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First drive: the three-cylinder BMW 318i saloon

£26,575 when new

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Car specifications

Budget
£26,575
Brake horsepower
136bhp
Fuel consumption
52.3mpg
0–62 mph
8.90s
CO2
124g/km
Max speed
130Mph
Insurance Group
21E

What’s going on, isn’t this a car that launched three years ago?

You’d be forgiven for thinking so, but no. It is in fact the new(ish) BMW 3 Series, recipient of a mid-life refresh to arm it against XE, A4 and C-Class shaped enemies attacking from all sides. Avid TopGear.com readers among you will note we already drove the fruity 340i version back in July, but with that expected to soak up a mere three per cent of UK sales, it’s largely irrelevant. Time then to take a look at the meaty part of the range, including a collector’s item.

Don’t tell me, the 3 Series has gone front-wheel-drive too?

No no, nothing quite that drastic. A choice of rear and four-wheel drive xDrive flavours remain, but this oddity concerns the engine. Replacing the four-cylinder 316i in the foothills of the range is a new 318i, powered by the same 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine as the latest MINI Cooper. If you don’t count the Ford Mondeo 1.0 EcoBoost as premium (and we don’t), it’s the first three-cylinder offering in the premium compact saloon class. Producing a modest 134bhp and 162lb ft of torque - identical figures to the old 316i - but with fuel economy and CO2 emissions of 52.3mpg and 124g/km for the manual version (the auto is fractionally cleaner), it’s 12 per cent more efficient. 

Sounds like it couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding, isn’t it woefully slow?

Yep, for a BMW, but to leave it there would be callous because it does other things extremely well. For example it’s a remarkably refined engine – bubbling away under the bonnet in near silence and only raising its voice when your right foot is welded to the carpet, which to be fair is most of the time. BMW says its zen-like demeanour is down to a balancer shaft and the fact that, like a six-pot, it produces no “first- and second-order inertia forces.” All you need to know is it’s smoother than a four-cylinder diesel, but doesn’t pull like one. We tried the notchy six-speed manual that you’ll soon be well acquainted with if you want to stay in the power band. However, you can also spec an eight-speed auto that masks the power deficit with near-instant kick downs.

Less weight in the nose can only be good news for the handling, surely?

Right you are. It weighs an eye-widening 130kg less than the six-cylinder 340i, and is 230kg lighter than the xDrive-only 335d. Want to know what that feels like? Try accelerating hard and attacking a few corners with three adult males on board, then kick them out and repeat the exercise. The optional Servotronic steering fitted to our 318i Sport test car (£25,275 without any options, but £34,850 as tested) throws more weight at the wheel as your speed increases, but never has the same clarity as a Jaguar XE. There’s nothing wrong with the way its nose darts towards its target, though.  All that fresh air in the engine bay means the front end changes direction with a distinct lack of inertia, while the rest of the body staying poised and neutral however quickly you chuck it in. But remember, whether cruising through town or stretching the chassis, momentum is your friend because acceleration is not.

But is it really any better than the pre-facelift car?

Not by any significant margin, but when the watermark was so high already we can live with that. BMW has made detailed changes to the chassis with minutely firmer springs and dampers and bigger margins between Comfort and Sport modes for the must-have Adaptive M Sport suspension (£750), but overall it still rides with a reassuring Germanic firmess so often plagiarised by its rivals, but rarely perfected. There are new optional LED headlights, LED taillights with a curvier light signature and larger air intakes in the front bumper, plus new trim options in the cabin and extra standard equipment for little or no extra cash – small but welcome additions.

What if I’m feeling flush and want something to scare the kids?

Now we’re talking. We also had a go in the range-crowning 335d xDrive M Sport Touring – a diesel estate that eats sports cars whole courtesy of its 3.0-litre twin-turbo diesel engine (unchanged from the pre-facelift model) producing a stonking 308bhp and 365lb ft of torque. Experiencing this wonderful power unit rev hard, leave a distinctive metallic rasp in its wake and turn you from Mr Sensible into a flesh and blood projectile is not to be missed. If you have £41,665 to spend and a want for serious performance with 50mpg-plus to boot, it’s all the family car you’ll ever need.

OK, back to reality. What would my company fleet manager want me to go for?

That’s an easy one – the 163bhp 320d Efficient Dynamic Plus might sound prosaic, but it’s more fun than you think. Pay £1,550 for the eight-speed auto and it dips below the 99g/km emissions barrier – remarkable really when it still charges this hard (0-62mph takes 7.9 seconds) and feels so well sorted in the corners. Air-cheating 16-inch alloys, or 17s on the slightly less-worthy 320d ED Sport version, mean it rides with a softer-edge, too. Private buyers will inevitably flock to the 187bhp, 67.3mpg 320d M Sport and we don’t blame you, all things considered it’s the pick of the range.

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