First drive: 2021 BMW 1 Series 128ti prototype

We can bemoan the fact that the BMW 1-Series has swapped six cylinders for four and rear-wheel drive for (mostly) front, but it’s not all bad. Eighteen months ago work started on the 128ti.

When it arrives in November with an asking price of around £32,000, this will be BMW’s first proper hot hatch in the traditional front-driven mould, and is simultaneously an odd and exciting prospect. It feels much like Porsche building an M3-rival, or Alpine trying its hand at an Up GTI: new ground is most definitely being trodden and an attempt to muscle into an established clique of cars very obviously being made. Yet despite the various unknowns, you’d still expect the result to be good.

The 128ti is also a reminder that things move quickly in this industry. Even five years ago it’s unlikely the hot-hatch front-runners – currently Volkswagen, Ford and Honda – thought they might potentially have a Munich-flavoured problem on their hands so soon.

Of course, this car does not represent entirely new ground for BMW. Plenty of the engineers who have worked on hot Minis over the years have been involved. And many of those cars have been very good indeed, despite the intense disappointment of the latest JCW GP. Meanwhile the name revives for only the third time the ‘Turismo Internazionale’ moniker first seen on the 1963 1800 TI.

The name underlines one fact BMW is very keen to put across, which is that this new 261bhp hot hatch is less about point-to-point pace and much more about the driving experience – or ‘easy manipulation of the physics’, in the poetry of German engineers. As such there are plenty of detail changes to be found on the 128ti, even if hardware is mostly recognisable from the range-topping M135i.

The 1998cc turbocharged petrol engine is shared, only with the wick turned down from 306bhp. And as with the M135i, the only available transmission is an eight-speed automatic. BMW’s defense for not offering a manual on this self-proclaimed driver-focused model is two-fold.