BMW's truncated 318ti is easy to overlook as not being a real BMW because it has a 4-cylinder engine and looks like an economy hatchback. Yet, my recent test drive in a 318ti Sport proved to be both entertaining and enjoyable. Even though the 3-series sedan is all-new, the 318ti is a carryover model that uses the old-style bodywork. The 318ti Sport is the only model sold, and it will only be available in limited numbers. Its price has been reduced by $1,030 to $23,300. The Sport package consists of an aggressive front spoiler like the M3, 16-inch wheels, sports seats, a three-spoke steering wheel and tighter suspension tuning. Grippy tires and a lack of body roll endow this diminutive coupe with the reflexes of its bigger, 6-cylinder sibling and encourage you to skip the freeway and take the back road whenever possible in hopes you will encounter some twisty two-lane pavement. While its racetrack performance may be hurt slightly by its semi-trailing arm rear suspension, in most everyday driving its cornering behavior is rock solid and loads of fun. In keeping with BMW's tradition of building cars with excellent road behavior, the 318ti has powerful and well-balanced brakes, which increase the driver's confidence. All Season Traction limits wheelspin in slippery conditions and the four-wheel disc brakes have standard anti-lock. While the other 3-series BMWs have 6-cylinder engines, this two-door hatchback still has a 16-valve, dual-overhead-cam (DOHC) 1.9-liter, 4-cylinder with 138 horsepower. Although 138 horsepower is not a lot, the closely spaced 5-speed manual transmission provides more than adequate acceleration. High-speed cruising gets a bit noisy because the engine turns fairly high rpm in fifth gear, a tradeoff that results from a fairly low overall drive ratio. Shifting is enjoyable because the clutch take-up is smooth and the short gear lever has a direct linkage that only moves a short distance between each shift. Deeply contoured seats with adjustable under-thigh support are part of the Sport package, and their firm padding makes a significant contribution to overall vehicle comfort. Of course, the back seat is so small as to be essentially useless for adults, but it does fold flat to create a mini-station wagon load area that is easily accessed by the rear hatchback. Large, simple gauges dot the instrument panel and give the driver critical information at a glance. Less successful, however, are the controls for the radio and climate control, which are mounted on an angled panel in the center of the dash. This extra panel is canted slightly toward the driver, but it also faces down just enough to require an extra glance when you want to change radio stations or adjust the cabin temperature. A small center console runs between the seats and has two small cupholders that look like they were added at the last minute. German car companies have only recently figured out how to do cupholders well because they do not like them in the home country. Night driving reveals mediocre headlights, which is most unusual for BMW. The beam pattern was too diffused and the level of light output was adequate at best. True Bimmerphiles may look askance at the 318ti because of its radical shape and 4-cylinder engine, but all in all, I found it appealing because of its affordable price and fun-to-drive personality. Price
The base price of our test car was $23,300. Standard equipment included power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, central locking, AM//FM stereo cassette and air conditioning. Add destination charges of $570 and the sticker price is $23,870. Warranty
Four years or 50,000 miles. Point: The 318ti Sport is an inexpensive alternative to the more expensive 3-series models, and this is the last year for BMW enthusiasts to get one. The 4-cylinder engine and close-ratio manual transmission make it pepp while the sport suspension gives it cat-quick reflexes. Counterpoint: The 318's chopped-off tail may be too abrupt for some, but I didn't mind it. Radio and climate controls are not easy to read and the back seat is small. SPECIFICATIONS:
ENGINE: 1.9-liter, 4-cyl.
CONFIGURATION: Front-engine, rear-drive
WHEELBASE: 106.3 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 2,778 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $23,300
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $23,870
MPG RATING: 23 city, 32 hwy.
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