Growing up, I always got used to the notion that a BMW should (ideally) come with a straight-six engine. Heck, the old 3 Series was available with one and I always wanted an E36 320i. Fast forward 20 years later and you can't get a 3 Series with an inline-six in the country anymore. What gives?
So imagine my skepticism when I was handed the key fob to the 318d, the entry-level model of the 3 Series line locally. Can a 3 Series impress even in its most basic form?
Having owned straight-six BMWs for the past five years, expectations were, needless to say, on the high side. Granted, this current-generation of the 3 Series, internally known as the F30, has been around since 2012, making it the senior among its chief competitors, namely the Audi A4 (totally redesigned in 2016) and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class (all -new back in 2015). Indent order models aside, all BMW 3 Series models sold in the country are powered by four-cylinder turbodiesels.
I previously tested the 318d's larger-engined counterpart, the 320d. I said that while the powertrain was impressive, it doesn't quite have that same fun to drive factor as, say, an E46 3 Series. The 318d has quite the uphill battle ahead then.
With the 5 Series and 7 Series being all-new designs towards the latter half of this decade, the current 3 Series is starting to look a little left out in its own lineup. Still, it's a neat, evolutionary design which stemmed from the previous-gen E90. Despite being six years old, it still looks modern and contemporary. The upswept, LED-powered headlights, which are connected to the small (by current BMW standards) grill, give it a sharp and aggressive look. There's the classic BMW proportions of a long hood and a short deck, along with the signature Hoffmeister Kink. Its rear sticks to tradition too with those L-shaped tail lights, which are now powered by LEDs since its facelift about three years ago.
Whereas the 320d came with what's called the Sport Line trim, this 318d is equipped with the Luxury Line package. As the name implies, it sheds most of its sporting intentions, transforming this entry-level luxury sedan into a baby 5 Series. Chrome is tastefully applied in the foglight housings and window trim, as well as on the lower half of the rear bumper. 18-inch wheels fill the arches just right too. It wasn't that long ago when base BMW's looked exactly that; basic. Props to BMW Philippines for sprucing up the exterior then. Also, this shade of Mediterranean Blue does wonders in making it look like a junior limousine.
They gave the interior quite the upgrade too. Old batches of 318d came with plastic trim, some even coming with a manual climate control and basic power seats. With the Luxury Line pack, you get more of what you expect in a luxury sedan. The plastic panels have been replaced with real wood and real metal trimmings. Power seats now come with a memory function and the seats themselves are more comfortable. Let's just say that the cabin ambiance is much improved.
However, the upgrades to the interior won't totally mask the 3 Series' age. The 'floating' infotainment screen and the geometric dash comes from straight from the early 2010s, whereas the competition has adapted more organic shapes. That said, the dash screams function over form with buttons and dials logically arranged for ease of use. As before, the iDrive system has fast loading times and doesn't lag in its input.
While it says 318d on the trunklid, the car uses the familiar 2.0-liter, TwinPower Turbo diesel. It's practically the same block as the 320d, albeit detuned for this application. From 190 PS and 400 Nm in the 320d, the 318d drops down to 150 PS and 320 Nm of torque. To be honest, those figures sound pretty conservative by today's turbodiesel standards. On the flipside, it's impressive compared to the old, compact straight-sixes of the past. A 90's 320i makes about the same horsepower, but a whole lot less torque.
Manufacturers harp on about modern diesels being much quieter and refined than ever before. That was not the case for the 318d. To put it bluntly, it was noisy and gruff, especially after a cold start. You hear some of that noise inside too. Here's to hoping the next-gen 3 Series comes with a quieter set of diesels.
Once you get going however, the noise dials down and you end up with a nice, relatively quiet ride. Outside disturbances are well isolated with the drone of the run-flat tires being the main source of noise. I reckon that, if you put standard tires on it, it will be quieter in the cabin. That aside, the 3 Series rides well with a hint of firmness, hinting at a sporty chassis.
The seats are also on the firm side but not entirely stiff. On a long drive, it's still comfortable and you don't sink into the cushion. Side bolsters are also supportive and the memory seats are definitely a plus.
With 40 less horsepower than a 320d, I was expecting the 318d to be sluggish, but it wasn't the case. If anything, the 150 PS and 320 Nm figures from the spec sheet felt underrated. In the city, initial pick up is good with a slug of torque from the lower-end of the rev range. That means you can get to city cruising speeds (60 km/h) with little effort. Out on the highway, you can overtake with confidence without having to mash the throttle to the floor. Even in Comfort mode, the 'basic' 3 Series delivers on the power front.
What was even more impressive was its fuel economy. Without even resorting to Eco Pro mode or relying on the stop-start system, the 318d returned 12.3 kilometers per liter at an average speed of 17.3 km/h. Out on the highway, those numbers go even higher at a very economical 23.7 kilometers per liter at 88 km/h, and a fair bit of overtaking. For comparison basis, the 320d tested a year ago did 10.7 at 18 km/h and 22.3 at 93.1 km/h on the highway.
Essentially, you get small-capacity six-cylinder performance without the expensive fuel bills. The powertrain then is very impressive, balancing both performance and economy. Perhaps this is the trade off of that relatively noisy engine.
So far, it's not the most refined car out there, but it makes up for it with its performance and economy. But what is it like to steer? This is, after all, a 3 Series, heralded for a long time as one of the best driving sedans out there. Will I actually enjoy this one more than the more powerful 320d?
Leave it in comfort mode and drive it in city traffic, the 3 Series feels more like a miniaturized 5 Series and it feels rather isolated when you decide to drive it spiritedly. Steering is light and returns little feedback, just like most of its competitors. The solution? Set the steering to Sport and throttle management to Comfort. In those settings you get the sensation from an older 3 Series. Mind you, it's still a little on the light side but there is much more feedback.
Change some settings and the 3 Series remains to be an involving car to drive. Driving up the winding roads heading into Tagaytay, the 318d felt planted and surefooted. Oddly enough, I found myself smiling more driving the 318d than the 320d. The willing transmission lets you play around for a bit, encouraging you to carry momentum through the turns. Perhaps the lower power output makes you want to maintain and carry the speed though the bends. As this car carries the Luxury Line label, I didnt expect it to move the way it did in the countryside. Even with a bit of a spirited drive, it still managed to return 17.2 kilometers per liter. Needless to say, it was a delightful surprise it still drives well while staying efficient. Perhaps just a bit more feel and feedback would make the enthusiasts happier.
Whereas the older ones came relatively bare, this one comes equipped with what modern consumers expect from a luxury brand. At Php 3,550,000, the 'basic' 3 Series of today will put a dent in your wallet, but you won't feel shortchanged thanks to the much enhanced packaging of the car. On the flipside, it's the least expensive diesel compact executive sedan out in the market today. With today's 318d, you get a higher level of luxury, good performance and excellent fuel economy - who doesn't want that?
It may have less power than the 320d but the 318d proved to be likeable junior luxury sedan. Granted, it's not as engaging to drive as compared to older models. That said, the current 3 Series shouldn't be discredited for that. While it's grown up, it can still be enjoyable to drive and it's much better equipped than past entry-level 3 Series models. A few tweaks to the steering, along with upgrades to refinement, should make the 3 Series the darling of enthusiasts again. Needless to say, there are high expectations for the next-generation 3 Series.