What is it?
Two years ago, BMW axed arguably its most distinctive product. That product was the second-generation 1 Series: the only family hatchback that could be described as truly rear-wheel drive and, as if that wasn’t enough, the only one available with six-cylinder power. Its existence meant that if you shelled out for one of the top-ranking 1 Series models, you were getting something undeniably special for your money.
BMW’s subsequent decision to switch the 1 Series onto the front-driven FAAR platform already serving the X1 SUV duly went down about as well as Porsche’s 2013 clanger of withholding a manual gearbox from the 911 GT3. In both cases, the business case was there but approval from enthusiasts was certainly not.
Yet unlike the GT3, whose maker backtracked and now offers its finest driving machine with three pedals once again, the six-cylinder 1 Series isn’t coming back. Four cylinders sitting transversely, and sending their efforts to the front axle, is how it’s going to be.
But before we get too wistful, we need to be straight with ourselves: the old M135i and M140i cars with the creamy 3.0-litre straight six weren’t perfect. So much weight in the nose made them considerably less agile than many of their serious hot hatch rivals and an underdamped rear axle meant that the contact patches could feel worryingly vague on trickier roads. In truth, they weren’t really hot hatches at all. They were hatchback grand tourers: unique and, in the right circumstances, brilliant but costly to run and not the quick-footed firecrackers needed to challenge the established hot hatch benchmarks.
Which, interestingly, is exactly what the new 128ti is designed to do. Until very recently, the idea that the pre-eminent purveyor of rear-drive saloons might directly challenge the Volkswagen Golf GTI in its own backyard would have sounded absurd. But that’s what the new 1 Series architecture permits, and BMW seems to have put plenty of effort into making sure this car lands with a bang.
It has even reprised its second most alluring moniker – ti, for Turismo Internazionale – for the first time since the 1990s. Less welcome is the decision to celebrate this revival with jarring red exterior accents, but if those turn out to be the only blots on the 128ti’s copybook, game on.
Behind the redesigned bumper sits a detuned version of the same twinscroll-turbocharged four-cylinder engine found in the M135i xDrive range-topper. Here it makes 261bhp and 295lb ft instead of 302bhp and 332lb ft. Drive is then put to the front wheels through the same mechanical Torsen limited-slip differential found in the M135i, although the locking ratio has been reduced fractionally.
Without the stability provided by the more powerful car’s driven rear axle, BMW claims there was a risk the 128ti would be too fighty had the ratio remained unchanged. And that would have gone against what BMW is aiming for here: something coherent, deft and fun but not necessarily white-knuckle wild.
The detail changes therefore run much deeper than chucking the rear driveshafts and tweaking the differential. Compared with the M135i, underbody bracing has been removed from the front and added at the back, with the aim of shifting the distribution of stiffness rearward and making the front understeer less easily and the back more mobile. For the same reason, as well as to improve turn-in response, the suspension geometry has been altered, notably with the reduction of toe-in at all four corners.