BMW 128ti Review: A Surprisingly Feisty Hot Hatch That Needs A Different Gearbox

BMW's first car to wear the 'Turismo Internazionale' in years is a tempting and special-feeling hot hatch, but the auto gearbox is potentially off-putting

If you went back to a few years ago and told me that one of the most anticipated performance BMWs to be launched in 2021 was to be front-wheel drive and use an inline-four, I’d be awfully confused. And not just because that’s a very frivolous use of time travel.

Times for BMW have changed greatly since then, though. Its rear-drive or bust ethos (with a sprinkling of xDrive) has been ditched with the arrival of the new front-wheel drive 1-series. The most powerful version, the M135i, powers the rear wheels too, but it’s one of those systems that never sends more than half of the car’s torque to the rear wheels. It’s not particularly exciting, so ditching drive to the rears while keeping the power levels fairly high should liven things up nicely.

BMW - BMW 128ti Review: A Surprisingly Feisty Hot Hatch That Needs A Different Gearbox - Features

There’s the same ‘B48’ inline-four turbo engine under the bonnet, but with power reduced from 302bhp to 261 and the torque lowered from 332lb ft to 295. Offsetting the reduction is an 80kg drop in weight, making for a thoroughly respectable 0-62mph time of just 6.1 seconds. The top speed, you won’t be surprised to learn, is electronically pegged at 155mph. The 128ti is lower and stiffer than the average 1-series, and it’s pinched a set of fatter anti-roll bars from the pricier M135i.

An eight-speed automatic gearbox drives the front wheels via a Torsen mechanical limited-slip differential, with, it must be said, quite a lot of fuss. The 128ti’s delivery is surprisingly unruly, with a decent helping of wheelspin and torque steer even in dry conditions. It’s a wayward front end, but the lack of polish here is entertaining, and not downright ruinous like it is in the rubbish Mini JCW GP (which uses the same engine and gearbox combo).

BMW - BMW 128ti Review: A Surprisingly Feisty Hot Hatch That Needs A Different Gearbox - Features

When it does hook up, the B48 is an engine that’s at its best in the punchy mid-range. Rev it out, and it becomes pretty weedy, and there’s a big ol’ soft limiter waiting for you if you leave the shift too late. Stay away from that point, and it makes a surprisingly decent noise which the average punter would struggle to identify as artificially enhanced. When hooked up, the 128ti feels plenty quick, too.

The damping is a good match for typically bad British roads, and for once, there’s actually a noticeable difference between the adaptive setup’s Comfort and Sport modes. Set to the latter, body roll is well contained without the ride entering ‘ruinous’ territory.

BMW - BMW 128ti Review: A Surprisingly Feisty Hot Hatch That Needs A Different Gearbox - Features

Go into a corner hot too, and there’s a confidence-inspiring feeling of stability, and reasonable helping of traction to drag you out of the other side as the diff does its thing. It will engage in a little lift-off oversteer, but there are other hot hatches out there that are much more prone to such tomfoolery.

As well as offering up a drive like no other 1er, the 128ti is also littered with unique touches inside and out. The M135i-borrowed ‘air curtains’ and the side skirts are finished with an eye-catching shade of red (black on Melbourne Red and Misano Blue-specced cars), with a set of red ti logos on either side of the car too.

BMW - BMW 128ti Review: A Surprisingly Feisty Hot Hatch That Needs A Different Gearbox - Features

The cabin gets bespoke ‘Sensatec’ fabric seats with a snazzy red pattern, and there’s a neat ti logo stitched into the front centre armrest. Not exactly ground-breaking details, but they’re more than enough to make the 128ti feel like a special thing.

It’s a thoroughly likeable car despite the questionable looks of the front end (see also: the new BMW M4), but there’s one fly in the ointment: the gearbox. I’m not talking about it in a militant manual-only stance, either. The issue is the choice of auto ‘box - as we found in the Mini, it’s sorely lacking when it comes to the aggression of the shifts, and it’s not always the most willing transmission to downshift.

BMW - BMW 128ti Review: A Surprisingly Feisty Hot Hatch That Needs A Different Gearbox - Features

A snappy dual-clutch ‘box would do wonders, or better yet, a six-speed manual. That said, the seven-speed DSG in the new VW Golf GTI isn’t the most spectacular unit either. If it were a choice between the 128ti and an auto GTI, I could imagine choosing the former over the latter.

It’s just a bit less obvious than the Golf, and even now BMW has upped the price (while giving more equipment as standard), it undercuts an auto GTI by about a grand. Not often that BMW would come out on top against a brand like VW when it comes to value, but there we are.

It also feels light the right kind of car to resurrect the ti badge with, and hopefully, it won’t be the last. Something like a rear-drive 230ti when the next 2-series comes along would be pretty damn sweet.