BMW 128ti 2021 review – the Golf GTI’s worst nightmare

BMW’s first front-wheel drive hot hatch isn’t only good, we think it will have a Golf GTI beat

Evo rating
  • Exciting chassis, fun, an unexpected hot hatch star
  • Engine lacks character, auto only

If you are going to build your first front-wheel drive hot hatch there are some softer targets to go after than the Golf GTI. A 45 year legacy, a loyal band of followers the world over and a track record of delivering without exception (ignoring the Mk3 and Mk4, obviously). 

So BMW needs a pat on the back for stepping off at the deep end into the GTI’s territory with its first front wheel drive hot hatch - the 128ti. Yes, there has been 130, 140 and 135i models in the past, but they’ve been more plush hatchbacks with hearty motors than hot hatches in the true sense of the word. 

If the idea of a front-drive performance BMW model fills you with dread, don’t start sticking pins in your BMW doll just yet, because the 128ti is more than just a great achievement for a first attempt at such a car, it’s a great hot hatch full stop. And on this first experience a more involving, interesting and exciting one to drive than the new Mk8 Golf GTI. 

Engine, gearbox and 0-60mph time

There’s nothing revolutionary about the 128ti’s engine, it follows the safe and steady route of using a two-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder engine as found across the BMW and Mini line-ups, from the Cooper S to a plethora of saloons and SUVs.

In the 128ti there’s 265hp and 295lb ft torque at your disposal, the former between 4750 and 6500rpm, the latter spread from 1750 through to 4500rpm, and both are up on the GTI. Although like the Golf, the BMW is on the portly side at 1445kg which pegs its sprinting capability back to 6.1-seconds. That might sound like an age in 2021 but from behind the wheel you never feel that you are being left behind. 

Drive to the front axle is via BMW’s eight-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox (there is no manual option) but there is also a limited slip diff fitted as standard. 

Technical highlights

Jos van As (BMW’s head of driving dynamics) and his One Series chassis development team were tasked with developing the 128ti, their remit to make it as light as possible without compromising refinement but retaining a focus on it being a pure hot hatch and about all else fun. 

Taking a M135i XDrive, they ditched that car’s four-wheel drive system and removed the front chassis bracing. They also adjusted the geometry at all four corners, fitted springs that were eight percent stiffer and 10mm lower and the standard passive dampers were given a higher compression rate. Anti-roll bar stiffness was also increased, so too were their mounts. 18-inch wheels are standard (19s are optional) with a Michelin Pilot 4 tyre fitted.

There’s a slower steering ratio compared to that of the 135i and the diff ratio under acceleration is five percent slower. Overall the 128ti weighs 80kg less than the M135i XDrive, although a small hot hatch with a kerb weight over 1400kg still feels portly to us. 

What’s it like to drive? 

Where the M135i XDrive left us underwhelmed and questioning its claims of being a Golf R rival, such was its lethargy to perform with any level of enthusiasm, the 128ti couldn’t be further along the spectrum. 

From the get go its ride is a little harsh at low speeds (30mph and below) and there’s an edge to how it moves around that gives the impression that it’s struggling to settle. But with more speed the 128ti’s ride finds its feet and the car begins to deliver a quite unexpected performance. 

It’s a simple car to operate with little to offer in the driving mode stakes other than a Sport option for the engine, gearbox and steering and there’s simple honesty to how it approaches a challenge. Its steering is direct, there’s not an abundance of feel but it reacts in a more natural way than its bigger brother and is keener to carve a tighter line with more precision. Once hooked on course the diff gets busy with keeping you on track, even if it is a little slower and less aggressive to react than, say, a Renaultsport Megane’s. 

Be too greedy with the throttle too early and the slower reaction of the diff results in a small tussle between surface and tyre before it all hooks up and gets you down the road. Like a Golf GTI there are times when it lacks the polish of a Type R, Renaultsport or an N engineered Hyundai, but it’s still dynamically superior to the Wolfsburg icon and more fun as a result. 

It makes for a very confidence inspiring hot hatch and soon it’s moving around and showing an unexpected playful side. Pitch it in on its nose and the lighter rear end carves a smooth arc as it attempts to catch up and then it’s up to you if you; either bury the throttle or let it play out and wind some lock on. It has that level of engagement and thrill that a Golf lacks when you go looking for some mischief.

There’s not a great deal to saviour about the powertrain. The engine is inoffensive, but has the guts to give the 128ti a level of performance that’s well matched to British B-roads. Yes, a manual shift would be more palatable and on a hot hatch it’s a shame BMW wouldn’t entertain the idea, citing that less than a third of One Series buyers are interested. 

It’s not as focussed as the pure-breds in this sector from Renaultsport, Honda and Hyundai, but it’s a hot hatch that blends the refinement and usability of a Golf with a large dose of the fun found in the others. It results in the 128ti being an unexpected over achiever and a more than welcome addition to the hot hatch world. 

Price and rivals 

There’s quite a lot of choice if you are considering the £32,995 128ti. The car we think it would comfortably beat in a head-to-head, the Golf GTI, starts at £35,010 for a five-door seven-speed DSG model. The BMW would struggle against the hard nosed - and manual only - £34,320 Civic Type R, £32,995 Megane RS300 and £29,819 Hyundai i30N (we’ve yet to try the DCT but we’d be surprised if it destroys such a brilliant package) in a straight hot hatch shootout because it doesn’t have that last degree of laser guided focus. It would also be hard to ignore Mercedes-AMG’s £35,580 A35. Yes, it’s four-wheel drive and closer to a Golf R rival but that’s what makes it an even more compelling proposition. It’s also another feather in the 128ti’s cap that it’s considered alongside such glittering hot hatch stars.