There's a lot to be said for simplicity. Sometimes it just works. Sometimes you want a more complex affair and that's fine too. Sometimes, however, you want something inherently more complex but with a few generous helpings of simplicity. I like to think that is what my beloved 2004 BMW 318i is all about; simple, efficient, effective. Sensible.
The E46 has long been lauded as the last truly special 3 series. There’s something about the formula that just resonates. Personally I’ve never driven anything more recent that an E90 so I’m not at liberty to weigh in heavily on that discussion, however I do think there's a real charm to them that persists even at the base model - which is where this review starts, so let's break down the formula.
First you take a sensibly-sized wheelbase and stick a sensible cabin and body on it. Nothing too complex or Witchcraft-y about it. Then you pick a powerplant, in this case, a peppy little 2.0-litre 4-cylinder unit. Simplicity (and price) dictates this to be naturally aspirated affair, so no forced induction here folks. To get the motivation from this gem to the wheels you pick a transmission, in this case the more complex affair; the mighty 5-speed Steptronic! Following that, you throw the feature book at it. Comfy yet simple leather interior? Check. Sunroof that tilts and opens without as much as a whisper? Check. Just enough buttons to touch and all laid out within reach? Check.
This formula boils down some of the main reasons i bought this car. I'm a simple guy and i like simple things.
This brings up the first sore point I wish to discuss. This car in not a sports car, yet it doesn't try to be. The 5-speed auto is remarkably sensible at times, working beautifully with the bubbly 2.0-litre, shifting seamlessly and somewhat energetically for a time before settling into a quirky behaviour of indecision about which gear to be in, followed by a shift that can be anywhere from lethargic to quite violent and rifle-bolt like. For the half-decade I’ve enjoyed this car I’ve noticed a downward trend in shifting quality, but luckily Sport mode is here to help pep this transmission up and remind it of its sporting roots. You're a 3-er, you scoundrel, act like it! Overall the transmission is about as inoffensive as they get and i like to chalk it's quirks up to being a 15-year old, 223,000km unit - that's got to be at least 58 in cat years!
Next, the engine; it’s an asthmatic naturally-aspirated 4-cylinder, and that's not a bad thing. First, it’s surprisingly efficient returning a lifetime average of 8.2 litres per 100 kilometres which, considering my driving style and daily 70km round trip on the M1 and weekend jaunts into the Dandenongs, colours me impressed. Of course, it could have more power, of course it could go faster, but at the risk sounding like an 86/BRZ driver, it doesn't want or need any more. This is a car that's more than comfy in its own skin and encourages you to learn how to drive properly and rewards you with just enough fun.
Now onto the interior. You slide your way into the cabin and are greeted by a wheel and cluster combo that were undeniably made from the ground up by drivers, for drivers. The wheel diameter is large enough to fit in your palms and encourages some quick hands without the perils of my 181cm frame getting bashed about the knees too much. Again, sensibility in action! The driver's seat is another delightfully simple affair, well clad in nice leather with only a hint of wear marks after a decade and a half. It’s well bolstered and with enough adjustability to fit even my lanky frame (mohawks are a different) into a position that even Goldilocks would fawn admirably at. Looking slightly to your left you will see a truly driver-oriented dash, tilted just so subtly (sensibly?) towards the driver in a way that makes you feel like you're truly in command, and all other occupants are 100% at your mercy. At speed, road noise does rear its ugly head even through the lovely thick Contipremium Contacts - a small infraction mostly, yet a jarring one when it does come to light. Tilt your head down and you'll see two things; one, the gear knob, a north-south PRND set-up with an M/S at the bottom for sports mode and the interesting manual mode. The second thing you’ll see is more abstract but needs mentioning; the lack of cup holder. Now as I mentioned before, I’m a simple man, and all I want on the way to work is some place to store my mug of English Breakfast tea whilst I waft along preparing for the day ahead. I simply don't believe that young Germans don't want to enjoy a cuppa in their mini-5 so to me this is a serious and unforgivable oversight. My partner assures me this is an easy fix, but I remind her it's the principle and justifies complaints ad-infinitum.
Grievous wounds aside, this 3-er was full to the brim of the best bells and whistles 2004 could provide! 5-stacker CD in the boot, Bluetooth unit the size of a DVD player (with head-unit support for calls), speed-sensitive wipers, dipping headlights, ABS, stability and traction control, side and curtain airbags, even a ski bag built into the rear of the back seat. It's no wonder these things were hotcakes in their day, BMW undoubtedly put the time and the money into making this machine the best it could be.
The 318i is in its element in either the long, 100km/h stretches to Bendigo and beyond a few times a year or the short, snappy, corner-dash-corner madness of the incredible northeast of Victoria, its ability in each situation being quite impressive. To have something that capable and willing for a tarted-up base model is something to celebrate. It is also the reason I enjoy driving, either alone, with my 5-foot-4 partner who is incredibly critical of my lack of self-shifter, yet shares the smiles and enjoys my endless offers of chauffeuring. Or with my colleagues, whom often take advantage of the supplied social lubricant at the myriad work events we attend throughout the year, thinking they've swayed my decision to invite them into my little place of happiness on wheels. Little do they know (or openly acknowledge) that I love it, and that their enjoyment of the "finer things" presents an opportunity for me to step in and graciously offer my services to the benefit of all.
There is so much to love about this car, much like the charming old dog at the shelter who draws you in despite you knowing his best days are behind him. Concerns about the more critical folks turning their nose up at it in favour of something faster just means I get to be greedier with mine.
BMW would be wise to remember this formula, the G20 3 series has already had many positive words said about it, and I for one hope they look in the proverbial rear-view mirror and realise just how much they can learn from their own history of simplicity.
This E46 is an old dog, but it's still got tricks.