Public perceptions of BMW and its products are probably more disparate than for any other manufacturer, German or otherwise. The Munich company is rightly renowned for very high-performing, luxurious family saloons and the new 7-series is highly acclaimed; yet the model that sells in highest volume is the 3-series and the four-cylinder versions, 316 and 318i, are the most popular.
Price and reputation, perhaps in that order, are the factors BMW’s marketing people would study most carefully, ensuring that the 3-series remains high on the lists of professional people and middle managers moving up from the Sierra/Cavalier segment. The latest version of the 318i with the totally new ‘M40’ fuel-injected 1.8-litre engine is an extremely competent model which will win the marque a lot of new friends, even though a January increase moved the price up to £11,575. A little analysis shows that the majority of BMW’s customers are not especially interested in neck-bending acceleration, since two-thirds of the British importer’s 36,000 sales are accounted for by the 3-series, and 55% of those are four-cylinder models. It is easy to run off a long list of rivals with greater performance at less cost, starting with the MG Montego, Rover Vitesse, Vauxhall Cavalier SRi 130 and the two French newcomers, the Citroen BX 19 GTi and the Peugeot 405 SRi (all offer more rear legroom, the BMW being decidedly cramped for four adults).
Acceleration from stand-still to 60mph in a level 10 secondi, and a top speed of 118mph, is only average these days. Rather, the BMW excels in the effortless and unobstrusive way in which the new engine performs, and the manner in which it eats up the motorway miles without tiring the occupants.
At an indicated 85mph (a true 80mph, and legal in France) the tachometer rests lazily just below 4000rpm, the engine is so quiet as to suggest that it might be the “six”, and fuel is being consumed at an average of 28mpg despite the car being fully laden. Certainly, this is a long-distance BMW par excellence. The M40 engine is the most significant improvement for the 1988 model year, the old M10 unit having lasted a full 25 years. The M40 also has an iron block, but with closer bore centres, lighter pistons with combustion troughs in their crowns, and a new cylinderhead which has a lot in common with the new V12 engine.
The belt-driven single overhead camshaft has hydraulic tappets for the first time, and the 14° inclination of the valves and offset position of the spark plugs owes a lot to the new technology. So, too, does the Bosch Motronic DME engine management, the series III system which is extremely efficient, no doubt, but did not even return a 30 mpg fuel consumption on a long European journey. Rarely in our experience has a four-cylinder engine ever been so sweet-running, all the way round to 6400rpm, but it inevitably lacks the six-cylinder’s urgent “zing” which gives the discerning driver a particular pleasure. It does, though, excel in torque, with 119 lb ft at 4250 rpm in hard figures, and a surprising ability to pull smoothly from 1100rpm, even in fifth gear with a full load.
Other facelift features include composite material 2.5mph-impact-absorbing bumpers, less chrome-plating, higher rear light clusters, a larger fuel tank at 64-litres instead of 55, a revised front air dam and rear apron, variable-ratio steering rack (power assistance is a desirable £510 option) and, on the 318i, larger section 195/65 section tyres (Pirelli P6 on the test car which also had the optional £559 alloy wheels).
Visually the new 3-series is much like the old, and dynamically some old foibles are evident. The semi-trailing-arm suspension is softly sunpended, uncomfortably so really since back seat occupants feel they are at sea (and all that entails)), while adhesion is lost rather rapidly nearing the limits. Ellipsoid headlamps, by Bosch, are another new feature, and on level ground the main and dipped beams are extremely effective; on dip it is as though a curtain comes down to below the eye-level of oncoming traffic, still projecting the beam a long way forward and inclining steeply to the verge.
Theoretically the system is excellent but in practice it is not, for several reasons: under acceleration the tail drops and the beam rises; when laden the dipped beam in constantly too high; when the car is moved to the right for overtaking the beam strikes the mirror of the car ahead; and when traffic approaches from the left (entering a left-hand bend for instance), the beam is again causing annoyance. You can almost hear people saying “bloody BMW drivers” when this one, at any rate, was being anything but arrogant.
There may be two solutions, both to be found in the options list. The average 318i purchaser would not bother, but the keener one would be well advised to specify the M-Technic sport rear suspension at £193, and the cockpit-operated headlamp beam adjustment at £61.
We find the 318i to be enigmatic simply because more money needs to be spent, in a number of ways, to make it the car we expected into be.
It is BMW’s policy, spelled out by chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim, to limit production to 500,000 cars annually, and the Munich company is not far off that mark now. The temptation must be there, in the design department, to develop the 318i properly with stiffer rear suspension, a 16-valve cylinder head, all-disc braking, a faster steering rack (the power system is rather low-geared and insensitive), and standardising the alloy wheels, the sunroof and electric windows.
The marketing department on the other hand will be resisting these developments firmly, fearing that the four-cylinder model would near the £15,000 mark and lose its market share. They might go further, and point out that a fully developed 318 would compete on price with the six-cylinder 325i. Even so there could be a case for a special edition, to compete perhaps with the Mercedes 190E 2.3-16.
It is not our job to tell BMW what sort of cars they ought to be making, but the 318i was tantalising, with many fine features just failing to make a fine package. The engine is worthy, the gearbox excellent, the interior handsome, the styling distinctively BMW; the boot is very generous, though the effect was spoiled by pools of water in the wells. Yet the 318i can only represent the first step on BMW’s ladder (as the 924 once did for Porsche), the first new BMW to which many people may aspire. It is classier than any higher-volume rival, yet a lot of the value is in the badge.
A discerning buyer would probably tot up the options mentioned in this article, see a bottom line figure of £14,856 and promptly decide to buy a 325i instead! MLC