The BMW 318d M Sport Saloon
The BMW 3-series turned 40 years old in 2015. It defines its class, having been the founder member. Still today, though its many rivals storm up like Achilles in Zeno’s paradox behind the 3-series’ tortoise, they have not yet managed to sweep the board on any of the six generations, nor dim the allure of the blue and white propeller.
The model on test today may show a more straightforward understanding of that tortoise analogy, if it’s fifth generation predecessor was anything to go by. Unlike the tortoise, this 318d M Sport may only win a sprint in a fable. At the heart of this F30 3-series is the 2.0-litre B47 diesel engine, in 150hp tune. It was introduced with the Life Cycle Impulse (LCI – we’re BMW and we don’t do facelifts, thank-you) which the model received in 2015. It’s output is up 7hp over the old N47 motor, and while the peak torque remains at 236 lb/ft, BMW have doubled the range through which it’s available, coming in at 1,500 rpm and lasting to 3,000 rpm. The result is a 0–62mph time of 8.6 seconds, and a top speed of 133mph. There isn’t an instant difference on turning the key for the first time, but the improvement is appreciable once the car is on the move. It won’t leave you waiting interminably and in fear for your life waiting to join busy three-lane roundabouts and you won’t get stuck at 66mph in the middle lane of the motorway just because you happen to be on an incline at the time. On the tacho, the redline is set at 5,400 rpm but you won’t get near it. In any case, change at 3,500 rpm for optimum forward momentum. The shift in this manual version is unobtrusive and unremarkable, but the gearing leaves a chasm between 3rd and 4th, and don’t expect anything to happen if you floor the accelerator in the upper gears at 1,000 rpm.
Outside, the M Sport – which makes up around half of all 3-series trims bought in the UK – looks smart, with deeper more sculpted bumpers and sills, slightly lower suspension, 18-inch alloys (the 19s fitted are a £600 extra), and a smattering of M badges – don’t worry, dental floss and sticky-stuff remover will have those off in a few minutes if they really bother you. The underlying shape is pleasing rather than eye-catching. Go for the 4-series 2-door or 5-door coupés if you want the latter. Inside, there are some more touches to remind you of your investment – M flashes on the gear knob and steering wheel (don’t bother trying to remove these!), and supportive sports seats. The seats have electrically adjustable side-bolsters, which range in movement from skinny latte tight to double mocha with whipped cream generous. The steering wheel is better to look at than to hold, the main problem being the bottom spoke. It’s fashioned from the cheapest of plastics and extends right into wheel rim. Generally the rest of the cabin materials are good to touch and use. A sliding armrest is an optional extra. On the plus side, this means it can’t foul the handbrake level when it’s slid forwards, but then neither does it actually offer any support for your elbow, unless you’re seven feet tall and have the seat right back. Just as BMW has skimped on the little things, they are more generous with the big stuff – satellite navigation is standard, which works well with the now ubiquitous iDrive controller, once you know what you’re doing. USB connectivity and Bluetooth complete the tech set, and further enhancements to these features can be optioned if it pleases you.
The 318d is not setting out to be a single carriageway overtaking weapon, and it won’t propel you out of an apex with sufficient force to bother the available grip. Ah, the grip… It’s a momentum car in the corners, and it would take quite a lot of that to overcome the 255mm contact patches at the rear. You won’t unstick it unless the road has been buttered first. BMW perform an impressive trick in taking the standard car, setting it slightly lower and stiffer on M Sport suspension, making it carry these great lumps of sparkly metal at each corner, covered in over-wide run-flat boots, and making it ride so smoothly on good surfaces. The magic doesn’t work quite so well once back on typical UK blacktop though, with its melange of transverse ridges, undulations, broken surfaces, camber changes all troubling the road manners to some degree. The car is flummoxed by successive dips, and will gently rock side-to-side over mottled tarmac. But the fundamental rightness of the chassis means that this is nothing that wouldn’t be sorted by opting for standard suspension, non-run-flats and 17-inch rims, all of which are standard fare on the SE and Sport models. The steering suffers the usual post-hydraulic assistance age problem of lack of feel, but is precise enough and has that staple BMW vagueness about the dead-ahead position. Useful if you need to sneeze on the motorway.
Despite the mean suit worn by the M Sport, the moody black paint and the monster rims, the 318d is happiest trickling along between 1,000 – 2,000 rpm, part throttle, lazy loafer style. Driven this way, it can be so laid back you could forget to change down when the speed drops. The cabin is a quiet and civilised place to be at any legal speed, the only intrusive noise coming from the tyres. It would suit the excellent (though £1,550 extra) 8-speed automatic well. The self-changer would more effectively nullify the dead zone at 1,000 rpm, by slipping down a cog or two so seamlessly that you’d need to be watching the rev needle to be sure it had happened. The shifts are not only smooth, but quick too; it actually shaves 0.2 seconds off the 0–62mph dash.
None of the 4-cylinder diesel 3-series will break the bank for running costs once you’ve parted with the cash to actually buy the thing. With CO2 emissions of 116g/km in M Sport trim, it’ll cost £160 to tax for the first year under the new rules for registrations from 1 April 2017, and £140 per year thereafter. Official figures say it’ll do 64.2mpg on the combined cycle – over the course of the test it managed 42mpg according to the journey computer, 50-plus would be achievable, 60-plus would very much depend on the roads and traffic.
If you want a small saloon with an impressive chassis, good standard equipment, a premium badge and aren’t too bothered about the outright performance, the 318d presents a strong case. But it will always have big brother 320d peering over it’s shoulder, and at only £1,100 extra, it’ll give you 190hp, 295 lb/ft torque to haul you past slower traffic and push you out of corners, and cover 0–62mph in 7.3 seconds, a sizeable improvement, and no penalty in terms of VED or real-world fuel consumption.
The car featured is a BMW 318d M Sport Saloon, late 2015, with 8,000 miles on the odometer. Its finished in black sapphire metallic with oyster/dark oyster leather interior. This particular car is for sale, at the time of writing, for £20,995. New it would cost £32,090 basic, with this example coming in at £34,780. Extras fitted include metallic paint (£645, only no-cost option is solid white) folding rear head restraints (£50), split-folding rear seats (£255), heated front seats (£325), 19-inch alloys (£600, 18” standard), front parking sensors (£395, rear standard), sun protection glass (£265) and extended storage (£155).
Reaction to the fitted options is a mix of ‘Why isn’t this standard?’ and ‘Don’t bother’. The 19-inch alloys are a matter of taste, the fact that they’re aesthetically pleasing will be enough for most who spec them, regardless of what they do for the car’s ride. £645 is the fee for avoiding the only solid colour, Alpine white, and it opens up a little more choice. You can decide for yourself about the sun protection glass. It looks faux-sinister, particularly when the car’s black. Leather should come with heated seats, rear seats should split and fold, and the extra storage spaces are rather more necessary than simply handy.
As a used car this example is quite well priced, though you can broaden your choice considerably by searching nationwide, including automatics and other trims. If you fancy the extra 40hp of the 320d you’ll have to shop around to get a car at the same money.
As the 318d lurked in what would be its most common retreat, the motorway service station, it was parked between VW Golf GTD and Ford Mondeo. This reminded me that there are some better fun, as well as practical and persuasive alternatives at this budget. That’s if you can avoid tripping on the masses of SUVs, let alone the 3-series more conventional direct rivals.
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