2020 BMW 128 TI
Keeping up with the M2 driven by BMW chassis wizard Jos van As through the Eifel mountains is a fruitless endeavour. But, heavens be praised, I’m having an absolute blast trying, thanks to this pre-production prototype of BMW’s first direct Golf GTI rival.
On the road, it’s immediately obvious how different the new 128ti is from the M135i xDrive, which up to now has been the sole hot offering in BMW’s current 1-series line-up. The ti is less powerful but it’s 80kg lighter and has much improved steering and front suspension, both key to the more inspiring handling.
The steering ratio is slightly different, there’s a Torsen limited-slip differential, revised rubber mounts, stiffer bushings, new anti-roll bars and a 10mm reduction in ride height. The engineers have really sweated the details, and in providing such an intuitive, engaging driving experience, have highlighted what’s not so good about the M135i, the all-wheel-drive 1-series that remains the 302bhp range-topper.
Unlike the ti, it’s not balanced or confidence-inspiring; the steering is nervous at speed and hectic through tricky corners; the spring and damper rates are ill-matched; and the chassis software unrefined.
When the ti arrives it’s likely to cost around Ј7k less than the Ј37k M. Makes sense – the ti involves less hardware, with only the front wheels being driven. That lower-case badge has not previously been used on a front-drive car, but ti has always signified a blend of sporty and practical that certainly applies here, as we discover on two days driving on roads around the Nürburgring and on the Nordschleife itself.
Even when the lunatic inside takes over, it never feels loose or vague, let alone insecure. Involving and eager to play, the 128ti blends failsafe stability at speed and jovial-to-intense man-machine connectivity. How did the chassis wizards achieve this transformation? By enhancing yaw, which inspires the rear axle to display subtle yet entertaining lift-off antics. By spot-on torque steer compensation via a fast-acting wheel-slip limiter. And by means of a speedier turn-in motion encouraged by that Torsen diff, which interacts without interfering.
While the M135i can be an iffy and restless tramliner through fast autobahn esses, the hard-charging ti covers difficult sections a perceived 50 per cent faster, with 50 per cent less drama and 100 per cent more feedback.
Instead of simply connecting one apex to the next, the 128ti prefers a softer trajectory with an earlier brake point, later turn-in and the full power back on when you’re about one-third through the corner. The standard sport brakes combine reassuring initial bite with progressive deceleration and adequate pedal effort.
The reimagined ti is not a hyper high-tech ticker of all boxes but a no-frills design with zero excess complexity. Okay, it’s still a rather frumpy-looking hatch, and it’s going up against a crowded field of hot and premium five-doors, but it does no harm at all to the marque’s reputation as creator of the ultimate driving machine. Can’t wait to see what happens should BMW decide to resurrect the even sharper tii.