Contrary to the expectations of some traditionalists, the world didn’t suddenly end when BMW quietly introduced front-wheel-drive models a few years ago. The X1, X2, and 2-series Gran Coupe all ride on the company’s UKL platform, shared with bigger Minis, bringing the combination of transversely mounted engines and drivetrains that pull rather than push. While all are offered with the option of xDrive in the U.S., the base “28i” versions are all front-wheel drive.
Given the marketing BMW used to put behind the dynamic purity of rear-wheel drive, it isn’t surprising these models’ wrong-wheel-drive configuration is barely mentioned—the configurator features a prominent tab promoting the drive upgrade. But in Europe things are different. There, BMW has used the same mechanical package to create the 128ti, a front-drive hot hatch, one that positively celebrates the new driveline configuration.
Today’s F40-generation 1-series hatchback is effectively the 2-series Gran Coupe’s utilitarian sibling: shorter in length, taller, and less fashion-conscious. The design shares the Gran Coupe’s goofy front overhang and aggressively angled headlights, but the rear hatchback appears both simpler and more elegant than the four-door coupe’s baroque derriere. Whereas the range-topping M135i xDrive uses the same 301-hp four-cylinder engine and front-biased all-wheel-drive system as our M235i xDrive Gran Coupe, the 128ti variant you see here features a less powerful (261-hp) version of the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine and just two driven wheels. It would be sweet if European exceptionalism had also given the 128ti a manual gearbox.
Despite that, the driving experience is impressively raw and unfiltered. Fears that BMW might try to disguise which axle is driven are disproved by the first dose of full throttle, as the 128ti scrambles for traction when launched hard. Bumpy surfaces also produce the unmistakable sensation of torque affecting the steering, although in an exciting rather than a wayward way. A limited-slip differential and quick-acting traction control ensure the driven wheels fight for a common cause rather than battle each other.
Although 19-inch wheels are optional, our sample car rode on the standard 18-inch alloy rims shod with Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires, which generated impressive grip on cold. The 128ti’s chassis has been given a sense of fun, its cornering line readily influenced by accelerator position. It fights understeer gamely, but the excessive speed is slower, tighter corners see the front tires run short on adhesion first. Easing off the accelerator persuades the car to rotate and tighten its line neatly, and snapping the throttle shut with enough lateral load can even bring modest oversteer. The factory-stated curb weight of 3350 pounds is hefty for a front-drive hot hatchback, but it’s 100 pounds lighter than the M135i xDrive.
Unlike the junior M car, the 128ti doesn’t get adaptive dampers, and on rougher roads, the suspension setup is definitely on the firm side of comfortable. There was also noticeably more road roar in the cabin than would be experienced in the better-insulated and more pliant 228i Gran Coupe.