2021 BMW 128ti Prototype Drive Review

After a hiatus of two decades, BMW is reviving the ‘ti’ nameplate as part of a fresh assault on the hot hatch segment. The ‘Turismo Internazionale’ designation was last used on the 1997 compact 323ti, and now with the 1 Series, BMW is striving to get back to its pure driving roots.

Officially revealed next month, the 128ti will slot into the range between the 135kW 120i and the 225kW M135i xDrive, and it has the VW Golf GTI in its sights. But the 128ti isn’t all about power output; it has been developed with the sole purpose of delivering “driving joy”, according to BMW, and the German company appears to have amassed the right ingredients.

The 128ti ditches the four-wheel-drive set-up of the M135i in favour of front-wheel drive, making it 80kg lighter. A detuned version of the range-topper’s engine develops 195kW and retains a hefty 400Nm of torque. To help transmit that to the road, BMW has fitted a mechanical limited-slip differential, which no doubt helps with the 0-100km/h time of 6.2 seconds. Nonetheless, some drivers will rue BMW’s decision to only offer an eight-speed automatic, without a manual option.

With the VW Golf GTI set firmly as the 128ti’s target, BMW has tuned the car accordingly, with an M Sport-derived suspension upgrade bringing a 10mm reduction in ride height over the standard 1 Series. While there isn’t an adaptive suspension option, the springs and dampers have been specially tuned with a particular emphasis on how the car will perform on bumpy back roads.

First impressions suggest that it’s firm, but far from being harshly sprung, rounding off bumps nicely and providing enough compliance and feedback to satisfy most.

Stick the 128ti into Comfort mode and the car flies nicely under the radar, with a relatively discreet burble from the twin exhausts. The gearbox is occasionally a bit on the slow side to react in this setting though, and is best left in its sportier mode. BMW says that the steering set-up is deliberately not overly direct, and that results in softer and more predictable handling.

Keener drivers will find themselves thumbing the Sport button on a regular basis because it shows the car in its best light. Sharper throttle and gearbox responses make the 128ti come alive, and it also sounds far more authentically sporting than the overly synthesised M135i.

An empty autobahn confirms the BMW’s high-speed stability, but it shines brightest on winding and undulating roads. Traction is plentiful and you can feel the differential working, an unseen force pulling the car’s nose around a corner. The suspension is well judged, loading up gradually in bends, while the brakes deliver excellent stopping power. Overall, the 128ti feels like one of the more honest and engaging recent BMWs.

Not only is the BMW 128ti fun and engaging to drive, it very much feels like BMW going back to its roots by creating an honest driver’s car that isn’t as contrived as some of its other performance models. Add in the fact it will likely significantly undercut the range-topping M135i, and BMW could be on to a winner.

Model:BMW 128ti
Price:TBC
Engine:2.0-litre 4cyl turbo
Power/torque:195kW/400Nm
Transmission:Eight-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
0-100km/h:6.2 seconds
Top speed:250km/h
Economy/CO2:TBC
On saleEarly 2021

 

Dan Humphreys

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