Anyone even loosely familiar with the history of the BMW 3 Series in Australia will know of the 318i badge, long absent but now back in the showroom — with a modern twist.
This latest iteration of the sedan-only BMW 318i returned to the Australian range late last year, as a replacement for the 316i. The key differentiator is what’s under the bonnet — the thrumming little turbocharged three-cylinder engine from the Mini.
A three-cylinder 3 Series? You bet. Welcome to the modern downsized engine age.
Power and torque outputs are modest, but not embarrassing. The engine makes up to 100kW from 4500rpm and 220Nm of torque from 1250rpm, matched to a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission as standard. These are the same outputs as the existing four-pot 316i.
The 318i sedan costs $54,900 plus on-road costs at entry level, which is $1100 more than the 316i, but $7000 cheaper than the next step up in the 3 Series range, the better-equipped and more powerful 320i.
The $55K starting price is low for the medium executive sedan segment. The closest natural rivals are the $55,500 Audi A4 1.4 TFSI Sport or $57,500 Lexus IS200t Luxury. You can’t get a base level Jaguar XE or Mercedes-Benz C-Class for less than $60,000 RRP.
If you don’t insist on something high-end German in your driveway (though note: the 318i, like other 3 Series models as well as the C-Class sedan, is made in South Africa), you can also get flagship versions of the bigger Volkswagen Passat, Mazda 6 or Ford Mondeo for much less. But you want the propellor badge…
Unlike 318i models of yesteryear — where you had to proverbially pay extra for the steering wheel — this new version actually comes well equipped, as befits the premium badge. BMW Australia is not as stingy as it used to be.
You get 18-inch alloy wheels, the Sport line style pack, a head-up display (the only form of digital speedo you can have), 360-degree camera with overhead view, cruise control with speed-limiter, lane change warning, satellite-navigation with traffic updates, Sensatec faux leather seats and LED headlights.
This is on top of standard features such as parking sensors front and rear, cruise control with braking (for steep downhill sections so it will maintain speed), climate control and velour floor mats. However, as ever with these things, the story is not quite so simple.
Our test 318i came with a host of extra features totalling almost $10,000 in cost, before luxury car tax (not applicable at the base price). And we barely scratched the surface.
Some are understandable enough, namely $2245 for the sunroof and $2150 for the Luxury Line pack with those gorgeous 18-inch alloy wheels and nicer leather trim.
Here’s the thing that BMW has always done well wth the 3 Series — stick nice wheels on a 318i and you have something that looks much more expensive. And if you want the image rather than the Sheer Driving Pleasure, it’ll appeal. You can add an M Sport package too…
Having to shell out $385 for digital radio seems stingy though (the 320i has it standard), ditto the $3500 Comfort Pack that adds electric seats with memory and heating, a rolling sun blind on the rear window and keyless start. Waste of money…
All told, the 318i’s cabin is scarcely more austere than any other 3 Series model. It’s minimalist and a little bland, but also has driver-facing ergonomics of the first degree, the still-excellent iDrive interface, and feels hewn from granite. It’ll last. And last.
As you can see, the test car BMW loaned us had… interesting saddle brown leather (part of the Luxury Line pack, though you have a choice of colours) and no-cost extra woodgrain theme going on. It’s nice to have choice.
The cabin is a little low-rent at night on the base car, given you miss out on the Lights Package standard on other 3 Series variants. This means no LED cabin lights in the rear or the vanity mirrors, and no ambient lighting. This omission, plus the cheap-feeling basic steering wheel, will let the team down a little.
Space in the rear is certainly short of larger 'mid-sized' sedans from the volume brands such as those mentioned earlier, but as we found on our recent four-way executive sedan test, it’s actually marginally more spacious than the Jaguar XE and C-Class. Boot space is 480L.
But enough of all that. How does the 318i drive? How the hell does a three-cylinder 3 Series possibly live up the badge?
We’ll admit, on start-up, that signature thrummy idle and slightly raucous note under moderate throttle seems a little… incongruous. Fine for a bubbly Mini, but perhaps not the mature 3 Series executive sedan.
But in terms of performance, it’s just fine. A 0-100km/h sprint time of 9.1 seconds won’t restyle your hair, but it’s more than adequate (the 320i takes 7.3sec).
It’s an eager and responsive unit round town, only slightly running out of puff higher in the rev band — something the intuitive eight-speed ZF auto largely heads off at the pass. Put it this way, we were ticking over at 1800rpm at a 100km/h freeway clip.
Claimed fuel use of 5.4 litres on the combined cycle (we managed low 6s) is sharp, too.
But here’s the next question we’d ask — if the 3 Series is a performance sedan, and we’d argue that it absolutely is — is an ‘adequate’ engine really sufficient when you can have a 35 per cent more powerful 320i for only 13 per cent more money? Hmmm.
The good news is that, if the 318i is all you can stretch to, you’ll still get one of the best handling four-door cars money can buy. Turn-in, chassis balance and body control are preternaturally good. The tiny engine decreases kerb mass by 25kg, and actually makes the car slightly more rear-biased in its balance, so it remains sublime.
But there’s one major caveat. Every BMW 3 Series variant now gets adaptive M suspension with adjustable shocks (for comfort and sport use) — except the 318i. And this system makes a big difference to the car, adding around-town pliability and improving handling under higher dynamic loads at the push of a button.
At least BMW has come a long way with the ride comfort of its cars on run-flat tyres.
If you fork out the $1692 to add the adaptive dampers to the 318i, like BMW had done with our test car, then the gap to the 320i closes… And that gap was narrow to start with, as a proportion of value.
And therein lies the problem with the 318i. If you have BMW 3 Series money, the 320i offers the better suspension, a more potent engine and even more equipment, for less than 13 per cent more (or about $50 a week over a 36-month finance plan). And in this echelon, that ain’t much.
In reality, the 318i three-cylinder is a bit of a novelty, or an offering designed for people stretching and clamouring to see a 3 Series in their driveway. It’s still a great car, but it falls victim to its more accomplished stablemates.
We suspect BMW Australia’s dealers would be rather happy to accommodate people keen to step up into the 320i, and in this instance we’d say you should oblige them.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.