IF you’d have told people 20 years ago that BMW would be producing a front-wheel drive hot hatch in 2021 that was designed to take on the perennial Volkswagen Golf GTI, they’d have thought you were talking complete nonsense.
After all, the company was known for having a staunchly rear-wheel drive line-up. But after slowly injecting more and more front-drive models into its range, we’ve now arrived at that very point, with the 2021 BMW 128ti.
And while, no, it’s not an M or even M Performance model, it does revive a badge from BMW’s history – this car marks the return of the ti badge last seen on the 3 Series Compact in the 1990s, but far more famously on the 1800ti and 2002ti of the 1960s.
The 128ti offers the greatest sign yet that things have changed over in Bavaria. Slotting itself between the entry-level 118i and the Golf R-rivalling M135i xDrive, the 128ti comes at a bit of a premium compared to its competition.
It’s priced at $56,900 before on-roads in base form, and $63,473 as tested for this fully-loaded press car – so it’s going to need to prove itself in a big way. Fortunate then, we had the ideal proving grounds at our disposal, Tasmania.
Beyond the ti decals on the side skirts and splashes of red all over it, such as around the air intakes and on the brake callipers, there’s no unique bodywork to set the 128ti apart from the even hotter M135i – yet.
What subtle changes there are certainly help it stand out in the range. Personally, we’d opt for red or blue paint as with either colour the red accents are made black, which would be a bit more subtle, but the red is youthful.
Inside, it’s all much of the same as well – aside from the red ti lettering stitched into the centre armrest and the red contrast stitching continued throughout the cabin, all of the gear you’ll find in any other highly-specified 1 Series, is here.
Some of the optional extras certainly play a role in making this cabin truly feel the part though, including the Comfort Package, which adds powered lumbar support (electric seat adjustment plus memory for the driver is already standard) along with heated seats.
A heated steering wheel is also included and something that was incredibly appreciated by this writer on the snowy sub-zero Tasmanian mornings. It’s absolutely worth going for the M Sport bucket seats and Dakota leather upholstery as well, as they’re a big upgrade.
The one option you should definitely give a miss though is the 16-speaker Harman Kardon audio system. Despite how good HK systems typically are, it has to be one of the worst brand-name systems we’ve ever heard – tinny, unbalanced, and with muddy bass.
Speakers aside, everything else works well, including the 10.25-inch instrument cluster and infotainment screens that are both incredibly clear and crisp, and offer up some welcome performance information.
The head-up display shows an incredibly helpful shift light indicator among other useful information, and there’s a wireless phone charger that adds to the convenience of wireless Apple CarPlay connectivity. It all goes some way to justifying the higher price tag.
What makes the 128ti so special is what’s under the skin though, as it’s packing a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that, at its core, is the same as the M135i.
The power figures of 180kW and 380Nm are certainly only on par with the likes of the GTI, but that’s because BMW Australia has detuned it by 15kW and 20Nm compared to European models, to better compete with the Golf.
The Aisin eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission doesn’t sound quite as flash on paper as the dual-clutch units most rivals offer either. Here’s the kicker though, how the numbers look on paper doesn’t translate into how the car feels on the tarmac.
In the 128ti’s case, it certainly feels much more impressive than you’d think, as the way this thing builds speed belies the figures.
Admittedly, some of the detuning efforts can clearly be felt, which isn’t so good – through both first and second gear you can sense the boost being limited to a varying degree, particularly above 5000rpm.
However, once you learn the way this engine delivers its power and get a feel for how it’s geared, it’s properly satisfying when you time your shifts correctly. Spoiler alert: you’ll want to upshift early, and not fully lay into the loud pedal until you’re deeper into second gear.
When you do get it up to triple-digits is when it really starts to come alive.
Free of all the power-limiting measures, it feels torque-rich and progressive in the way it builds up speed, and you can start to hear how surprisingly beefy it sounds and just how quickly it blips through the gears as well despite having a torque converter.
When you need to scrub off that speed, the huge brakes, with four-pot aluminium monobloc callipers up front, bring it back to a halt in an instant as well. Likewise there’s a Torsen limited-slip differential to keep it on the straight and narrow.
While on soggy Tasmanian west coast tarmac, the occasional dash of torque steer could be felt if you really punted it hard on the exit from one of the many bends that line these roads.
In more optimal conditions and with a lighter touch on the pedals, the diff can be felt working away to ensure the power is being evenly distributed, and it does as great a job of it as a mechanical diff ever could.
With the road dry ahead and a feel for the throttle, it means you can finally explore just how great a chassis this thing has. Stiff but not overly uncomfortable and responsive but never twitchy, it serves as a reminder that BMW really knows how to make a car handle.
Keeping the steering in Comfort mode and everything else in Sport will give you the best blend of steering feel, suspension stiffness, and throttle response, and like this, it turns in quickly and remains incredibly flat, and honestly hangs with the very best of them.
No doubt the excellent choice of Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber only lends a helping hand in this regard as well. If there were any doubts about BMW making a front-drive hot hatch, then, let them be dispelled.
As we’ve noted in past 1 Series coverage, the front-wheel drive layout has made it a better vehicle with more interior room and cargo space, and although there are a few minor compromises, by-and-large this is still a remarkably good hot hatch.
Plus, in terms of intangible things, from an overall quality perspective it’s still every bit a BMW – it feels premium, and that gives it not only that advantage over rivals, but explains a bit more as to why you’re paying extra for it.
And, truthfully, that’s why you’ll want to go for the 128ti over any other hot hatch – it looks and feels more premium than the others.
Some out there are definitely better and more cohesive drives – the Hyundai i30 N and at least the old Mk7 Golf GTI for example – but if you’re wanting something that feels a bit more substantial, this is really what you’ll want.
It might be uncharacteristic of what you expect from BMW in some regards, but the 128ti certainly deserves its place in the hot hatch conversation. As a first attempt at something like this goes, it’s very impressive indeed.
Beyond that, it’s absolutely the pick of the current 1 Series range as well. You can build and price your own on the BMW website.
This article originally appeared on drivesection.com and has been republished with permission. Photography by Shuqi Yu and Patrick Jackson. Our test vehicle was provided by BMW Australia. To find out more about the BMW 128ti, contact your local BMW dealer.