The BMW 316 that's really a 318

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“Remember, it’s not a sports car,” were the words of advice from BMW’s UK press representative as we discussed a recent mildly critical test of BMW’s now 1,766 c.c. engined 316. Yet if a BMW small saloon cannot hold its head up with pride alongside 1600 Golf GTis and Escort XR3s, is that the fault of the press?

No, it’s a deliberate policy on behalf of BMW in the UK, for there is a fuel-injected, high compression version of this engine (logically then 318i) with 105 b.h.p. that provides greater economy and performance than the carburated 90 b.h.p. unit tested here. That injected unit stays at home while 316 does a UK job of starting the range at £5,355.

It is a job it does very well, giving a taste of the merits further up the range, at a cost actually below that of the Ford and Golf performance variants mentioned.

Yet BMW had kitted out the test car so lavishly that the price had risen to £7,016. Included in that was the desirable and enjoyable efficiency of an overdrive five-speed gearbox (£274), plus 185 section Michelins on alloy wheels at £452 (165s and steel 5 1/2 J rims are standard) and “competition suspension”.

This latter £143 option is offered on all 3-series (re-rated for the heavier nose weight of the sixes) and features Boge gas-filled dampers, shorter and stiffer springs, +1 mm. on the front anti-roll bar (23 mm.) and the adoption of a 16 mm. rear anti-roll bar. It may be interesting to note that, since the introduction of the 3-series to the British market in 1975 as a carburated 2-litre, there have been three changes in suspension spring and damper specification. The last was in 1978, when the suspension mounting bushes were also changed to be more compliant. The overall effect has been to soften slightly the ordinary specification whilst offering a sporty option at extra cost.

During its life the 3-series has been asked to carry a number of different engines and carburation, the most potent remaining the 143 b.h.p. 323i, the only 3-series with four-wheel disc braking.

All are conventional front engine, rear drive, machines along the classic BMW front strut and trailing arm rear suspension style. Finish and fit of interior and exterior panels tends to be well above average. However, our test car came with a dent on the rear panel that spoilt the optional £217 blue metallic dress of this unobtrusively tasteful two-door. As a range leader it is allowed only single headlamps, which are adequate on main beam and marginal for fast use on wet nights.

Perhaps the place to appreciate BMW’s change in attitude since the days of the 2002 as a classic sporting saloon, is from the cabin. Nowadays we get superb ventilation where there was virtually none, and the driving position, plus the layout of the controls, count amongst the pleasures of BMW motoring, whatever the price.

All the controls operate as if an engineer had studied their action and then taken the car out over the months to ensure continuously effective operation.

The rack and pinion steering (ZF) and five-speed Getrag gearbox are both outstanding to use. The rack method was a fresh feature in small BMWs when it was adopted for the 3-series, but its delicate assessment of the embarrassing lack of grip the BMW displays in wet conditions is a major safety factor, even if the car is spectacularly sideways at the time of said assessment!

Snick the gearlever into fifth and the limited acceleration offered (BMW claim 0-60 m.p.h. in 12.2s) naturally tails off. You are left with the pleasure of BMW travelling that seems to have licked the wind noise problem through good sealing. At 70 m.p.h. in fifth you are travelling at little over 3,000 r.p.m., while 4,500 r.p.m. provides an indicated 100 m.p.h.: maximum speed claim is a modest 101 m.p.h. The OD fifth is actually 0.805 pulling a 3.91:1 final drive, meaning for the driver that the best part of 1,000 r.p.m. is saved when maintaining a constant 70 m.p.h., compared to a four-speed.

The 89 mm. x 71 mm. bore and stroke SOHC four is as flexible and torquey as ever. So much so that one often wonders if the six-cylinder exercise was ever really justified in 2-litre models. The motor will pull smoothly and strongly from 1,700 r.p.m. in the tall fifth — though using the gearbox is a pleasurable necessity on cross-country British going. At the other end of the scale the motor feels unburstable (it should be when you consider the amazing number of applications this design has been asked to perform since its debut in the early sixties as a 1500) when asked to pull the car to its maximum gear speeds toward 6,500 r.p.m. Not so pleasing is the news that the tachometer was a near £100 option!

I was fortunate in having some demanding trips to make during our test tenure, but slightly puzzled to find that the harder I drove the better the m.p.g. became. Driving con brio I managed fractionally over 25 m.p.g., while a gentle potter into London was turned into a 23 m.p.g. nightmare by a prolonged traffic jam. Most owners should get 27-29 m.p.g. on four star.

The sports suspension seemed a little high set to my eye — a case of stiffer springs that had not been reduced in length I pondered? The result was a prompt and firm turn into a corner but oversteer in the wet with throttle on, or mid-corner throttle removal, to the largest degree I have ever experienced on the road. In the dry things were commensurately improved and there was little to do but enjoy the feeling of a well made car humming through faster corners with aplomb, or shuffling through slower ones with a satisfying reduction in lean compared to the production vehicle. The penalty was slightly joggly ride at slower speeds over B-roads, but generally the seats soaked up any sudden jolts with effectiveness that belied their modest appearance.

That perhaps sums up the car. It does not look much. It doesn’t sound very impressive on paper, but when you actually drive it over 400 miles off motorways in a day, it still gives the quiet satisfaction of feeling “all-of-a-piece” and thoughtfully engineered. Only the slightly premature front wheel locking under heavy braking and the marked lack of wet weather grip at the back end spoil the acquired taste of this misleadingly badged BMW. — J.W.

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