Tri-cylinder Three no odd number

Once it was the car that set the sales pace for BMW in New Zealand … now the 3-Series is looking a little long in the tooth. Can a new budget model stir up interest?
Wednesday August 2, 2017
For: Engine suits car, enjoyable driving experience, good technology package.
Against: Ordinary front seat, awful fake leather and no cloth option, looking dated within, no boot badge.

By Richard Bosselman

HERE’S a version of a well-regarded car that is better than I thought it could ever be yet, for all that, still might not be good enough to swing significant favour back to its type.

For all that it might struggle to return the world’s best small rear-drive sporting sedan to the big time status that it once enjoyed – until, that is, the market abdicated regular cars for crossovers – the new entry BMW 3-Series is, at technical level and in terms of overall driving delightfulness and value-minded proficiency, no bad thing by any means.

More than anything else, it proves that the concept of a 1.5-litre three-cylinder-powered Three is nothing to fear.

For sure, there are flaws associated with this package, but none have anything to do with what’s under the bonnet: As daringly oddball the concept of placing, in a first-time longitudinal format, a 100kW/220Nm engine from the Mini/2-Series Active Tourer, into this car might seem, the outcome is actually highly appealing.

You get an engine that not only has real aural character (because, even though it is quite subdued here, you cannot but like the distinctive thrum of a tri-cylinder), but also has decent pep.

For sure, there’s none of the truly sporty edge that comes with the four-cylinder 320 that previously served as the range entry – not just from the engine, but also from the package as a whole, with the 318 being on quite comfort-oriented suspension and running 18-inch wheels shod with sensible shoes tyres – but, setting aside the slightly languid 0-100km time (factory-claimed as being 9.1 seconds), it nips along well enough and certainly doesn’t undermine ‘ultimate driving machine’ marketing spruik.

What doesn’t inhibit its flair, but certainly enhances its flexibility and frugality (BMW says 5.4 litres per 100km, we saw a 6.2 average), is the eight-speed automatic transmission; a box that is standard to all sorts of Munich models now, including some far more muscular than this, nonetheless still settles nicely into marriage with this engine.

So, on the driving side of things, it acquits quite nicely, in fact.

The issue of value is perhaps thornier, regardless that, on first consideration, the $59,990 tag that attaches to this car seems incredibly appealing. The last time a new Three has been available at this money was the last time the 318 was here. When that car then a four-cylinder, was removed, the base price pushed upward, to the point where until the old base number returned in March, the line kicked off with the 320i for $72,000.

The impetus for bringing it back is to open the market to a new buyer sector. Well, that’s the brand-speak. Fact is, the Three has lost a lot of its mojo over the past few years and there’s a sense that BMW NZ is now starting to get a bit desperate in its attempts to stop the bleeding. After all, for all the positive talk about the 318’s potential, they don’t tend to talk about why they’ve taken so long to pick it up. This car, after all, has been in production for quite some time and, in fact, has been available in Australia since 2015.

Speaking of … the first shipment, from which the test car came, seems to be as our neighbour likes it. Which means there’s no room for choosing your trim and accessories as you can with dearer models. The car comes as it comes and that’s it.

Generally, that’s no problem. This new 318 is far better appointed than any previous. It has BMW’s base ‘Business’ sat nav and automatic air conditioning and electrically adjustable and heated front seats.

The safety package is strong, with Lane Change Warning as standard along with the Driving Assistant package, a camera-based driver assistance system consisting of Lane Departure Warning, person warning with light city braking function and approach control warning with light city braking function.  Rear view camera and Park Distance Control front and rear is also standard equipment.

The model also accesses the full suite of BMW Connected technologies.  These include Real Time Traffic Information, Concierge Services, Remote Services and TeleServices.

Intelligent Emergency Call enables contact with emergency services in the event of a serious accident, or through a manual override in unsafe situations.  A SIM card embedded within the vehicle ensures the BMW 318i Sedan is always connected via a 4G data link.

That’s all good kit for the cost and, of course, beyond that you get a very comprehensive warranty and servicing package.

Catches? Though you’re basically buying into a similar level of content that avails to a 320i, it’s not exactly the same. There’s been some cost saving.

The most obvious is with the trim and seats – you get a standard rather than the usual sports chair and also vinyl rather than real leather. The blending of the two undermines the brand’s premium image; the seat is a shocker, being far softer and more shapeless than any Three chair I’ve previously experienced. And the vinyl looks cheap; it would have been far better had the car come with cloth trim.

Also evidencing as savings are the fact that it has a lower grade of paintwork than you usually see; the application and finish is fine, but you can only have the car in white or the black here, and the latter has that weird ‘plasticky’ finish that I’ve always associated with ex-Japan used import low grade Beamers. Another thing that’ll have people asking if it had a first life elsewhere is the badging, or lack thereof. It’s the only Three here that lacks a designation badge on the boot. Is BMW too embarrassed by the ‘318’ thing or are they simply saving a few cents?

So, I dunno, is that enough of a turn-off? I’ve got say that, if I was entertaining this as a best-entry into owning a brand-new Beamer, I’d still probably end up comparing the car with like-priced used product just to get a clear picture.

As I say, there’s a definite allure of getting all the good servicing and back up stuff that comes with a new car. But, on the other hand, given the depreciation scenario and all that, it’s possible you could buy a whole lot of tastier pre-owned NZ-new Three for the same outlay, and still perhaps wangle some degree of brand support. Possibly in another bodyshape: The 318 only delivers in sedan format and I’d have to say a wagon, perhaps with all-wheel-drive, would be more up my street.

Beyond that, if you compared with other small cars of similar size then the Three also starts to look a bit frayed, too. The shape has stood the test of time well, but the interior design has begun to date. The lack of any kind of the mobile phone mirroring capabilities that have rapidly become commonplace might seem a minor quibble, but it’s something that personally irks.

Still, as I say, if the decision purely comes down to how it drives, then chances are you will find it hard to steer away from this package. BMW’s ability to build sweet-handling cars has historically always been well-evidenced by the Three and nothing changes here.

The diminutive drivetrain’s lightweight mass over the front axle pays dividends in terms of steering feel; it potentially has the best tiller of any Three outside of the outright performance M edition: There’s a direct and consistent feel to it. The car feels particularly good on point of turn-in. and, this remember, is with a standard suspension and mainstream rubber. For all that, it keeps sharp cornering capability and a planted roadholding.

True, there are times when you will wish it had a bit more oomph. That’s mainly when the car is taking on significant ascents; you need to keep the revs up – in fact, you need to give it a lot of stick – to keep it on the boil and on the pace. But that’s actually an interaction that suits the car. There’s certainly never any sense that you’re hurting it. This engine seems to thrive on being given lots of welly and, as said, it sounds good at that point, too, with a melodic upper-rev fizz.

The reception meted this car has inspired BMW NZ to make it a regular model; that means there are a couple of options – sadly, sports seats and cloth trim aren’t among them though a broader colour choice is.

It’s improbable that the 318 will do enough to restore the Three back to the in-house dominance it once held. But this new option is worth considering, all the same.