We headed to the twisty roads of Tasmania to put BMW's first-ever front-wheel drive hot hatch to the test and see just how it compares against its impressive competition.

If you’d have told people 20 years ago that BMW today in 2021 would be producing a front-wheel drive hot hatch 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 lineup.

However, after slowly injecting more and more front-drive models into its range, we’ve now arrived at that point with the latest addition to the 1 Series lineup. 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.

Behold, the 128ti – 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 – $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.

Fortunately, then, I had the ideal proving grounds at my disposal, as I elected to head over to Tasmania – Australia’s smallest and most southern state – to give the 128ti a true punishing as I put it through its paces.

While Italy is known by most as being God’s racetrack, that’s probably because the majority forget Tasmania exists. Here’s an island that, every April, gets quite literally turned into a big, technical racetrack for some of the meanest machines to throw blows with at the annual Targa Tasmania event.

If ever anyone wondered just how thoroughly I like to test the cars I write about, I’m sure 2600km of driving over the course of five days on an island that’s just 400km from top to bottom should give you the answer. You’ll hear more about my travels in subsequent pieces, though – for now, the attention is on the little white BMW I picked up on a surprisingly warm and sunny Friday morning in Hobart.  

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 calipers, 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, I’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 welcomely 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 1er is here.

Some of the optional extras certainly play a role in making this cabin truly feel the part. The Comfort Package is an absolute must at $1023, with it adding powered lumbar support (electric seat adjustment plus memory for the driver is already standard) along with heated seats and a heated steering wheel that were incredibly appreciated by me on these snowy sub-zero Tasmanian mornings. At $2200, I’d say it’s absolutely worth going for the M Sport bucket seats and Dakota leather upholstery as well, as these seats that come standard on the M135i are a big upgrade.

The one option you should definitely give a miss is the 16-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, however. Despite how good Harman Kardon systems typically are, and despite this one charging $1350 extra, it has to be one of the worst brand-name systems I’ve ever heard – tinny, unbalanced, and with muddy bass response, it’ll drive audiophiles insane.

Speakers aside, everything else works well in here – the 10.25-inch instrument cluster and infotainment screens are both incredibly clear and crisp and offer up some welcome performance information, the head-up display which displays 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, so the strength of this features list certainly goes some length to justifying the higher price tag than you see attached to its competitors.

But with it clear that what’s going on up top here is the same as on practically any other 1 Series you’ll come across, it’s what’s there once you peel back the skin of the 128ti that’s what makes it so special.

Packing a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that, at its core, is the same as the M135i’s, the power figures of 180kW and 380Nm are certainly only on par with the likes of the GTI – mainly 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.

However, how numbers look on paper doesn’t exactly translate into how a car feels on tarmac, and 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. Plus, while the 0-100km/h is cited as taking 6.3 seconds, BMW is known for overstating its figures so they’re hardly that telling anyway.

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 getting a bit deeper into second gear.

When you do get it up to triple-digit speeds 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 a noise it makes 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 calipers up front bring it back to a halt in an instant as well.

Actually putting the power down is of little issue to the 128ti, though, even though it is front-wheel drive, as it features a Torsen limited-slip differential so as not to overwhelm this chassis when you lay into the throttle. 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 – even if it’s what many would consider to be wrong-wheel drive.

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 in this regard. 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 I’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 on the drive such as the odd hint of torque steer rather than the oversteer of old rear-drive 1ers, by-and-large this is still a remarkably good hot hatch.

Plus, in terms of intangible things such as the feel of the vehicle from a fit, finish, and 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 any others out there. Some out there are definitely better and more cohesive drives – the Hyundai i30 N and at least the old Mk7 Golf GTI for example, as I’ve not yet had a spin in the Mk8 – 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, and a welcome and unexpected new entrant into what is still an incredibly fun segment. Beyond that, it’s absolutely the pick of the 1 Series range as well.

2021 BMW 128ti List Price: $56,900 | As Tested: $63,473
  • 8.5/10
    Performance - 8.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Practicality - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: Strong mid-range pulling power, tight and responsive chassis, mechanical LSD gives it plenty of traction, fit and finish feels a cut above the competition
Cons: Can clearly feel the torque and boost limiting in lower gears, some torque steer can still be felt, purists will talk it down regardless for being front-wheel drive

In a nutshell: A front-wheel drive hot hatch might not be what you expected from BMW, but amazingly, they’ve got it right with the 128ti. Not only does it offer an impressive drive that hangs with the best of the competition, but it’s easily the pick of the new 1 Series range as well. 

Photography by Shuqi Yu and Patrick Jackson.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by BMW Australia for five days with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel costs were covered by the author.

Patrick Jackson
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