Despite both being pivotal institutions in BMW folklore, the 3 Series and six-cylinder engines aren’t elements that are as inextricably intertwined as we might imagine. The first-ever M3 made do with only four cylinders, as did the forefather of the entire 3 Series lineage – the legendary 2002.
In time, six-cylinder engines did grow increasingly prevalent across the 3 Series range, but they were, in a Malaysian context at least, never as integral in the line-up as they were with the bigger 5 and 7 Series models. A big chunk of 3 Series buyers, regardless of model generation, opted for their cars with four-cylinder engines.
The six-pot got further distanced from the 3 Series narrative when the current F30 model generation rolled out with a range 2.0-litre four-pots to form the core of its line-up. Why would you now go for the 3.0-litre 335i or 340i when the 2.0-litre variants – 320i, 328i, and 330i – already serve outputs of 184 to 252hp?
A further twist was served up recently when BMW updated the F30 3 Series last year. Besides extensively upgrading its chassis to further improve its already very competent handling, the 3er also received a full-range update of its powerplants that included, for the very first time in a 3 Series – a three-cylinder engine.
Price: RM202,800 (on-the-road without insurance)
Engine: 1.5-litre, Inline-3, Longitudinal, Turbocharged
Power: 136hp @ 4,500 – 6,000rpm
Torque: 220Nm @ 1,250 – 4,300rpm
Transmission: 8-speed torque converter automatic, RWD
Safety: 6 airbags, ABS, ESC, ISOFIX (rear), Traction Control, Cornering Brake Control
Origin: Locally-assembled at Kulim, Kedah
The 318i replaces the previous 316i as the base variant of the F30 line-up. Despite downsizing from a 1.6-litre four-cylinder to a 1.5-litre three-cylinder, BMW quotes identical output figures for the new engine – 136hp and 220Nm – which is again paired with that ubiquitous 8-speed automatic transmission sourced from ZF to send drive astern.
Like the 330i M Sport we reviewed earlier, the 318i’s three-pot mill is a member of BMW’s latest-generation B-series modular engine family. It is, in essence, a 3.0-litre straight-six cut in half. In a bay designed to accommodate something double the size, the 1.5-litre powerplant finds itself in very commodious surroundings, sitting so far back that has a legitimate claim of being called a mid-engine car.
To recap, the 318i, trimmed in Luxury Line is standard, rounds-up a four-strong line-up of the F30 3 Series in Malaysia that currently also includes the 320i Sport Line (RM232k), 330e Sport Line (RM249k), and 330i M Sport (RM298k). The 320d previously introduced is not on sale at the moment.
Although we might think of the Mercedes-Benz C180 as the 318i’s most direct rival, the entry-level C-Class at RM229k is actually closer in pricing to the RM232k 320i. At RM203k on-the-road excluding insurance, the 318i finds itself surrounded by cars such as the Ford Mondeo at RM204k as well as the Mazda 6 in its 2.5-litre petrol and 2.2-litre diesel guises ranging from RM195k to RM203k.
In comparison with the 318i, both the Ford and Mazda are bigger, more powerful, and pack more standard equipment – the BMW doesn’t even give you comfort access keyless entry or reverse camera. Then again, let’s face it, great cars as both the Mondeo and 6 are; most people who shop with a budget of RM200k would want a premium badge to go with it.
Another potential competitor coming the 318i’s way would be the 1.4 TFSI variant of the all-new Audi A4 (B9) which is planned for introduction here at the start of 2017. With the 2.0 TFSI model currently priced at RM240k, the 1.4-litre model could find itself priced anywhere between RM200k and RM220k.
Depending on what pricing Volkswagen is able to secure, the soon-to-arrive all-new Passat B8, especially in its 2.0 TSI Highline guise, is another vehicle that could find itself in the 318i's pricing neighbourhood.
Ensuring that it maintains a respectable appearance alongside its glitzier siblings, the 318i gets all-round LED illumination as well as 17-inch alloy wheels.
Chrome inserts on the bumper are tastefully applied too, but given a choice, we’d peel off the less-than-subtle ‘Luxury Line’ fender badges. We’d also swap the multi-spoke alloys with the 10-spoke rollers that come with the 320i.
Basic layout of the 318i's cabin is common with the 330i M Sport we reviewed earlier although, unsurprisingly, there are number of absent features that account for the substantial price difference from the models above it.
The iDrive system, for starters, is a much simpler unit with a smaller screen and devoid of navigation, both of which are fine and acceptable to us. What we are less enthused about, however, is the lack of a reverse camera and keyless entry. Imagine fumbling your pockets for the key fob, unlocking the car, getting in, push the engine start button, and then having to keep the key again. It’s less of a hassle if the car has an old-school ignition key.
That little foible aside, the 318i’s interior adequately covers the basics. You get a pair of electrically-adjusted front seats, air-con vents for the rear passengers, and ISOFIX mounts. Small item storage is typically limited, but clarity of controls is beyond fault. It may lack the polished ambiance of the Mercedes C-Class, but this is an exceedingly easy cabin to acclimatize. Fit and finish is solid, but unspectacular.
A 1.5-litre three-cylinder may not be the kind of engine that you would imagine to power a car as rooted into the idea of sportiness as the BMW 3 Series, but a stint behind the wheel demonstrates the method behind Munich’s seeming madness.
Stats of 136hp and 220Nm are probably not the kind of numbers that set the pulses racing, but they are adequate in the context of both city and highway driving. The engine also makes up for its output deficiencies with a keen willingness to rev that is both endearing and amusing to exploit. Perhaps not quite like the six-cylinder engines of old, but this is an engine which you would quite happily pull to the redline over and over again.
The ZF 8-speed transmission puts in another fine display here, although its operation is not quite as unobtrusive as we are accustomed to – the effects of its kickdown is more noticeable as the transmission shuffles its ratios to compensate for the lesser torque than it gets from the bigger engines. That being said, overall intelligence of the unit is sufficiently intuitive that the absence of paddle shifters is a non-issue.
We have already verified that the F30 generation BMW 3 Series, like all its forebears, leads the field for handling and the 318i is in no danger of tarnishing that well-honed image. In some ways, it actually threatens to exceed its siblings.
Thanks to a smaller and lighter engine that sits almost entirely behind the front axle, the 318i benefits from having the lightest nose in the range. It responds to your steering inputs with great immediacy and fluidity; in short, there's greater eagerness to change direction. If you prioritize handling balance over power, the 318i may actually be the most satisfying member of the current 3 Series line-up.
Comfort and Refinement
Because it comes without the more aggressive M Sport setup, the 318i also gains added levels of comfort. There is still a hint of firmness in the ride, but the suspension dampens most surface irregularities with commanding authority. For road use, it is a satisfying and well-optimized setup.
It is common automotive wisdom that three-cylinder engines, despite their charming character, are inherently coarse. For the most part, BMW’s engineers have largely done a fine job ironing out those rough edges.
On the move, it feels sufficiently refined; but less so at a stand-still – the auto start/stop operates with shocking intrusiveness; at times, it’s almost like there was no damping of the engine’s start-up vibrations which was reminiscent of the company’s early efforts with start/stop technology.
Economy and Maintenance
For conventional petrol-powered variants of the 3 Series, BMW claims the following fuel consumption numbers rated in the EU combined cycle:
- 318i – 5.8 litres/100km
- 320i – 5.8 litres/100km (yes, identical as above)
- 330i – 6.1 litres/100km
We have yet to review the 320i, but our earlier review of the 330i yielded a reading of 9.9 litres/100km on the trip computer over a distance of 470 km. The 318i is unsurprisingly more economical, though not by the margins we anticipated – returning only 9.0 litres/100km over 420km of travel in mixed driving conditions.
The Mercedes-Benz C180, which has a more powerful 1.6-litre 4-cylinder engine rated for 156hp and 250Nm, would seem more economical in the real world with 8.5 litres/100km achieved in similar driving conditions. The outgoing 316i managed 8.9 litres/100km when I reviewed it for my previous employers.
As with all BMW models, maintenance is included in the purchase price, so you don’t have to pay for servicing in the first five years of ownership. You are additionally protected by BMW’s industry-first tyre warranty programme that protects you against tyre repair costs for two years.
A three-cylinder 3 Series, it’s an idea that would have sounded like an abomination during the day of the E90, but BMW’s execution of the concept is sufficiently well-considered that it has yielded a product that is every bit as worthy of the 3 Series name as others that came before it.
Objectively speaking, the 320i is the 3 Series that we’d still recommend as the optimum package of the range. Then again, the 318i has its own unique appeal – the charming nature of its engine and better-nuanced balance of its chassis mean that it is far more than just being the budget-driven choice of the range.