THREE IN 3: Entry-level 318i offers the first three-cylinder engine in a premium sedan, and starts at $54,900.
THREE IN 3: Entry-level 318i offers the first three-cylinder engine in a premium sedan, and starts at $54,900. Mark Bean

Three-cylinder thrills: BMW 318i road test and review

WE AUSSIES like our BMW 3 Series with some balls.

Unlike our European counterparts flocking to diesel variants, best-sellers in our market are the 185kW 330i and 240kW 340i - the most powerful and priciest of the Threes before you hop into the M3 uber sedan.

So what of the 'lesser' models? From the new 3 Series range (which launched last October) you could also opt for a 320i petrol or 320d diesel, and now we're welcoming a new entry level model with a very familiar badge.

The 318i has been a staple of the 3 Series line-up for much of its 40-year history, but the new version has one important difference. Or one less important difference if you prefer: only three-cylinders.

If you're averse to diesel power (a shame, as BMW's 320d is a superb all-rounder), this 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol is a fascinating alternative, not least due to its range-entry $54,900 price tag.

A 0-100kmh time of 9.1-seconds is hardly quick but isn't miserable, while you still get the rear-wheel drive fun, excellent refinement and decent kit expected in a 3 Series.

My wheel time in the new 318i was short, but enough to appreciate the arguments for buying this, the first premium sedan powered by just the three cylinders.

2016 BMW 318i. Photo: Contributed.
2016 BMW 318i. Photo: Contributed. Mark Bean

Comfort

I'm not able to report on an out-of-the-box 318i's comfort as my test car was fitted with a $3500 Comfort Package (bringing power heated seats, keyless entry and auto tailgate); $2150 Luxury Line option with its leather Dakota upholstery, and a $2245 electric glass sunroof. Easy to see how that bill creeps up once you start box ticking.

As standard you still get man-made leather upholstery which is very good, so you never feel you're in anything less than a premium car. The leather steering wheel is a chunky delight, the cockpit well laid out and the curved dash with top-mounted screen exudes quality. The iDrive system control unit is, in my opinion, not bettered by any of its rivals.

2016 BMW 318i. Photo: Contributed.
2016 BMW 318i. Photo: Contributed. Fabian Kirchbauer

On the road

This part is key. Does it still feel like a "proper" 3 Series. Well, yes and no.

The three-cylinder 318i does feel slow for a modern 3 Series and throttle response isn't great, but it makes up for that with the 1.5-litre feeling smooth, eerily quiet and with a decent dose of personality.

Maximum torque arrives from just 1250rpm but there's not the satisfying urge you get in a 320d for example.

If you're not seeking outright performance it will suit your needs to a tee - it's an impressively refined cruiser on the highway - but you do miss out on the thrills found in the rest of the range.

That said, throw it into the corners and it still has that lovely balance and pointiness we expect from our 3 Series.

The eight-speed auto is hard to fault, but if ever a 3 Series needed a manual to reveal an engine's personality, it's this one.

A six-speed cog swapper with clutch is a no cost option and would make sense for those who enjoy a bit more control over proceedings. This is more pertinent when I tell you there are no steering wheel paddles for the auto 318i, and you can't even option them. They put paddles on a 730d for heaven's sake, and is that really going to be driven more sportily than a 318i?

This is Australia so nobody will buy the manual (okay, maybe 2% will), but that doesn't mean you shouldn't.

2016 BMW 318i. Photo: Contributed.
2016 BMW 318i. Photo: Contributed. Fabian Kirchbauer

What do you get?

It may be the bargain 3 Series, but included kit isn't lean at all. As with all BMW 3 Series, you score a rear view camera, head-up display, lane change warning, driving assistant, surround view with top view and side view, LED headlights, ConnectedDrive and real time traffic information.

The 318i also comes with 18-inch alloys, eight-speed automatic gearbox (a six-speed manual is a no-cost option) and navigation.

Other options

Compare it to the usual prestige small sedans at entry level and you find the Audi A4 ($57,000), Jaguar XE ($60,400) and Mercedes C-Class ($60,900) - all four-cylinders.

But if you want to get into a 3 Series, potential 318i shoppers should also try the 320i for a bit more oomph ($61,900) and you must sample the torque-rich 320d ($63,800) to see if it suits.

Practicality

The 318i's 480-litres of boot space will suffice the needs of most small families, as will the ample and comfortable rear seating.

One of the reasons for buying an entry level 3 Series will be economy, but three- cylinder motors can prove thirstier than you'd think - 5.4-litres/100km is quoted for the 318i, while the 330i is only slightly worse at 5.8-litres. The 320d, meanwhile, drinks only 4.4-litres.

DECENT SIZE: Boot offers 480-litres of space.
DECENT SIZE: Boot offers 480-litres of space. Fabian Kirchbauer

The lowdown

The new 318i is a likeable offering despite lacking the true driver reward many seek in a 3 Series, but the style, refinement and quality still shine through.

The three-cylinder is a superb and quiet unit, and big praise to BMW for being brave enough to offer it, but buyers shouldn't expect fireworks.

Will it sell? It looks good for the $55,000 money, but perhaps a hybrid 3 Series at this price point would be more compelling for today's market. A 330e is coming this year but should cost closer to $70,000.

Either way, BMW hopes to bring new customers to the brand, and is getting closer to offering a 3 Series for everyone.

2016 BMW 318i. Photo: Contributed.
2016 BMW 318i. Photo: Contributed. Mark Bean

What matters most

What we liked: Usual 3 Series refinement, comfort and class, price undercuts its entry-level rivals, smooth and quiet three-cylinder, handles beautifully.

What we'd like to see: Needs steering wheel paddles, less costly options, proper naming conventions - this should be the 315i.

Warranty and servicing: Three-year unlimited kilometre warranty. Servicing is condition based where the vehicle informs when servicing is required. Five years/80,000km BMW Service Inclusive package for $1240.

 

The verdict

Driving experience 16/20  

Features and equipment 17/20  

Functionality and comfort 17/20  

Value for money 17/20  

Style and design 16/20  

Total............83/100

 

2016 BMW 318i. Photo: Contributed.
2016 BMW 318i. Photo: Contributed. Mark Bean

 

Vital statistics

Model: BMW 318i Sedan.

Details: Four-door rear-wheel drive small premium sedan.

Engine: 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol generating maximum power of 100kW @ 4500rpm and peak torque of 220Nm @ 1250rpm.

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic (six-speed manual a no cost option).

Consumption: 5.4-litres/100km (combined).

CO2: 126g/km.

Performance: 0-100kmh in 9.1-seconds, 210kmh top speed.

Bottom line plus on-roads: $54,900.



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