Over the years, BMW has consistently offered stylish, well-built, high-quality automobiles.

Can you think of one ugly BMW model? Can you think of one that was poorly designed or plagued with mechanical troubles?

Until recently, however, there has been one minor blemish on BMW's shiny German armor: There was nothing on BMW's menu for people with an appetite for a car in the $20,000 price range.

Before the January arrival of the 318ti - this week's test car - you needed about $30,000 to own a new BMW.

The new 318ti changes that.

I just spent a week behind the steering wheel of a cherry red 318ti, and I can tell you that if you've yearned for an affordable BMW, you are going to be mighty delighted with this stubby-tailed hatchback.

Even if you order a 318ti with none of the options in our test car, you'll still own a quick, solid, well-equipped BMW.

In these days of spiraling car prices, it's unusual when an automaker brings out a car that costs less. The 318ti maybe the least expensive BMW, but it remains true to the company's performance-oriented heritage.


The 318ti's engine is a beefy 16-valve, double overhead cam four-cylinder that makes 138 horsepower.

The aluminum engine makes a muffled growl when the revs reach about 4,500 rpm. BMW's 1.8-liter engine, though smooth, doesn't have the same smoothness as a similar sized Japanese-made engine, which typically makes no more noise than a sewing machine.

You can hear and feel the BMW engine as it goes about its business. However, the mechanical sensations from under the hood never intrude to the point where it gets annoying.

Our test car's easy-shifting five-speed manual gearbox complemented the fast-revving engine and made for entertaining driving. Thanks to a clutch pedal that is easy on the leg, the 318ti requires little effort to shift.

If you prefer not to shift, you can order the 318ti with a four-speed automatic, butthat likely would sap much of the car's verve.

I once tested a 318i coupe with an automatic and found it slow and sluggish. Also, the automatic adds $975 to the sticker. If extracting the maximum performance out of the 318ti is important to you, then stick with the stick in this car.

The performance of the 318ti comes across as somewhat shy of fast, but the car offers plenty of pep and good acceleration from 0 to 60 mph, as long as you rev the engine hard and shift at the right time. A recent Car And Driver test pegged 0-to-60 mph acceleration at 7.8 seconds - slightly slower than a Ford Probe GT.

Fuel mileage for the 2,700 pound three-door BMW is excellent. I drove with a heavy foot and with the air conditioner running, yet our test car averaged better than 26 mpg in city highway driving.


Virtually all cars the size of this compact are front-wheel-drive. BMW says it opted to steer clear of front-wheel-drive in the interests of better h andling.

I don't buy that.

I am not convinced rear-wheel drive has any significant handling advantages over front-wheel drive. There are some fast front-wheel compact hatchbacks, such as the Eagle Talon/Mitsubishi Eclipse, that offer standard-setting handling. Engineering a small car for front-wheel-drive also generally allows for more interior space.

Fact is, BMW has no experience building front-wheel-drive cars. Also, the 318ti is a mixture of parts from the 318/325 coupe and sedan and a European-only BMW - the 316i Compact. It was faster and far less expensive for BMW to make the 318ti a rear-drive car - regardless of what BMW says about handling.

Be that as it may, the 318ti likely will perform over the road well enough to satisfy, and probably delight, most drivers.

Our test car came with a $2,400 option BMW calls the Sports Package that included wheels and fatter tires; firmer shocks, springs and anti-roll bars; leather steering wheel and shift knob sportseats with cloth and leather upholstery, and fog lights. It's an option package de signed for those who like to drive aggressively.

As with other BMWs, the 318ti is solid over the road. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is razor sharp. The turning radius is a tight 34.1 feet.

All models come standard with power-assisted four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes. During the years, I have raved that BMW designs the best brakes in the business. The 318tidoesn't skimp here. When you need to stop fast, all four brakes bite hard and slow the car effortlessly and in a straight line. The front end doesn't dive - as it does on many other cars.

The suspension is firm but not punishing. You won't provoke the body to lean much, no matter how fast you corner. I could do nothing to faze the 318ti.


Our test car garnered more than the usual share of comments from co-workers and neighbors.

Most were negative.

The 318ti has a sloping rear end and a tightly cropped tail section that does not protrude much past the rear wheels. It also has very long doors. The car's proportions take a bit of getting used to, but the styling has a purpose. This is one two-door car that rear-seat passengers will likely have no difficulty with climbing in or out.

The doors extend a bit farther past the front bucket seats than they would on most other two-door cars. The front seat backs flip forward, exposing a clear path to the back. The rear seats are firm, and are angled back slightly. They are generally comfortable, and rear passengers will find ample foot and headroom.

The backs of the rear seats fold forward but don't completely flatten. Still, the cargo area is large. I loaded four big boxes of copier paper and didn't use all the space.

Up front, the 318ti is a typical BMW. The seats, which adjust manually in many directions, are very firm - almost stiff. But they grip your midsection and hold you snugly as you take the car through a tight corner. It's a nice feeling.

Our test car came with surprisingly long list of equipment. And this is what impressed me most. The 318ti offers excellent value for the money. Our car had remote controlled power door locks, an electric sunroof, power windows, heated outside power mirrors, a rear windshield washer, a built-in anti-theft system and a superb AM/FM cassette radio.

The one-touch or express-down electric windows are a nice touch. The controls are simple and easy to use. Three knobs control the air-conditioning system. Two cup holders are planted between the seats, and there were numerous places to store small items such as key chains, wallets and sunglasses.

In more than 400 miles, I found the 318ti to be well-built, fun to drive and well worth its asking price.

Truett's tip: BMW's new entry-level sports coupe is a tightly built, fun-to-drive car that offers pleasing performance and excellent handlin g.