2021 BMW 128Ti review: Inheriting the mantle

BMW’s sporting Ti label has a fine heritage and the latest 1 Series model to carry it deserves the badge, says Andrew Frankel

BMW 128Ti front

Exterior changes from the baseline 1-series are minimal; the big differences are beneath the skin

When I was a child, I lived in an almost entirely Alfa-centric world. There were Giulias, Berlinas, Alfettas, ’Suds, one after the other from the late 1960s to the mid- 1980s when I left home. There were but few exceptions to this rule –I remember an Escort GT, a Fiat 132 and even a Triumph 2500PI – but these flirtations never lasted. Except one.

It was an orange BMW 2002Tii which turned up during a betwixt-Alfetta interlude. My father was a bit shocked by how good it was: faster than the Alfas and more fun too even if it didn’t quite have the charm. Indeed he was so impressed with it he did the logical thing and chopped it in for a 2002 Turbo. Logical, but wrong. The Turbo was terrible: the first time we met it broke down before reaching the exit of the car park. And that was that: it was back to the slower but always dependable Alfas.

I mention this now because 50 years after the launch of the Tii, BMW is giving its Ti brand one of its far too occasional outings. Indeed, in that half century interlude there have been just two other Tis, both Compact models.

So what is a Ti, and does BMW need it given it already has its ‘M’ high performance brand and its rather tepid ‘M Performance’ sidekick? A Ti is, or at least should something subtly but significantly different. A Ti need not – almost should not – have huge power. It should always be one of the more affordable fast BMWs and interested not in projecting visually aggressive statements or devastating lap times, but the purer business of providing simple driving pleasure. That’s what all the previous Tis did. And I’m delighted to say this one does too.

That said, BMW has done plenty to give this car less of a chance of making its mark in a class already bursting with talented performers. Once you’d expect any BMW in this role to stand out simply for rear-wheel drive and a manual gearbox. More recently fast BMW hatches have also had six-cylinder motors. This new 128Ti? None of the above. It’s conventional auto only, a four cylinder 2-litre motor like pretty much everything in the class and front-wheel drive only, the first fast BMW to be so equipped and, you might fairly think, disadvantaged.

BMW 128Ti interior

Traditional circular dials are more appealing than on some costlier BMWs

Even so, there more going on here than BMW just turning up the power and adding some garish decals to a visually pumped but otherwise fairly standard 1-series hatch. First, it’s based on the range-topping M135i, but with 261bhp rather than 302bhp from the same engine, a fair drop in power but it comes with a drop in weight too – some 80kg – courtesy of ditching its sister’s all-wheel hardware. So read little into the fact it takes just over 6sec to reach 62mph rather than fewer than five like the M135i: at least half that difference and probably more is accounted for by traction alone.

What I admire most however is that BMW has not just left it at that. The 128Ti comes with its own suspension settings and geometry, a revised Torsen front differential, slightly slower steering and even structural changes to offset the car’s change in weight distribution. It has worked hard to give the car its own character.

“The 128Ti is pleasantly quick, has real poise and lets you know where it’s heading. It’s enough for most”

Yet this is not a car to make you gasp at its capabilities like a Honda Civic Type R or Ford Focus ST. It is slower and less fun than either of the two cars generally held to top the class. The slight sluggishness of the gearbox is a mild annoyance in such circumstances and the engine no better than easy on the ears. This, then, is a car with other things on its mind.

Its pitch is to accept that one or two others may be rather more dynamic but that for most drivers almost all of the time, the 128Ti is at least good enough. And it is: it’s pleasantly quick, has real poise, reacts well to requests for direction changes issued by hand and foot alike and always lets you know where it is and where it’s heading. Which is enough for most.

Where it does better than any Ford or Honda is in other areas. It rides far better than either and it’s impressively quiet. Its interior is laughably light-years ahead. Indeed I prefer it to those of many far more expensive BMWs because it retains circular dials. I had a Focus ST for a while recently and can confirm the 128Ti drinks about 20 per cent less fuel too.

Most surprising of all is the value of the package. It’s actually around £500 cheaper than the Ford yet comes equipped with all the usual refinements you’d expect from such a car.

But surely it is the Volkswagen Golf GTI that’s the rival upon which the 128Ti has trained its guns most keenly? In the past I’d have said absolutely. But the car that for years has been the world’s greatest hatchback finds itself in a strange place at the moment. The fact that the Golf is both less powerful and more expensive than the BMW might not be deal breaker. But by trying to become more sporting it has also found itself in a no-man’s land between where it was and where its best rivals are. This makes forming a case for it very difficult.

No such problems exist for the 128Ti: in fact the Golf’s change of approach could not have been better timed, for it is into that space as the most usable of all hot hatchbacks, if not quite the most fun, that it now neatly slips.

BMW 128Ti rear

2021 BMW 128Ti statistics

  • Price £31,875
  • Engine 2 litres, 4 cylinders, turbocharged
  • Power 261bhp
  • Weight 1435kg
  • Torque 295lb ft
  • Power to weight 181bhp per tonne
  • Transmission Eight-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph 6.1sec
  • Top speed 155mph
  • Economy 40.9mpg
  • CO2  157g/km
  • Verdict Lighter, simpler: a worthy Ti