What is it?
Our first introduction to the renewed 3 Series suggested the unthinkable: BMW’s bestseller might just have lost its mojo. The range-topping six-cylinder 340i we pitched against Jaguar’s XE in southern Germany was brutally fast, but perhaps not quite the driver’s car we’d been hoping Munich would deliver.
Happily a more recent taste of the car – this time a 320d M Sport on more familiar UK roads and without the unwelcome variable sport steering option ticked – was far more encouraging, and showed the 3 Series to be, in many if not every respect, much improved.
And you’d jolly well hope so, because while it looks barely any different from outside there have been some pretty significant changes. The suspension is now anchored to the body at more points to make it more rigid, the anti-roll bars have been thickened and stiffened, and the whole car has been dropped by 10mm. That’s on top of improvements to the interior and a welcome boost in standard equipment.
But now we’re back on foreign soil, this time in northern Spain, for our first try of the new entry-level 318i – interesting if only because it’s the first time a manufacturer has had the bottle to slot anything less than a four-cylinder engine into an executive saloon.
You’ll be familiar with the new 318i’s 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo motor from our reviews of the Mini Cooper and the 2 Series Active Tourer, where it’s proved rather impressive. But satisfying the performance and refinement demands of executive saloon buyers is quite another matter, and that’s the challenge here.
What's it like?
Well, it’s certainly not fast. As with most three-cylinder-engined cars the 318i’s initial throttle response is somewhat tardy, and even when serving up maximum torque (162lb ft between 1250 and 4000rpm) acceleration never feels any more special than BMW’s 8.9-second 0-62mph time would suggest.
But the engine’s lazy disposition has its merits. It’s much quieter than any of the diesels and refuses to feel strained no matter how hard you rev it. Aside from a few tremors through the gear lever and pedals at low revs under load, it’s also remarkably smooth.
In fact, put aside any thoughts about getting places quickly and there’s lots to like about the way the 318i drives. We’ve yet to try the new 3 Series with anything other than the optional adaptive M Sport suspension fitted, and yet again it proves a welcome compromise between body control and ride comfort. In fact, the high-speed ride is close to flawless, and the low-speed primary ride only fractionally firmer than would be ideal.
Smaller contact patches – courtesy of the 18in runflats instead of the 19s we’ve tried previously – along with the engine’s low weight actually benefit the steering slightly, because there’s less resistance and more of a discernible difference in build up in steering weight when you turn in to corners at high speeds. That’s a good thing, although we still suspect you’d be better off without the weight-altering Servotronic system, despite its seemingly reasonable £85 cost.
Chassis updates aside, the 3 Series gets a subtly remodelled interior – new materials and tighter panel gaps bringing the overall quality closer to what we’ve seen from the latest Audi A4. All trim levels now come with sat-nav, although we can’t see many being satisfied with the cloth seats on this mid-spec Sport model. Budget an extra £1295 if you want leather.
Should I buy one?
This new 318i isn’t an easy sell for BMW. Ford has found it tricky enough talking customers into its three-cylinder Focus, so we can’t envisage BMW customers queuing up in their droves to be among the first to own a three-pot exec.
In some ways their concerns will be justified. There’s a big question mark hanging over how well this entry-level 3 Series will hold its value, not only compared to the more popular diesels, but also the larger-capacity petrols. Real-world fuel economy is another chief concern given that the whole point of buying a 318i is to get a 3 Series for as little outlay as possible, and our experience of three-cylinder turbos suggests they tend to be rather thirsty.
But I’m going to stick my neck out and say you’d be unwise not to at least consider the 318i if you’re browsing the lower end of the 3 Series’ line-up. This isn’t the fastest, the finest-driving nor by any means the ultimate version of BMW’s exec, but it’s still very much a 3 Series, and actually the most comfortable and refined version we’ve tried.
BMW 318i Sport
Location Pamplona, Spain; On sale Now; Price £25,275; Engine 3 cyls, 1499cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 134bhp at 4500-6000rpm; Torque 163lb ft at 1250-4000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1475kg; 0-62mph 8.9sec; Top speed 130mph; Economy 52.3mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 124g/km, 19%