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BMW's arrival in the front-wheel drive hot hatch market is immediately impressive.
BMW adds a new performance model to its 1 Series range.
Standard equipment on 128ti:
18in alloy wheels, LED headlights, multi-function leather steering wheel, electric folding exterior mirrors with anti-dazzle, automatically dimming rear-view mirror, front and rear park distance control, ambient lighting, cruise control with braking function, automatic two-zone air conditioning, heated front seats, 8.8in central control display, 5.7in analogue instrument display, intelligent voice assistant, two USB connections, Apple Carplay connectivity, BMW Connected Package Professional
When BMW announced that its latest-generation 1 Series lower-medium hatch would be switching to a front-wheel drive layout, it was a potential point of controversy for enthusiasts. While front-wheel drive has long been the default choice for family cars thanks to its major packaging advantages, rear-wheel drive cars, such as the previous 1 Series, are still often seen as having inherently better dynamics. Of course, for most hatchback drivers this is a fairly unimportant consideration and it's still perfectly possible to make a front-wheel drive car handle very well indeed, as was being proved by lots of other models on the market for many years before BMW became the latest brand to make the switch. But might the loss of that rear-driven USP be more keenly felt when it comes to a performance model?
To find out, we took the wheel of the car tested here, the 128ti. Despite the apparently unassuming name (though the ti badge is a nod to historic performance BMWs) it is in fact a hot hatch rival for the likes of the Volkswagen Golf GTI, although it does slot into the 1 Series range beneath the more-powerful (and four-wheel drive) M135 variant.
The 128ti features a 2.0-litre petrol engine that sends 265hp through the front wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Officially, that's good for 0-62mph in just over six seconds and from behind the wheel acceleration is certainly impressive, while the gearbox is a smooth and willing accomplice.
As for the rest of the driving experience, well if front-wheel drive is truly an inferior dynamic option then nobody told BMW's engineers, who have made good use of tools such as lowered suspension, a mechanical limited-slip differential and several electronic control systems. The chassis is superbly well balanced and feels completely neutral on turn-in, with no hint of understeer - in fact, an unwitting driver might easily believe this was a four-wheel drive car thanks to the excellent level of grip on offer. It's as if you can corner at whatever speed you like, and it would take an extremely foolhardy driver to exceed the car's dynamic limits. The steering feels weighty and accurate, but then lightens up when comfort mode is chosen from the selectable drive modes for easier town driving. The only potential sticking point is a firm ride even by hot hatch standards, meaning you are jiggled about quite a bit on poorly-surfaced roads, but keen drivers will likely see this as a small price to pay for the outstanding handling.
The 128ti's exterior appearance is based on the regular M Sport equipment grade but with additions such as a black radiator grille, dual black chrome tailpipe, and 'ti' side sill graphics (the latter can be deleted on request). Inside, great-looking red leather seats are available as an option, while seatbelts with BMW M striping are a fun feature.
As with the regular 1 Series, the 128ti features BMW's excellent iDrive infotainment system, with its rotary controller that simplifies operation on the move, and there's a great fit and feel to the driving controls.
Although a driver considering this sort of model as a perk car will clearly not be chiefly motivated by tax, it is still notable that the 128ti's official CO2 emissions of 158g/km mean it drops into the 35% BIK band. Other similarly-powered hatches such as the Golf GTI, Cupra Leon and Ford Focus ST all fall into higher brackets (though the VW Group models are also available as BIK-friendly PHEVs). Stronger predicted residual values also help the BMW work out cheaper than the VW and Ford on a cost-per-mile basis.