Is the first front-wheel-drive hot hatch from Munich better than the Ford Focus ST?
Andrew Frankel Autocar
15 October 2021

Why we’re running it: To see if the first of a kind for BMW can tackle established rivals as a car not just to drive but also to live with

Month 4Month 3 - Month 2Month 1 - Specs

Life with a BMW 128ti: Month 4

Time for a change - 13 October 2021

My 128ti has cloned and repainted itself. Actually, BMW clocked that it had gone over the 10,000 miles at which it needed to be defleeted so swapped it. The new one, although slightly older, has done about a third of the miles. The low-rev body boom is still there but reduced and it feels perhaps a touch tighter in turns. Or I might just be dreaming it.

Mileage: 11,888

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Sorry, you’re not a winner - 8 September 2021

The 128ti got its backside kicked at Junior Handling Day, albeit losing to the Cupra Leon 300 by only one point out of 125, which I’m claiming as a moral victory. I won’t make excuses for it: it’s just not that kind of car. Were it a test to find the best car to drive daily, the order would be rather different. Indeed, I would bet plenty on the BMW being in the top two.

Mileage: 11,480

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Hot hatch has been borrowed for two important competitions - 1st September 2021

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This is going to be a tricky one for me to write, because the brief with such pieces is to describe your recent experiences in the subject car. Of which there have been few indeed.

Partly that’s because I did that rarest of rare things in the freelance writer’s world and actually took a holiday; and, as previously discussed, me, my missus, offspring and our accumulated luggage simply won’t fit in the BMW 128ti all at the same time, so we took something rather larger and more, er, Range Rovery. The second reason is that the staff of this august publication keep nicking it.

The first time was for a story published in the 28 July edition called ‘Clash of the Teutons’, where it would meet the new Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport 45 and together they would attempt to topple the long-time class-leading Honda Civic Type R.

‘Fat chance’ thought I as the car was taken away on what appeared to me as something of a fool’s errand. But it was important that the 128ti dealt with the Golf. For while the Clubsport 45 is a sizeable improvement on the frankly disappointing standard GTI (which had already been duffed up on these pages by my previous long-termer, a Ford Focus ST), I still didn’t think it deserved to vanquish the BMW.

And nor, I am glad to say, did the clearly visionary Richard Lane, author of the story and who did indeed place the BMW behind the Honda but squarely ahead of the Volkswagen. As he unequivocally stated: “With its superior cabin, more stirring driving experience and substantially lower price (which includes a good chunk of standard kit), the BMW does enough to win.” I couldn’t have put it better myself – and indeed didn’t.

I was a bit more concerned about its next outing, however. For this it was swiped for the best part of a week and taken to Scotland to participate in what’s known around these parts as Junior Handling Day. Unlike the main Britain’s Best Driver’s Car event that we hold every autumn, there’s a strict no riff-raff policy at Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car, which is why they took the car but not its keeper.

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I would have been pleased and surprised if the 128ti had come anywhere but bog last. As you may have discovered in the 18 August issue, I was unfortunately proved correct. For the 128ti isn’t a great-handling car like a hot Honda or Ford, a Mazda MX-5 or, indeed, the Caterham Seven that served as the benchmark. It’s a good-handling car at an event where being good isn’t even close to being good enough. It’s just not that kind of car.

It’s instead an all-rounder (a jack of all trades if you’re looking for a pejorative to sling at it), but a car that actually fits into my life rather well.

I don’t tend to drive everywhere on the limit, but I do need a car that’s comfortable and pleasant to occupy, with decent performance and containable running costs. All of which the 128ti is or has.

Love it:

Not too hardcore Its easygoing nature makes it suited to mundanity as well as fun.

Loathe it:

Grass is greener Engaging though it is, it doesn’t handle like the Honda Civic Type R.

Mileage: 11,402

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Life with a BMW 128ti: Month 3

Just a tool - 4 August 2021

To me, the heart of any hot hatch is rarely its engine. It should be an enabling device to allow the chassis to shine. But the BMW’s is merely adequate in this regard, with one of the lowest power outputs of its competitor set. It also has a slight low-rev part-throttle boom that can be mildly irritating. It’s better when you give it the beans, staying smooth and sharp up to the redline.

Mileage: 9433

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Life with a BMW 128ti: Month 2

Takes some muscle - 14 July 2021

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I’ve noticed of late the 128ti’s boot doesn’t shut cleanly first time. It’s the sort of thing that five minutes at a dealer would fix, but my nearest one is 25 miles away with a large city between me and it, so the choice is lose a morning’s work getting it fixed or learn to press a little harder. In a job where time is literally money, it’s not much of a decision to make.

Mileage: 8801

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Ti returns from uni packed with people, possessions and an honours in physics - 7 July 2021

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"Can you both come down? Pleeeeaaaase!?” It was a daughter, chassis number AF/002 as you’re asking, suggesting that an occasion as august as her collection from university at the termination of her first year of studies required nothing less than the full complement of parents.

She had a point, of sorts. It has been a miserable year for anyone in education, but I feel particular pity for those who missed out on that peculiarly enlivening challenge of surviving the full-on freshers’ experience. While her elder sister still won’t discuss what happened on hers (which suits us just fine), the younger one has almost no experience to discuss. So at least we could turn up in force and sweep her away from her halls at the end of the year.

Except we couldn’t. I don’t know if you have daughters, nor do I know if sons are worse, because I’m singularly deficient in that area myself, but what I can tell you is that if you think having a toddler brings an unfeasible amount of clobber, it’s barely a lightly packed washbag compared with what teenage uni students can generate.

And I know it’s not usual to wait until the fourth paragraph of a car review in a car magazine before mentioning the car that’s meant to be being reviewed, but here a certain scene-setting was required: two parents, one daughter and her mountain of rubbish into a BMW 128ti will not go. And that was that.

Actually, I doubted if we would do it with just one parent on site. A while back, I had to collect AF/001 from another uni in another BMW long-termer, but that was a 7 Series, and we only just managed it. If it was a struggle for the largest non-SUV in the range, what hope for the smallest?

Were it not for a mate of mine, the answer would be none at all. But he is a former army officer, used to packing and dispatching not just individuals but regiments of people, and he has in the past shown me that, if properly loaded, using all available space, any car will take about double what at first seems possible. Not having a choice helps, too.

And we did it: groaning under the weight of her lampshades, potted plants and almost limitless bedding, the by-now two-seat 128ti took every last bit of it and staggered home. If I had shown you the pile that was then dumped in the kitchen on her return and asked what kind of vehicle would be required to transport it, your opening bid would have been some kind of van. But it wasn’t: it was a compact BMW hatch. It’s amazing what you can do when you try.

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Love it:

Botham Beemer It’s fast turning into an impressively capable all rounder.

Loathe it:

Bit of a knees-up Rear leg room is rather limited...

Mileage: 8202

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No circuit sessions… yet - 30 June 2021

I’ve been trying to get some track time in the 128ti. Three times I’ve been to Silverstone in it in the past month, yet I’ve not been able to squeeze so much as a lap out of any of the occasions. I just really want to know how the car behaves on and beyond the limit. Will this front-drive ti do justice to its predecessors? I’m itching to find out and will let you know as soon as I do.

Mileage: 7887

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Life with a BMW 128ti: Month 1

Fuel economy is all of a sudden becoming the hot hatch’s strong suit - 23 June 2021

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It’s really strange. I knew the 128ti would use less fuel than the Ford Focus ST that it replaced; it’s a little less powerful and has a smaller engine, after all, even if it is a touch heavier. And that’s how it turned out: in my early miles in the car, it would do about 38mpg, which in itself was about 4-5mpg better than I had got used to expecting from the Ford.

But lately it’s started using less and less of the stuff. As I write this, I’m recently returned from a trip to London from my home in the Wye Valley. On the way there, despite the country roads and city streets that bookmarked my journey, the trip computer recorded 51.1mpg. Now, I’ve not filled it since and I know all such devices lie, but that still means it’s probably doing a true 46-47mpg, which means its real-world, like-for-like fuel consumption is probably close to 25% better than that of the Focus ST. Maybe after 6000 miles or so, the engine is bedding in properly.

All of which is good news for two reasons: first, as the bloke paying the bill and travelling a couple of thousand miles per month, it has a serious effect on the bottom line.

And while I’m here, does anyone reading this fill up on the motorway any more? If so, you’re either far richer than me or someone else is paying the bill. What logic is there in paying 20% more for a product than you would if you just shopped locally or went a mile or two off the motorway? Are people really in that much of a hurry, or perhaps unaware of savings that could easily add up to many hundreds of pounds every year? Because of the rip-off prices, and because the cynicism behind them really cheeses me off, I’ve not filled on a motorway (apart when I’ve had to bung a fiver in the tank or run out entirely) in years. And I never will.

But I digress. The second reason is that obviously this buys me a stack more range, which is useful when the car has a barely adequate 50-litre fuel tank. And I was about to say that might be enough for a 116d diesel with less than half the power, until I looked up said 116d and discovered that, like all low- and medium-spec 1 Series, it has only a 42-litre tank.

BMW isn’t alone in this, but if you’re wondering why tank sizes are shrinking across the board, my understanding is that CO2 and emissions tests are conducted with half a tank of fuel on board, and the smaller that tank, the less that fuel weighs, the better the results… Or at least that’s what I’ve been told.

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Love it:

50mpg Improving fuel consumption, excellent interior, impressive ride and refinement.

Loathe it:

50 litres The fuel tank is too small for my taste, resulting in a relatively short range.

 

Mileage: 6111

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Welcoming the 128ti to the fleet - 26 May 2021

Well, this is interesting. There I was enjoying life with the Ford Focus ST far more than I had expected when the opportunity to swap it for this BMW 128ti dropped into my lap. What to do?

On the one hand, I couldn’t really see me having much more fun in the less powerful, heavier and inevitably slower BMW, but on the other, the Ford had been with me since last summer, and the opportunity to chop it in for such a close rival and interesting newcomer to the class seemed too good to miss.

Of course, the BMW would be much more expensive – except it isn’t. It’s about £500 cheaper than the Ford, or make that £2000 once you’ve optioned a two-pedal transmission, which the BMW gets as standard. Nor is the BMW poorly equipped; in fact, its standard specification is pretty close to that of the Ford.

But the real interest is that the 128ti exists at all. There has never been a sporting front-wheel-drive BMW before.

Indeed, I can recall being told at the time of the launch of the original 130i why front-wheel drive didn’t work for such applications, citing the usual arguments about weight distribution and traction. But that was 16 years ago, when the world was a very different place. And here we are.

This car itself will look familiar to frequent readers, as it’s precisely the same 128ti that was used for our UK first drive. It arrived in Alpine White paint, with 4000 miles on the clock and a sensibly limited option count.

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More than half of that cost was accounted for by the Technology Pack, whose useful components include LED headlights with automatic dipping, a head-up display and a wireless phone charging tray. Otherwise, it has a heated steering wheel (which is great), tinted glass (which is not) and a Harman Kardon surround-sound system (which, given how lame was the sound of the last standard BMW stereo that I used, is probably very welcome).

All in and on the road, this is a £35,480 car, which doesn’t sound bad value to me for a well-equipped, sporty BMW with more than 260bhp.

What do I like most about it so far? Certainly not its looks, which are absolutely not helped by the paint. Actually, when it comes to grille-based crimes against eyesight, the 128ti is nothing like as guilty an offender as certain other modern BMWs, but I would so much rather it were a grey, blue or, in fact, almost any other colour.

No, currently what I’m fondest of is the ti badging. Well, perhaps not the red side decals, but definitely the spirit behind them.

I like that it’s not pretending to be any kind of M car, because it really isn’t, at least not in that rather brutal way most M cars have become these days. Despite appearances, it’s actually quite subtle under the skin. I prefer its specification to that of the M135i from which it’s derived, the 40bhp drop in power from the same engine offset in substantial part by the 80kg reduction in weight.

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These days, a 260bhp car simply doesn’t need four-wheel drive. I like, too, that the Torsen differential has been reprogrammed, the suspension geometry altered, the steering slowed and structural stiffening sent rearward to help rebalance the car. Together, these thoughtful moves imply a car developed to have an identity of its own, and to be anything other than a standard 1 Series turned up to 11 or, indeed, an M135i turned down to nine.

And that’s exactly the brief fulfilled by the original Turismo Internazionale BMWs. And yes, these include both the E36 and E46 3 Series-based Compact ti models, but also the first to carry the acronym: the 2002ti of 1968.

If BMW is being smart, what it should now do is a still more sporting version retaining front-wheel drive but adding M135i engine tuning, uprated suspension and tii badging. This would recall the fabulous 1971 2002tii, the first modern small and truly sporting BMW. But I digress.

The next few months will reveal exactly where this car sits in the firmament. And I think there’s a real opportunity for it to fill the space vacated by the current Volkswagen Golf GTI in its (in my view) misguided attempt to become more sporting.

There is and has always been a decent space in this class for a car that doesn’t do the obvious thing and go after the boy-racer market. Something more considered: good to drive, of course, but that actually works just as well when the roads aren’t empty and fast – which, let’s face it, is most of the time.

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Early indications are that, despite the 128ti looking like another me-too hot hatch, its real character is far more nuanced than its appearance suggests. Priced to excite, it has been given a real opportunity to make a proper impact on its class, particularly as the Golf GTI has so considerately stepped aside for it.

Time alone will tell if BMW’s many modifications have provided it with the means to make the most of that chance. But on first acquaintance, I would say it’s looking that way, and I look forward to finding out for sure over the weeks and months to come.

Second Opinion

I’m intrigued to find out how Andrew feels about this car after living with one for a bit, especially since his last long-termer was a Ford Focus ST: the very car that, for me, comprehensively outpointed the 128ti in a group test exercise a few months ago. Even then, though, I could see that the BMW’s premium-brand allures and automatic gearbox might make it preferable to the Ford for some, as a daily grinder. Time for some daily grinding, then.

Matt Saunders

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BMW 128ti specification

Specs: Price New £32,780 Price as tested £35,480 Options Technology Pack £1500, heated steering wheel £150, tinted glass £300, Harman Kardon surround stereo £750

Test Data: Engine 4cyls in line, 1998cc, turbocharged, petrol Power 261bhp at 4750-6500rpm Torque 295lb ft at 1750-4500rpm Kerb weight 1445kg Top speed 155mph 0-62mph 6.1sec Fuel economy 38.2mpg CO2 157-170g/km Faults None Expenses None

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Join the debate

Comments
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Bimfan 26 August 2021

I find it strange that the reviewer complains that the 128ti fuel tank is too small, then praises how economical the car is.

It has a 10.8 gallon capacity, say 9 for safety margin, giving a range of 360 miles at 40mpg or 450 mpg at 50mpg. How much more range do you need in the UK?

Also, having now run three cars with this engine, it does indeed get more economical between 6-10000 miles, and rarely averages less than 40mpg in mixed driving thereafter.

Personally, I would have the BMW over the Focus because of its interior and technology alone. Never mind that it feels altogether a more complete and refined package, and you can delete the badges and trim bits if they offend. 

Citytiger 4 July 2021

There was a time when you would buy a reasonably quick BMW for its understated almost Q car looks, it shows how low they have stooped when it now out "Halfords" a Fast Ford.. 

shiftright 4 July 2021

It looks like a Hyundai i30 with an oversized BMW grille, so, meh. I miss the times when BMWs had character. Also, I snicker when I recall the ads BMW had in the 90's and 00's poking fun at FWD cars...Not so snooty now, I suppose.