The 318i Sport is the sort of car that just about anyone can appreciate, but is it a real BMW?
SINGAPORE — Right now, the 318i Sport is the only version of BMW’s facelifted 3 Series that you can buy in Singapore. To go with its modest price ($180,800 with COE) it has a modest engine: a 1.5-litre turbo with 136 horsepower.
Eventually the range will be joined by the 320i (powered by a 2.0-litre turbo with 184hp and 270Nm, giving it the legs to hit 100km/h in 7.3 seconds), a 330i (252hp, 350Nm and 5.8 seconds) and a 340i (3.0 litres, 326bhp, 450Nm, 5.1 seconds — can’t wait).
By our reckoning, none of those is going to cost less than $200,000.
That makes the 318i the most relevant model to the most number of people in Singapore, then, and presumably the main thing they all want to know is, is it a ‘real’ BMW?
If nothing else, it sure looks the part. The 3 Series’ facelift has brought very little in detectable change — if you ask me the best way to tell is to wait for dim lighting conditions so you can spot the wavy new lighting signature in the taillamps — but the 318i Sport is going to look similar to the pricier versions.
For one thing, all the new 3 Series versions do away with chrome trim in favour of glossy black “Shadow Line”.
If you’re still interested in playing spot-the-difference, the 318i has 17-inch alloys (and so will the 320i Sport, albeit in a different design) while the 330i and 340i will roll along on 18-inch wheels.
Inside, the giveaways are more obvious. The dashboard has glossy black inserts and a stripe of red (the 320i and up will use an aluminium-like finish with chrome), and if you look behind the steering wheel you’ll find no gearchange paddles.
The iDrive system’s screen is the smaller 6.5-inch one, and the control knob for it comes without the fingertip writing surface.
Still, the facelift has brought minor improvements to the cabin, like subtle chrome flourishes and a sliding lid for the cupholders (instead of a silly lift-out tray that the last model used).
Instead of leather, the 318i is upholstered in a synthetic material that BMW calls Sensatec, but if the specs sheet hadn’t pointed it out I would never have known.
Overall the 318i doesn’t feel like a cheap imitation of the real thing, that’s for sure. A generous list of standard features does help. You enter the car and start the engine keylessly, the seats adjust electrically, and BMW’s excellent navigation system and ConnectedDrive suite of online functions are both present and accounted for.
Some elements do feel downmarket (the rear cupholders are the biggest culprits here), but the 3 Series experience has never been about being ensconced in an ultra posh interior, anyway.
Instead, the core of what it means to be a 3 Series driver is that you should emerge from the car with a goofy smile on your face.
On that front, the 318i doesn’t fall short. The engine isn’t a ball of fire, but it’s eager enough to make you feel like someone put more horses under the bonnet than you paid for.
Merging with fast-moving traffic is seldom a problem, and a hearty slug of mid-range torque gives the car a zippiness that comes as a pleasant surprise.
Indeed, the engine is wonderfully characterful. It’s a revvy, smooth-spinning thing that chirrups along with a merry three-cylinder thrum. Drive a 318i briskly and it’s clear that even though it’s not all that powerful, it has the heart of a champ.
That said, while there’s plenty of oomph at the kind of engine speeds you tend to see in town, the little three-cylinder does run out of puff noticeably at 5,000rpm, so there’s no point in wringing it to the redline.
And it might be worth pointing this out because this is a turbo sporting sedan with rear wheel-drive we’re talking about, but there just isn’t enough power to slide the tail in the dry.
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Yet, the 318i’s handling has more to offer in finesse than in hoonery. The joy of driving a 3 Series isn’t predicated on insane amounts of grip through bends, and sure enough the BMW doesn’t feel particularly stuck to the road. But it’s so beautifully balanced that you can twirl the steering wheel with enthusiasm, and feel certain that the 318i won’t pay you back with a nasty surprise.
BMW’s engineers say they’ve tweaked the power steering system’s software for the facelift, and it does offer more feedback than before. That just gives you even more confidence to attack bends with, and the 318i easily passes the test of anything that calls itself a driver’s car: when you find yourself on a nice road with it, you want to stay there all day.
That does leave you wishing for more power, though, if nothing else to satisfy your curiosity about what a chassis like this must feel like when there’s a nice rush of acceleration to go with it.
Nevertheless, the 318i Sport is the sort of car that just about anyone can appreciate. The cabin may not feel like the last word in opulence, but it’s comfy, and the car is well-equipped while being fun to drive. It’s a casual intro to the world of BMW, in other words.
Models like the 330i and 340i are the automotive equivalent of caviar: expensive and properly appreciated by only a few. The 318i might not have the same sense of excess, but it does serve up BMW’s flavour of motoring, and is what will really drive the brand’s sales here. If nothing else, it does show how appealing bread-and-butter can be.
NEED TO KNOW BMW 318i Sport
Engine 1,499cc, 12V, turbo in-line three
Power 136bhp at 4500-6000rpm
Torque 220Nm at 1250-4,300rpm
Gearbox 8-speed Steptronic automatic
Top Speed 210km/h
0-100km/h 9.1 seconds
Fuel efficiency 5.4L/100km (combined)
Price $180,800 with COE
318i not enough? We drove the mighty 340i