Now seems like a bold time to be launching a new kind of hot hatchback. If it’s a particularly special or brilliant kind – say, the Toyota GR Yaris, which is probably both – it’ll no doubt be fine. If it has drive batteries and electric motors as well as a combustion engine, meanwhile, like the ones Peugeot Sport is rumoured to be working on? Well, that might be all right, too.
But what if it’s a classic, fossilfuelled, front-driven performance five-door you’re introducing; one with a sense of buttoned-down German conservatism about it? Without a Nürburgring lap record with which to grab attention or a tax-saving plug-in powertrain, would such a car be able to cut through?
We’re about to find out because the new BMW 128ti is exactly that kind of car. It marks the return of a model identity suffix not used since the 3 Series Compact hatchback was phased out, and most memorably adopted by the ‘new class’ 2002 of the late Paleozoic era, I believe (read the late 1960s). Exactly what that ‘ti’ suffix will mean to today’s hot hatchback buyer remains to be seen. For those who like this car, I suspect the stick-on stripes and red body parts will mean considerably more.
The 128ti is much more than just a ‘stickers, spoilers and wheels’ marketing exercise, though. It has been the subject of a detailed makeover to the chassis, suspension and steering intended to answer what both BMW and its critics perceive to be shortcomings of the current 1 Series in general and of the M135i xDrive in particular.
The car rides on specially tuned suspension with shorter coil springs than M Sport versions of the standard 1 Series use, and that cradles it 10mm closer to the road. It gets the M135i xDrive’s special ‘pre-loaded’ antiroll bars, but also firmer springs and higher-rated dampers than its pricier range-mate (the springs raising the car’s suspension rates at the rear axle by more than at the front, interestingly). The same Torsen limited-slip differential features on the front axle as you’ll find in an M135i xDrive, too, and firmed-up suspension bushing and mountings come in all round.
So isn’t that the sound of caution being thrown to the wind in pursuit of front-driven driver appeal? Well, yes and no. Mindful of conjuring too much tippy-toed handling ‘pointiness’ for the 128ti than they felt might suit a modern BMW, the car’s development team decided to dial down the slippy diff’s locking ratio slightly from how it’s set in an M135i and slowed the M135i’s steering ratio a little. Wheel geometry on both axles was also tweaked for more handling precision and less rapier directional response. Hmm.
They did one other thing that’s likely to divide opinion among petrolheads: they retained the M135i’s eight-speed automatic gearbox. Much as I don’t want this test to read like some polemic on the importance of three pedals and a manual shift lever in a properly involving, front-wheel-drive performance car, we’ll return to that.