BMW 318i

New entry point brings a triple to the Three

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

TO THREE or not to three? In an age of nimble Mercedes- Benz C-Classes and jiggy Jaguar XEs, premium midsizer buyers are spoiled for choice, and BMW knows it. So, the four-year-old F30- generation 3 Series has gained a fresh family of modular engines, recalibrated transmissions, stronger suspension mounts and a 10mm ride-height drop to help reassert the nameplate’s dynamic superiority. This is a facelift that goes beyond the normal nip and tuck, though most people will notice only the revised nosecone, updated multimedia and swishier interior ambience.

While the four-cylinder (320i, 320d, 330i) and six-cylinder (340i) versions landed last October, it’s the just-resurrected 318i variant, featuring a new 100kW threecylinder turbo, that is arguably the most intriguing, presenting yet another difficult decision for buyers: three pots or four?

FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE Unless your ear is cocked like the Bionic Woman’s listening out for it, the absence of a trademark triple thrum from inside the 318i is remarkable, though the exhaust sounds distinctive enough.

Despite boasting a capacity of just 1.5 litres, the engine’s 220Nm maximum torque is available virtually immediately, so with a set of slick and smartly spaced auto ratios raring to exploit this, the 318i will leap forward with exuberance – and keep striding along smoothly as well as effortlessly. It’s certainly not underpowered. Recalling how pedestrian the old 318i was up until the 2001 E46 facelift, this version’s vitality makes it triply pleasing.

The three-pot turbo’s advantages continue with exceptional economy, while a lighter front-end (25kg less than a 320i) probably aids the enjoyable dynamics. Probably?

Our test car included the optional Variable Sport Steering ($2245) and Adaptive M Suspension ($1692), so the crisp but curiously remote turn-in and unflappable roadholding may not directly translate with the standard set-up. Still, we’d wholly recommend the adaptive dampers if ride comfort matters to you at all.

The new entry-level 3 Series shakes its paucity image with satellite navigation, head-up display, reversing camera, lanechange warning, LED headlights and 18-inch alloys, but then slaps us with clammy vinyl trim, which just doesn’t cut it.

Regardless, the three-pot turbo 3 Series stimulates with energetic chutzpah and real charm. While most buyers will bridge the $15K gap to the 330i, there is something defiantly uplifting about choosing to downsize. Compared with rival offerings, the 318i might even be the driver’s choice.

New balance

While almost identical to the 1.5-litre triple found in the X1, 2 Series Active Tourer, Mini and other UKL transverse-platform BMW Group models, the 318i is the modular B38 engine’s first longitudinal, RWD application. EU6 compliant, it features all-aluminium construction, double variable camshaft timing and a monoscroll turbocharger with an exhaust manifold-integrated set-up that cuts the distance the gases have to travel for faster responses. Balancer shafts help keep things running smoothly.