BMW’s 128ti brings lightweight performance to the hot hatch segment

Cars are getting complicated. Particularly in the hot-hatch segment, the power struggle that exists between rivals means that these cars are more tech-focused and, as a result, heavier than before. Often that comes at the expense of outright driver enjoyment.

But BMW has brought out a car to address this. The 128ti is focused on that link between driver and machine while being targeted at a rather well-known name in the business – Volkswagen’s Golf GTI. Let’s see if it can do the job.

It’s been a long time since we saw the ‘ti’ badge – representing ‘Turismo Internazionale’ – on the rear end of a BMW. In fact, it’s more than 20 years since the moniker last featured on one of the firm’s cars, so it’s a big deal that it has arrived on one of its more divisive models, the front-wheel-drive 1 Series.

That change to front-driven wheels caused quite a stir, while the performance-orientated M135i’s all-wheel-drive setup represented quite the departure from the norm. There’s no change to rear-wheel-drive with the ti, but it’s ditched the M135i’s four-wheel-drive layout and retains its meaty turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, as well as its firmer anti-roll bars and anti-roll bar mounts.

As mentioned, the 128ti uses the 2.0-litre engine you’ll also find in the M135i range-topper, but its power outputs have been toned down, falling from 302bhp to 261bhp. However, as a result of the all-wheel-drive system being dropped the 128ti is also some 80kg lighter than the M135i, while BMW has fiddled with the car’s traction control system to ensure all of that power can be put to the road. There’s no manual gearbox option here, however, just BMW’s go-to eight-speed automatic.

In terms of performance, the 128ti more than delivers. Zero to 60mph comes in a snick under six seconds and it’ll power on to a limited top speed of 155mph. BMW also claims that you should see up to 46.3mpg, too, while emissions go as low as 139g/km.

The big emphasis here is that relationship between driver and car, and it’s something you notice from the get-go in the 128ti. It feels a little stripped back – though it doesn’t do without creature comforts – while the seating position is spot on. The ti sits 10mm lower than the regular M135i, so you remain squat and low on the road, too.

The 128ti picks up speed at an impressive rate, with a small amount of disruption sensed through the wheel as all that power gets sent to the front wheels. It’s not distracting, mind you, but adds to the excitable character that you get from the car in general. The steering is pleasantly weighted too while the suspension, though firm, does well to deal with the worst of the lumps and bumps on the road. It’s an exciting car to drive, but it’s also impressively settled on motorway stretches.

The 1 Series caused a bit of a commotion when it was first launched, but given BMW’s recent efforts it looks remarkably undercover these days. The ti gets some special treatment, too, with a distinct lack of chrome touches replaced by gloss black accents instead. The 18-inch wheels fitted to the ti are unique to the model, too.

There are go-faster red highlights alongside matching red ti badging applied to the rear wheel arch sections. The front air intakes receive red ‘blades’, too. This is no Honda Civic Type R when it comes to wild hot-hatch styling, but the 128ti’s design is just distinctive enough to separate it from the crowd as something slightly different from the norm. In the metal, it’s an attractive thing indeed without being too gaudy or over-the-top.

The 128ti’s interior is largely similar to that of a regular 1 Series, which means you get very good build quality backed up by high-end materials and solid ergonomics. You get sports seats that are extremely figure-hugging but have controllable bolsters, while the steering wheel remains slightly too thick to us – but this is a common trait across the BMW range. That said, it’s peppered with useful controls that are convenient and easy to use.

And furthering the classic hot-hatch requirement, the 128ti is practical too. There’s 380 litres of boot space, for instance, rising to 1,200 litres with the rear seats folded flat. It’s slightly more than the 374 litres of space you’ll find in the Golf GTI, in fact.

BMW has resisted the weight of change with the 128ti. It’s a refreshing take on the hot hatch, bolstered by the firm’s technical know-how which makes this car not just an exciting prospect on paper but one which is backed by sound on-road dynamics.

Whereas the more powerful M135i can sometimes feel a touch heavy, the 128ti is pleasingly light, agile and – most importantly – fun. However, this is a car that can be enjoyed day in, day out, thanks to its refinement when you’re not on twisty, open roads. Should the Golf GTI be scared? Absolutely.

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