Front Wheel Drive in a BMW – Fear Not
Things we like
- Great chassis
- Strong engine
- It’s heaps of fun
Not so much
- Lack of active cruise odd
- Tight rear seat
- Some options expensive
If you don’t think we’re living in a golden age of small hot hatches, let me give you a quick rundown of what you can buy today – the new Golf GTI Mk8, the Ford Focus ST, the Renault Megane RS, the Honda Civic Type R, the Hyundai i30 N (shortly to get a big update) and the Mercedes-AMG A35. A whole new brand, Cupra, is coming to Australia with hot hatches and fast SUV crossovers at its core. You can squeeze in the Octavia RS to this list – and probably a few more – given the price and punch on offer.
The choices are nearly endless and complex. So if you don’t have any preconceived ideas about brand, where the hell do you even start?
In the hope of making matters worse, BMW has resurrected a classic nameplate and glued it to the back (and stitched it into the armrest) of its capable but thoroughly anonymous hatchback, the 1 Series, to create the 128ti.
For a few years now, BMW has tried to excite us with the M135i xDrive and while it’s very fast and competent, it’s not as much fun as most of the cars I’ve named. Most of the makers of that long list of cars cracked the code of a front-wheel-drive platform’s potential literally decades ago. When the front-wheel-drive 1 Series arrived, we lost the rear-wheel-drive 125i M Sport and the delectable M140i, which was damn good value in its final years and absolutely superb to go with it.
Conspicuous by its absence on the new BMW 128ti is an M in the name. It would have been really easy to throw an M in front of 128i and call it an M Performance car. I don’t know if that’s an admission that M Performance hasn’t hit the lofty heights BMW had hoped, but using the fabled ti badge for the first time in a long time isn’t pulling any punches either.
Pricing and Features
For $56,900 plus on-roads, the 128ti is yours. Yes, that is a heck of a lot more than the i30 N and Focus ST, but it’s astoundingly close to the Renault Megane RS, which is a great car but not a near-sixty grand car.
The segment’s longtime – but recently challenged – benchmark, the VW Golf GTI is a mid-$40K propos-…wait, no, that’s not right. It’s now $53,100 plus on-roads.
So until about twenty words ago, the BMW looked like it was expensive against its obvious rival, but it’s really not when you put it into context. It’s just that the Ford and Hyundai are cheap these days.
The VW has more stuff than the BMW, so if you’re keen to know more about how they stack up against one another, my colleague Curt has put them head-to-head for Wheels magazine. So ssh. Spoilers.
Before you touch the long list of options and packages, you get 18-inch alloys, six speakers, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, cruise control, electrical seat adjustment, sat-nav, active LED headlights with active high beam shadowing, head-up display, auto parking, wireless charging, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors and a tyre repair kit in place of a spare.
BMW OS powers a 10.25-inch touchscreen and the 12.3-inch Live Cockpit digital instrument panel. The six-speaker stereo is perfectly fine and as the car is reasonably quiet – at least on a decent surface – so there’s plenty of grunt to fill the cabin with sound.
Curiously, the excellent M Sport front seats are a no-cost option and I’m wracking my brains for a good reason not to have them – they’re much better looking than the standard seats and I daresay are just better. They’re not restrictive, either, so…uh…tick that box. The car I drove has Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres that are BMW-developed, although like the M3 and M4, you might get similarly fettled tyres from other manufacturers.
Curiously, the excellent M Sport front seats are a no-cost option and I’m wracking my brains for a good reason not to have them – they’re much better looking and I daresay are just better.
There are lots of options to choose from. This car had the $2000 panoramic sunroof fitted, steering wheel heating ($308) and heated front seats ($576).
It didn’t have active cruise control (which is a not very modest $653), the absence of which felt weird in such a tech-laden car. You also have to pay for tyre pressure monitoring, which is baffling.
A five-star ANCAP safety dating back to the Before Times (2019) comes courtesy of six airbags, the usual traction and stability systems, forward AEB, forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist and rear cross-traffic alert.
The forward AEB has night and day pedestrian detection (8km/h to 85km/h), daytime cyclist detection and works at up to 80km/h for other vehicles.
Comfort and Space
A 1 Series cabin is hardly the largest on the market, so it’s best we start with the rear seat.
Fundamentally, it’s fine. At just on 180cm I can fit behind my driving position, but the way the glasshouse narrows towards the Hofmeister kink means it’s a little claustrophobic. Headroom is fine, though, but if you’re three across the back there will be a mess of feet in the footwells owing to the transmission tunnel and the seat isn’t really wide enough unless one of you has no hips.
You do get an armrest, two USB-C chargers and two cupholders though, so that’s not bad at all. If you’re carrying tall people, ditch the sunroof option and spend the money on better goodies.
As this car was fitted with the excellent M Sport front seats, they were superbly comfortable. I spent a long day in the car, both droning along freeways and motorways and then firing down some very challenging roads in sometimes tricky conditions. The Alcantara finish means you’re held in by both the bolsters and the material, so I wasn’t slipping about and got out after a long day feeling fresh as a 45-year-old man can.
The wireless charging under the climate controls is good because it holds your phone in place, but isn’t so buried in the dash that you’ll forget it. The wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto mean the Qi pad is an even more useful inclusion and in this case actually fits larger phones. BMW 1ers formerly had charging pads under the armrest (which in this car has a big ti logo stitched into it and it looks amazing) and the old-school catch mechanism was too small for big phones.
Also up front, you get two cupholders ahead of the shifter and bottle holders in the doors. It’s a terrific cabin, with probably a few too many buttons but unlike some cars in this niche, it doesn’t sacrifice ergonomics for a clean everything-in-the-screen approach.
Cargo space starts at a competitive 380 litres but if you drop the back seat’s 40/20/40 arrangement, you get 1200 litres, which is a lot. It’s best not to get too ambitious with flat packs, however, as the load space is compromised by the wheel arches.
On the Road
The 128ti is notable for what it doesn’t have. Take a (much more expensive) M135i xDrive and ditch the all-wheel drive in favour of front-wheel drive, which sheds 80kg in the process. But keep the Torsen front diff, we’re not going crazy here. It still weighs 1445kg, but that’s the better side of 1.5 tonnes for a hot hatch.
Changes to the chassis include a reduction in stiffness to cut understeer (counterintuitive, but there you are), the traction control setup from the i3S EV and a bespoke, static setup for the springs and dampers. Adaptive damping isn’t available and as you’ll soon learn, you may not miss it.
Springs and dampers are stiffer than those of the M135i and the 128ti sits 10mm lower.
BMW’s B48 four-cylinder twin-scroll turbo steps down from its dizzying numbers in the M135i, dropping 45kW to 180kW at 6500rpm. Torque also steps down to a more front-drive-friendly 380Nm, available in a wide band from 1500rpm to 4400rpm.
You hear more from this engine in sport mode, too, with a happy burble and crackle with the window down and an aggro induction sound inside, albeit amped up by the stereo. Here’s a fun pub fact: this engine also powers the enduringly odd Morgan Plus Four. Yeah, the car made out of wood.
I wasn’t supposed to be in this car. A colleague fell foul of Sydney’s COVID outbreak and I was parachuted into the seat. That’s part one of possibly too much context. Part two is probably slightly more important – I have owned four examples of the rear-drive 1 Series. The fourth is currently in my lanky son’s possession (while I, bizarrely, pay all the bills) and despite being nearly six years old, it’s lovely to drive.
So I am – and remain – deeply suspicious of the cheaper-to-make front-wheel-drive 1er and I also hold deep resentment for the vast majority of customers who claimed they didn’t even know the old car was rear-wheel drive. I mean…
You hear more from this engine in sport mode, too, with a happy burble and crackle with the window down and an aggro induction sound inside, albeit amped up by the stereo.
My initial impression was that everything was pretty solid – motoring home it felt firm but had good compliance where it needed it, especially on the urban nonsense that passes for Sydney’s road network. I was intrigued by it already because it just felt better than the M135i from the start. The chassis is more fluid and the engine feels more at home with less power. The eight-speed automatic is smooth and is a nice change from the twin-clutch gearboxes in some rivals.
A long motorway run made me go a bit pale. To be fair, Sydney’s toll roads all seem to be built with the worst surfaces imaginable and the 128ti jittered a bit for some miles until the surface settled to something resembling properly smooth, without the endless joins and weird sticky stuff that made the Michelins sing like a car alarm in a distant suburb.
I was initially worried about it then drove a competitor that had adaptive damping, which wasn’t remarkably better in Comfort mode and wasn’t as compliant in Sport. So the compromise of the ti’s static setup wasn’t so bad after all.
So I took “not so bad after all”, chucked it at a set of corners and it became sublime. This is an absolute ripper of a chassis. BMW has taken its own path with a front-wheel-drive setup, so it doesn’t just feel like a big Mini. The steering is nicely weighted and balanced beautifully against strong, responsive brakes – four-pistons up front, just to make sure.
Where the M135i struggles to turn in, the 128ti is settled and happy, finding the apex with less protesting from the tyres and a more stable feel. The throttle goads you into having fun on corner exit, conspiring with the Torsen LSD to stop things going wide. The engine’s great wallop of torque hauls you towards the horizon and the tricksy stability and traction control systems quell torque steer.
The best thing is that unlike some M cars, mid-corner bumps don’t re-align your vertebrae or have you pre-emptively clenching things before you hit the bump. You can concentrate on the fun.
And that’s what this car is: heaps of fun. It’s a car you drive rather than it driving you and BMW has even conjured up a calibration for the Aisin eight-speed auto that blends crisp upshifts when you want them and smooth, clean, city slurring when you need them.
I get weary of writing this, but BMW’s (yes, and Audi’s) three year/unlimited kilometre warranty is outclassed by fellow Germans Mercedes as well as other premium brands. I don’t think customers are not asking for this so it remains a mystery to me why BMW continues to be so stingy.
Perhaps to soften that blow, the 128ti’s servicing costs no more than the three-cylinder 118i’s $1650 for five years/80,000km, which you do have to buy upfront because BMW dealers like it if you roll it into your finance. That’s only $330 per year for servicing which has to be about the cheapest for a car of this type. It’s an easy $550 cheaper than the Golf GTI, significantly cheaper than the Megane and even cheaper than the Civic Type R’s $1805 plan for five years.
Viewed within the BMW range, the 128ti is by far the most compelling 1 Series to arrive on the UKL2 platform it shares with the Mini. Shorn of the AWD gear and fettled with a much lighter touch, the 128ti goes after the VW Golf by pursuing a similar engineering philosophy – sensible power, sympathetic electronics, lots of grip and go.
It’s not only cheaper than the M135i, it’s genuinely more exciting to drive. You’re far more involved in the decisions and the stability systems place more trust in you. It’s more playful because the whole package is less heavy-handed than the M Performance counterpart.
And with a price – if not a matching equipment list – that puts it on the same section of the shopping list as a hardcore Honda, iconic VW and raucous Renault, the 128ti is definitely one of 2021’s good surprises.
2021 BMW 128ti specifications
- Body: five-door hatchback
- Drive: FWD
- Engine: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder
- Transmission: eight-speed automatic
- Power: 180kW @ 6500rpm
- Torque: 380Nm @ 1500rpm-4400rpm
- Bore stroke (mm): 82 x 94.6
- Compression ratio: 11.0 : 1.0
- 0-100km/h: 6.3 sec (claimed)
- Fuel consumption: 6.8L/100km (combined)
- Weight: 1445kg
- Suspension: MacPherson strut (front); multi-link (rear)
- L/W/H: 4319/1799/1434mm
- Wheelbase: 2670mm
- Brakes: ventilated disc (front); ventilated disc (rear)
- Tyres: 225/40 R18
- Wheels: 18-inch alloy wheels (no spare)
- Price: $56,900 + ORC
15 JUL 2021