Base model boogie: Driving the BMW G20 318i Sport

Once upon a time, the most financially prudent way to get into the World of BMW motoring meant picking up the keys to an entry-level 3-Series. What that also used to mean was that for a more modest price point, one wouldn’t mind forgoing fancy niceties and features in exchange for BMW’s engaging driving dynamics, build quality and brand appeal. Never mind the blanked out switches and slightly more anaemic engines, these entry-level 3s brought with them not just a higher level of driver enjoyment but a special kind of cache that comes from sitting behind the blue and white roundel.

This has always been the case up until the introduction of the 1-Series, allowing the 3-Series, now freed from playing the entry-level shuffle, the ability to raise the bar even in its base model configuration.

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While we’ve seen the most accessible 3s improve year upon year, there had always been areas that felt decidedly more “basic” than what we would have liked. An important point to note, because, on the latest G20 318i, those little trade-offs found on previous generations are no longer present to detract from the full BMW experience.

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Aesthetically, with our car’s beautiful sunset orange paint, Shadowline trim and twin rear exhaust, few observers will be able to note the few visual cues that set our car apart from its more well-endowed siblings. The most notable being the 318i badging on the boot and those somewhat underwhelming 17″ style 775 Bicolour rims.

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And as the car unlocks itself when you walk up to it, the cabin is the same story with very little giving away its base-model origins. The high-gloss black interior with 11-different shades of interior hues feel well put together and even though our car has “Sensotec” seats, everything still manages to feel (and smell) premium to the touch. Interior space is good and quite a measure of how the 3-Series has grown with quite a decent amount of space all around for 5 occupants.

The 12.3″ digital instruments and 10.25″ iDrive screens identical to those found throughout the range aren’t just for show either as they come with the same full suite of BMW Live Cockpit Professional functional tech, safety systems and connected services.

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Integrated navigation with real-time traffic information, Parking Assistant with BMW’s uncanny Reversing Assistant, Cruise Control with braking functionality, BMW Digital key, Concierge Services, Intelligent emergency call, lifetime Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as BMW’s now very well-trained (and rather useful) voice-activated Intelligent Personal Assistant in addition to a host of other features, all here on the 318i as standard equipment.

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Under the bonnet now sits a turbocharged 4-cylinder 2-litre which delivers its 156 horses with more vigour and refinement than its predecessor’s 3-pot 136 horsepower unit. Torque has also been improved with 30 more Nm added over the previous generation (250Nm up from 220Nm). While the newer car’s slightly larger engine capacity does bring with it added fees in road tax and a very slight hit in terms of fuel consumption (17.2km/litre from 18.5km/litre), the improvements made in power and overall smoothness does make those premiums worth paying for.

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Admittedly, while 156 horses are adequate for the daily commute around town, it isn’t anything to set one’s heart racing. That’s said, 100km/h comes up in a decent 8.4 seconds from rest (down from 9.1 seconds) and progress through the gears with the ZF8-speed is again, smooth.

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Where the 318i shines though is in its ride quality and handling capabilities. Even without adaptive dampers, the 318i retains a good amount of comfort without compromising its dynamic abilities. The steering though dull around the centre is sharp, responsive and starts to weigh up decently as you begin turning in the very well balanced and tight chassis through corners. As with all current BMWs, there are little buttons to toggle various aspects of the car’s behaviour which on the 318i is limited to customising throttle response and steering weight.

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There is some slight body roll which some might find detrimental in the pursuit of handling but is something I prefer as I find some roll a helpful way to communicate a car’s progression to its limits better on the street. Progress isn’t blistering quick but one would still be able to have some fun by keeping the engine within its power range. The 318i also lacks paddle shifters behind the steering wheel but is again not something that I’d miss since the gearbox does a mighty fine job on its own.

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At current COE levels, the new 318i retails at SGD$218,888 (as of May 2021), which having crossed the psychological SGD$200,000 mark isn’t exactly economical from a base-model point of view but this isn’t your typical base-model vehicle either. Unlike previous generations, the new 318i is a highly competent car even against its own more expensive siblings and is finally no longer a 3-Series one chooses on financials alone. So, perhaps it is time to rethink what base-model means instead.

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