It was a predictable move though as the automotive customers have changed a lot in the past 20 years. Look at the range of models from BMW and its main rivals in the 200s, and look at the one available today. It’s certainly high growth because customers want different things today than they did two decades ago. They want a wider variety of body styles and more customization options, along with enhanced practicality and tech. Less and less drivers actually care about the dynamics of a car now, apart from how fast it goes in a straight line, in some cases. That’s why Tesla is so popular, as it delivers exactly what its customers want.
The Controversial Move To Front-Wheel Drive
The German carmaker realized that even though the former F20 is a blast to drive at the limit, few people actually appreciate that about the car. After careful planning and research, BMW realized that moving to a front-wheel drive platform will have way more benefits than downsides.
This is how we ended up with the current model that is, by most metrics, a better car than the old one. It also looks a bit different due to the underpinning platform.
When you have to transversely mount the engine, a couple of things have to happen, if you want certain dynamics and a certain look. First of all, you have to mount it as close to the cabin as possible, for good weight distribution. That brings a steeper incline in the hood profile and a different overall shape that tells you immediately where the power goes most of the time.
A New Hot Hatch
When it comes to the new BMW 128ti though, some tricks are applied to tell the innocent bystander that this is no regular 1 Series. All cars get contrasting elements throughout their bodies and most of the time, they will be red. However, on certain color combinations, these stickers might be a different color.
The M Sport package is standard on the 128ti so you’re getting a familiar shape on the front and rear bumpers. On top of that, on this special version, you get contrasting air intakes up front, and fake vents at the back in the same bright red color. All the chrome bits on the car are also blacked out with one notable exception: the rear badge. That’s the only place where you’ll find chrome. And it’s not by accident.
BMW decided to make this conscious move for two reasons: to make the badge stand out and as a throwback to the original ‘ti’ models. The badge was first used in the 1960s, on the 1800ti and stands for Turismo Internazionale. It was, if you will, BMW’s first attempt at differentiating its sportier models from the more mundane ones. Since this was back when the M division didn’t even exist, the “ti” badging was considered appropriate. All the cars with it on the boot were successful.
In 1964, with Hubert Hahne behind the wheel, the 1800ti managed to win 14 out of 16 races. Furthermore, two years later, the same driver, but this time behind the wheel of the BMW 2000ti, became the first driver to complete a Nurburgring lap in under 10 minutes. It may sound like ages today but it truly was a performance back in those days.
Later on, the “ti” name was forgotten but, in the 1990s, BMW decided to bring it back for the 3 Series Compact models for a few years. Therefore, the 128ti has some pretty big shoes to fill.
The looks definitely make it stand out, especially in the color combination used on our particular tester. Step inside and things look, for the most part, the same as they do in a regular 1 Series. Everything that you can get on a 128ti you can have on any other 1er too, except for the center armrest, where the ‘Ti’ badge is embossed. Even these brilliant orange M Sport seats are not model specific.
But there’s a lot more to the 128ti than just a few design tweaks and badges. This is BMW’s first attempt to enter a new segment, one it never really covered before.
Competing In A Tough Segment
The car was set up by the team led by Jos van As and he is the one who also signed off on the new M3 and M4, so you know what he is capable of. From the get go, the aim was to create a car that’s as light as possible but without any cut backs on refinement while also keeping focus on the driving dynamics above all else.
To this end, the project started with the BMW M135i xDrive as the basis. The all-wheel drive system was the first to go, as it added the most weight. Since the car was now front-wheel drive only, certain adjustments had to be made, especially on the front axle. Therefore, the engineers went to work.
The BMW 128ti comes without the front chassis bracing from the M135i and some other parts needed for xDrive. Therefore, BMW shaved off 80 kilos of weight. The geometry of the suspension was also adjusted, not just up front, but also in the back. The springs and dampers were switched out and are now eight percent stiffer than on normal 1 Series models with the M Sport package. The dampers have a higher compression rate while the entire car sits 10 mm lower and the anti-roll bars are stiffer.
Then there’s the electronics and other changes under the sheet metal. The steering, for example, while still electrically assisted, is a bit slower than on the M135i while the differential on the front axle can lock up to 31% under acceleration and 26% under deceleration, which is exactly 5% less than on the M135i because, yes, the 128ti has a limited slip diff up front, a Torsen one (which comes standard, by the way).
The Most Fun 1 Series
How does it all come together? Like a perfectly tuned orchestra. This car might just be the best 1 Series to buy if you’re looking to have fun.
Setting off, you immediately feel the harshness of the new geometry used for the suspension. The ride feels uneasy and stiff, and if you also have the optional M Sport seats, you’ll swear at whoever is in charge of maintaining the road surface in your town. The cars come with huge brakes and so the smallest wheels are 18-inch in size. Luckily, you can have them with Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires on for no additional cost which is always welcome.
But get the car up to higher speeds and you soon start feeling its potential. The engine is punchy and feels like a heavily turbocharged mill, which, at the end of the day, it is. It’s a 2-liter 4-cylinder petrol unit derived from the M135i B48 unit, but with 265 HP and 400 Nm (395 lb-ft) of torque instead.
The cog-swapping is down to an 8-speed Aisin-sourced gearbox which works good enough most of the time, especially when pushing the car hard. Around town, sometimes, it does hesitate and it’s not as refined as the 8-speed ZF unit. But, overall, it’s a nice combo that allows the 128ti to reach 100 km/h in 6.1 seconds from standstill. And it’s around those kinds of speeds you can fully take advantage of the car’s bespoke setup.
The best part about it is that you don’t have to be a genius at setting it up to thoroughly enjoy it. Just enter Sport Mode and go. It’s fast in a straight line, with the engine pushing you on to keep your foot pressed to the metal for as long as you can. The engine is quite enticing too, the intake and turbo spool dominating the atmosphere more than what’s coming out of the exhaust.
Push it into a corner and you’ll be surprised at how much grip the front axle has. Getting the 128ti to understeer on entry was hard to do, but it will eventually give out. The only problem is, you’ll have to push really hard to reach its limits. On exit though, things get even more interesting. That limited slip Torsen differential I mentioned earlier really comes into play when accelerating out of a corner.
Normally, on front-wheel drive cars, you’d expect a push to the outside of the corner when accelerating hard on exit. That’s not the case here. The car pulls you into the corner brilliantly, with an ease that feels almost magnetic. It has a confidence and an inspiring feeling overall, and it will put a smile on your face in most driving situations.
The rear-end is also quite responsive and the short wheelbase means you can get it to slide around on occasion. Trail braking is one of the things the 128ti does brilliantly, allowing you to go faster on a proper track. But while tracking the 128ti is definitely quite an experience, curvy back roads are as well. Just take it to a B-road and enjoy it because this car is fun at any speed between 50 and 100 km/h.
Up There With The Best In The Class
The lighter construction and the tuned suspension make the 128ti a blast to drive, but it’s definitely not for everyone and yet it’s incredibly refreshing. The 128ti reminded me of cars like the Honda Civic Type R or the Megane RS, and even the Golf GTi. And that’s something I couldn’t say about any other BMW I’ve ever driven, the M135i included.
Whereas the bigger brother feels heavier and more planted, more serious in all driving situations, the BMW 128ti feels like a young, rebel alternative to its more powerful sibling. It feels raucous, raw and thoroughly enjoyable on a fun stretch of road with its torque steer and whooshing sound protruding into the cabin from under the hood.
Is it for everyone though? Definitely not. As a matter fact, apart from the 2 Series Active Tourer, the 128ti feels the least as a BMW than anything else in the range. That is both good and bad. It won’t have a lot of appeal for the 30+ crowd which will still prefer a RWD 2 Series, but it will bring a lot of new customers to the brand, mostly under 30, looking to simply have some fun and maybe start a project.
For that crowd, it seems like it was tailor made.