Musings on the Motoring World

BMW 128ti swoops down to take on the Golf GTI

Oh, what I give to be a fly on the wall of BMW’s product planning division? Not for reasons of corporate espionage. But simply to catch a glimpse of what goes through the minds of the brains within Munich. Particularly to hear the conversations that led up to the creation of this 11th-hour model, the BMW 128ti.

BMW greenlit the decision to develop a front-wheel-drive “enthusiast-spec” model in early-2019. That puts its approval around six months before the new front-driven 1 Series’ scheduled debut.

It is uncertain if rumours of a Mercedes-AMG hyper hatch had motivated BMW’s decision. Or a sudden realisation that the four-wheel-drive M135i isn’t going to cut it as BMW’s hot hatch flagship. Again, what it would be an eavesdropping fly in Munich.

Tone down and heighten up

Nevertheless, here we are with what BMW promises to be the most driver-oriented offering of the 1 Series range. With 195kW, the 128ti might not have the M135i’s 225kW grunt, but it does without its power-splitting four-wheel drivetrain.

As a result, the 128ti is 80kg lighter than the M135i, though it will take 1.3sec longer to hit 100km/h, at 6.1sec. Still, it is more powerful than the hot hatch gold standard, the 180kW Volkswagen Golf GTI. And that is what the newcomer is gunning for.

Instead of going head-to-head with its premium rival from Stuttgart, the 128ti is aimed at the venerable hot Golf. On the face of it, young’uns would take a liking to its flare-red flashy frock and interior décor of a classy strip club. However, beneath its risqué exterior treatment, BMW’s engineers had put significant work into honing its oil bits.

The 128ti not only has a bespoke tune for its M Sport suspension but model-specific steering setup as well. The M135i also contributed its firmer anti-roll bars and front Torsen limited-slip differential. That alone makes the 128ti sound like a promising package. More promising, however, is the potential return of BMW’s ‘ti’ name.

The rise and fall of BMW’s ‘ti’ name

Shortened from “Turismo Internazionale”, BMW introduced the ‘ti’ designation in the 1960s to denote its sportier models. The most famous of which was the 2002 ti, which laid the foundational identity of its replacement, the 3 Series.

Unfortunately, the success of a racing division known the M Division saw the ‘ti’ designation disappear for nearly three decades. BMW resurrected the ‘ti’ name in 1994 to use on variants of the 3 Series Compact. The hatchback variant that many saw as BMW’s ill-advised attempt to swing lower into the non-premium market. In the respect, BMW is on point when it comes to naming today’s reborn Volkswagen-challenger.

While the 3 Series compact existed for two generations, the consensus was clear. It wasn’t a universally beloved iteration of the ‘ti’ name. So much so that when BMW wanted to drum up some enthusiast interest with the 1 Series Coupe, it christened a concept as the 1 Series tii Concept, after the higher-spec 2002 tii.

Just the right ti-tle

All this isn’t to say that the return of the ‘ti’ is a bad sign of BMW’s fortunes in the premium market. Nor was its name misapplied in the 128ti.

With the M Division participating in the all-out power-war with AMG and Audi Sport, the ‘ti’ looks like a welcomed return to BMW’s ways of committing to cars that excel at handling rather than just outright performance. After all, it is not like everyone can exploit the power of a full-fat M car to its fullest extent. Consider this the bang for your buck range. Good on them.

Hopefully, everyone will see the BMW 128ti for what it is. An honest hot hatch that will raise some eyebrows and pulses, instead of the 3 Series compact that raised questions.

There might have been some teeth gnashing at the possibility of the ‘ti’ reliving the shoddy compact 3 Series derivatives. But we will never know for sure. That is unless you were a fly listening in at BMW.