First drive: 2021 BMW 1 Series 128ti prototype

Firstly, it claims uptake would be low, perhaps even less than one third of sales. Secondly, emissions targets would necessitate long gearing for a six-speed manual, whereas the extra two cogs on the automatic mean the lower ratios can be usefully closed up for punchier acceleration. So as it stands, the 128ti comes with one engine tune, one gearbox, and with passive suspension only.

And it’s the chassis of which that suspension forms an integral part that is by far the most interesting piece of the puzzle. Our short drive on the roads around the Nürburgring make one thing clear, which is that the 128ti is comfortably more engaging and keen than its four-wheel drive M135i rangemate.

I can’t speak for its most obvious rival, because I haven’t yet driven the Volkswagen Mk8 Golf GTI, but in broad handling terms the BMW also feels more mobile and fluid than the Honda Civic Type R but not as outright playful as the Ford Focus ST, which the development team enjoyed driving during benchmarking. Overall it feels a lot like you’d expect a BMW hot hatch to feel, being agile but composed and with a good degree of throttle-adjustability. Which is a relief.

As for how it happens, there’s a combination of factors. In an effort to reduce understeer and improve turn-in, the underbody bracing found in the front of the M135i has been chucked and the degree of toe-in reduced at all four corners. The springs are also considerably stiffer (around 8%) and the compression-damping rates higher, and crucially the distribution of stiffness has changed, migrating rearwards.

Some of the personnel involved – speaking at BMW’s development workshop in the village of Nürburg – explained that these measures at first resulted in a car too alert and responsive. Too ‘pointy’, frankly. Therefore the speed of the steering has been marginally reduced compared to the M135i. Without the stability of a driven rear axle, the locking ratio for the torsen differential has also fallen from 38% to 31% for the 128ti. 

At the ground level, BMW has then gone for Michelin’s Pilot Sport 4 tyres, which are less aggressive than you’ll find on most cars in this class and offer more evidence that raw pace isn’t the aim here. However, the LSD is still a potent force during hard cornering – or at least it seems that way. BMW’s EPAS rack can now predicts torque-steer and apply counter-torque if necessary, so it’s not easy to tell how consistently the differential is actually working, even the net effect is… very effective.

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