a great deal. While it lacks the output horsepower of the Focus ST, it trumps the latest Golf GTI, although Volkswagen is developing a hotter version to slot in beneath the next Golf R.
At higher speeds, the BMW is very planted, and you can sense that there’s plenty of grip on hand. Buyers will be able to order the car from the factory with sticky Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres as a no-cost option, and as standard, it will come on 18-inch wheels. In the big braking zones the 1 Series doesn’t move around at all, and there’s a reassuring feel from the brake pedal, allowing for a good amount of modulation as you scrub off speed. You do need to keep the car in the Sport setting to get the best from it, and even if you aren’t willing the switch the traction control off it isn’t very intrusive. Powering out of the Carousel corner there is zero hesitation or stutter from the front-end as the four-pot slings the car onwards. A fast exit further along the lap on the lengthy Döttinger Höhe straight indicates that the supposed 155mph limit may be a soft one as the numbers keep on ticking up on the colour head-up display.
What is immediately apparent after only a couple of hours behind the wheel is that BMW has nailed the setup of this car almost perfectly. Other than the automatic transmission being a touch laggy in the default setting, this BMW is a joy to drive and eclipses its more powerful sibling for overall fun and driver engagement. It feels and performs like a proper hot hatch in every way, and it’s not as contrived as some others. It’s good enough to forgive BMW for not offering the option of a manual gearbox. Keener drivers may be pleasantly surprised when they get behind the wheel of this 128ti as it demonstrates a positive direction change for BMW that proves this is much more than the resurrection of a badge.
Model: BMW 128ti
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 261bhp at 4,750-6,500rpm
Torque: 400Nm at 1,750-4,500rpm
0-62mph: 6.2 seconds
Max speed: 155mph
WLTP fuel consumption: TBC
WLTP CO2: TBC