After a decade in hiatus, the 318i badge is back, gracing the (slightly) updated exterior of the 2016 BMW 3 Series. But with one turbo, three cylinders, and a host of suspension mods underneath, this is a 318i like no other.
WHAT IS IT?
BMW went all out to update its sixth-generation 3 Series, spending more effort on driveability than the mildly updated styling and interior suggest. There is an all-new range of modular engines, and significantly altered suspension. Additionally, for the first time, a three-cylinder turbo surfaces, in the resurrected BMW 318i opener.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
Three-cylinder vehicles have impressed us over the past few years, but how a downsized turbo engine would behave in a 1400kg-plus rear-drive midsizer with overt sports/luxury sedan character was another question entirely.
Audi A4 1.8 TFSI, Infiniti Q50 2.0t GT, Mercedes-Benz C200, Lexus IS200t, Volkswagen CC V6 FSI 4Motion, Volvo S60 T4
THE WHEELS VERDICT
On the terrific three-cylinder turbo honours list, the BMW 318i stands alongside the Renault Clio 90 TCe, the Ford Fiesta Sport 1.0T EcoBoost, and the Peugeot 308 1.2T e-THP. And just like the French cars, the least expensive BMW 3 Series is also one of the best, because the all-new 100kW/220Nm 1.5-litre B38 engine is sweet, spirited, and incredibly refined. That its low mass benefits dynamics – courtesy of a detailed suspension upgrade as part of the F30 generation’s mid-lifecycle facelift – underlines the beauty of an intelligently engineered downsized powertrain. Once upon a time the 318i was a laughing stock. From today, it’s a serious threat to the base Mercedes C200 and Audi A4 1.8 TFSI.
PLUS: Performance, handling, roadholding, efficiency, design, cabin upgrade
MINUS: Essential adaptive dampers optional, clammy vinyl upholstery, expensive options
THE WHEELS REVIEW
TO THREE or not to three? In an age of nimble Benz C-Classes and jiggy Jaguar XEs, premium midsizer buyers are spoiled for choice, with the BMW 3 Series no longer the default for driving enthusiasts.
BMW clearly recognises this, so the four-year-old F30 gains a box-fresh family of modular engines, recalibrated transmissions, stronger suspension mounts, and a 10mm ride-height drop, to help reassert the 41-year-old nameplate’s dynamic superiority.
It’s a facelift that goes beyond the normal nip-’n’-tuck, though most people will notice only the revised nosecone, updated multimedia, and swishier interior ambience.
That’s a pity. While the four-cylinder (320i, 320d, 330i) and six-cylinder (340i) versions landed last October, it’s the just-resurrected 318i, starring an all-new 100kW three-cylinder turbo, that might be the most intriguing, presenting yet another difficult numerical-related decision for buyers: three pots or four.
First impressions? Unless your ear is cocked like the Bionic Woman’s and listening out for it, the absence of the trademark triple thrum from inside is remarkable, though the exhaust sounds distinctive enough.
Second, despite boasting just 1.5 litres, its 220Nm torque max 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, like its (somewhat) larger-engined siblings would and do.
This ain’t underpowered, folks. Recalling how pedestrian the 318i was up until the 2001 E46 facelift, the vitality of today’s version makes it triply pleasing.
The three-pot turbo’s advantages continue with exceptional economy potential, while a lighter front end (25kg under a 320i) probably aids the enjoyable dynamics. Probably? Ours included $2245 Variable Sport Steering and $1692 Adaptive M Suspension, so the crisp but curiously remote turn-in and unflappable roadholding may not directly translate with the standard helm set-up. Still, we’d wholly recommend the latter option’s adaptive dampers if ride comfort matters at all.
Finally, the cheapest 3 Series shakes its paucity image with sat-nav, head-up display, reversing camera, Lane Change Warning, LED headlights, and 18-inch alloys, and then slaps us with clammy vinyl trim. Cloth, wool, corduroy… taxi-grade plastic upholstery just doesn’t cut it.
Regardless, the three-pot turbo 3 Series stimulates with energetic chutzpah and surprising charm. While most buyers will bridge the $15K gap to the exquisitely powerful 330i, there is something defiantly uplifting about choosing to downsize. Compared with rival offerings, the 318i might even be the driver’s choice.
Model: BMW F30 318i LCI
Engine: 1499cc 3cyl, dohc, 12v, turbo
Max power: 100kW @ 4500-6000rpm
Max torque: 220Nm @ 1250-4000rpm
Transmission: 8-speed auto
Fuel economy: 5.4L/100km
On sale: Now