Rapid rival of the Golf GTi steals the hot hatch crown from VW
My colleague Neil Briscoe is writing this week about how he loved the Morgan Plus Four, but at the heart of it is arguably the real star: BMW’s cute two-liter turbo gasoline engine. It’s the same powertrain that appears in one of the Bavarian brand’s big surprises.
When BMW announced its frontal attack on the electric car market with the landing of the new i4 and IX in Ireland in November, I spent the last two weeks driving two old-school gasoline-powered plants.
The first was the latest-generation M3, a car designed for the racetrack but would rather spend its days growling in traffic and yelling at traffic lights in the wealthiest suburbs of the US and Asia.
The M3 is a beast and still a huge show stopper. Driving it is a bit like being in the wake of a celebrity. And as with celebrities, this car draws admiration and anger alike. The latter is certainly driven by envy, but a growing minority also see it as a bit of a dinosaur. You have the feeling that the sun is setting on the heavily spoiler-clad, rippling muscle cars.
It was probably not the advent of modern electric cars that undermined the appeal of cars like the M3 so much, but rather the beginning of some really phenomenal hot hatches many years ago. The majestic feature of the 1980s E30 M3 was its light touch ability to fly at phenomenal pace. It was sporty.
Over time, as a multitude of GTis and their ilk got faster, they dominated this segment of the performance market, encouraging faster sedans engineers to add more muscle and racetrack features with each generation. The end result was a fleet of heavy, track-ready cars that were over-engineered for everyday use and carried a price tag that rubbed against the supercar.
This latest M3, for example, starts at € 128,000, but when you add a few optional extras the price starts to skyrocket. Fancy a pair of molded carbon fiber bucket seats? That’s € 5,870, please. Dressing the outside with a bit more carbon fiber, including a rear spoiler that is barely wider than your thumb? Well, that’s another € 7,080.
Our admittedly beautiful test car in Isle of Man Green came dressed with a final price of more than € 146,000. In a car that goes 100 km / h from a standstill in just 3.8 seconds, you can get 510 horsepower in the M3 Competition guild, but that’s a lot of money. And for some perspective on how far we’ve come, Kia claims the upcoming GT version of its new all-electric EV6 will go from 3.5 seconds to 100 km / h.
There will always be a place in my lottery garage for a BMW M5 Touring, the ultimate stealth performance car. However, the M3 lost its place to the much more accessible and fun M2 a few years ago. The latest generation has not regained the lottery garage space.
These are downright performance cars that are dressed in the image of more mainstream models. However, for those looking to bridge the gap between performance and everyday fun on a more realistic budget, the GTi sector is still the first port of call.
And for the first time in a while, BMW has delivered a car that seems to be in this sweet spot: the 128ti.
Unlike the full-fledged offerings of the M Division, this car doesn’t give you the option to adjust the suspension and steering to a dozen different ways. It is also front-wheel drive – an abomination for the M purists.
But what it does is to prove that by trusting BMW engineers with the right set-up, you get a car that can rightly claim to be a really fun driving machine. In addition, it is a car that can rightly claim the hot hatch of the VW Golf GTi.
A front-wheel drive BMW Golf GTi rival may seem like a surprise, but the Germans have saved years of engineering from their Mini ownership.
The two-liter four-cylinder has an output of 261 hp, fits an eight-speed automatic transmission with a low gear ratio and provides powerful acceleration on the front wheels. There’s no manual version on offer, but this broadcast is so impressive it won’t be overlooked. Power feels a lot faster than the official 0-100 km / h time of 6.1 seconds suggests, while fuel economy in excess of 6.4 liters / 100 km (44 mpg) is achievable unless otherwise , You give it hard.
But it’s the handling and the poise that make this car a star. The power hits the asphalt in such a way that it puts a smile on your face. It’s not the manic drive of an M-car. It’s also not as dizzying as competitors like the Ford Focus RS or Honda Civic Type R, but all the better.
There is a real magic at work in the way BMW transfers power to the front wheels without ending up with jerky steering. It’s down to computer programmers rather than mechanical engineers, but the system works like a dream.
It drives comfortably on stretches of motorway, but does best on Ireland’s country roads, where its proportions and performance are better suited to the tighter, more winding conditions than higher horsepower competitors.
Inside, you get a car that has all of the sophistication of the larger BMW set, a mix of buttons and touchscreen, and all in elegant clothes. There’s nothing glaring in here, and there aren’t any 6,000-euro bucket seats either.
Against the background of an electrical upgrade and increasingly oversized offers from the M divisions, the 128ti proves that BMW still has incredible engineering skills in its ranks. Simply tasked with building a car that could win the Hot Hatch race, they have proven their worth.
The 128ti is powerful, subtle, sophisticated and classy. It’s the sweet spot between performance and sophistication. It doesn’t ask much of the driver, but it offers a lot.
If you want more raw power and pure insane fun on a budget of € 50,000, then your best buy right now remains the Toyota GR Yaris. If you want the sweet mix of performance and sophistication of the Hot Hatch Brigade, then the 128ti has everything you need.
LATEST NEWS: BMW 128Ti
Power: 1998 cc four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, matched to an eight-speed automatic transmission, develops 265 hp and 400 Nm.
0-100km / h: 6.1 seconds.
L / 100km / h (mpg): 6.4 (44).
Emissions (vehicle tax): 168 (€ 420).
Price: € 53,203 in the test (from € 48,953).
Our verdict: BMW steals the hot hatch crown.