Is the first front-wheel-drive hot hatch from Munich better than the Ford Focus ST?

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 1 - Specs

Life with a BMW 128ti: Month 1

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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

Add a comment…
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.

Gojohnygo 1 July 2021

I ordered a 128ti in white on the back of reviews, then had serious worry's on the colour but in the end ordered a M135i. Car buying is not easy as once you make your choice you are stuck with the car. Looking forward to the 135i but my last 3 cars have all had the 6 cylinder B58 engine so hoping BMW will supply me with another car that I love as much as my last 3.