In honor of today being 3/18 I figured I should stop putting off this review of my frankly awesome 318ti.
(Full disclosure: On the day of my birth my father signed a contract with BMW that said he would mold his son into an autocrosser and club racer with the stipulation that he would have to use the often forgotten and unfairly hated 318ti. Therefore they sold one of the last ever 318ti's to a man who drove it for 100k miles and promptly decided to leave it in a field for 5 years until my father and I came along and were stupid enough to buy it.)
The BMW 318ti was BMWs attempt to bring a sub $20k car to the US market in the hopes of attracting a younger customer base who would then move on to the regular 3 series, then to the 5er and finally the 7er. Unsurprisingly, the E36/5 or 3 series compact as sometimes called in Europe, did not have the effect that BMW had anticipated. While BMW was able to sell about 25,000 units to the US from 1995 to 1999 it was hardly what could be called a success. Most people didn't seem to like the idea of a cheap BMW and a lot of others thought it tarnished the image of BMW. Still, this hardly deterred my father and I from falling in love with the 318ti.
The exterior of the 318ti is typically a spot of distaste for most, often going by the moniker Trunk Impaired among the online BMW communities. While it is identical to the normal E36 A pillar forward, it does look like somebody lopped the trunk off. While there are some angles that don't look particularly good, I have found that the more you look at it, the more and more it grows on you. With my 318ti being a rare '99 model, all of which were designated "Sport" and optioned to the moon, it came with an M3 front bumper, a rear valence similar to that of the M3 and my personal favorite, a California Roof, but more on that later. All of these little things add up to make an already fairly attractive E36 body even better.
The interior was one place where BMW decided to cut costs with the 318ti, and to an extent it shows. The entire dashboard is different from the regular E36 and is much more similar to the previous E30. Overall there is just a bit too much plastic in front of you, especially in a BMW, even if it was the "cheap" model. This plasticy feel also rears its ugly head with the gear knob where it is certainly most unwelcome. Otherwise there are no real complaints, the seats are rather nice and I enjoy the mixed leather/cloth combo. The '99 only option of a 3 spoke M3 steering wheel is also a nice touch.
The other main issue that people have with the 318ti is its lack of power. The 1.9l M44 housed under the hood is good for 138HP and 133lb ft which is by no means a lot but in a car that only weighs 2700lbs its adequate. While it doesnt have the pull of a straight six the M44 has a bit of trouble getting of the line but once you get past 3500-4000 RPM you can really feel it start to pull. My issue with people complaining about its lack of power is that most of these same people have endless praise for the E30 318is, a car which makes 2 less horsepower and weighs 200lbs less. Yes the 318is has a better power to weight ratio but both cars put in 0-60 times in the high 8 second range. Blistering? Not by any means but for a 4 banger hatchback in the 90s could you really ask for much more?
The brakes for the 318ti are nothing special but they more than get the job done. Pedal feel is amazing and with our car lacking ABS (due to use pulling out a wheel sensor) you can brake hard with confidence and not worry about locking up. Ive never experienced any fade, be it on an autocross course or on some nice hilly back-roads. The initial bite could be better but I figure thats mostly a result of using regular street pads that are probably due to be replaced soon.
Despite the "Sport" model of the 318ti coming with stiffer shocks and springs than base models, the car rides very well. It will soak up smaller potholes with ease and is suitable for any length of long distance travel. Larger potholes and speedbumps are less comfortable but the 318ti copes with them much better than a number of other cars Ive driven. However, with the addition of Koni adjustable shocks and H@R racing springs for the upcoming autocross season Im sure the ride is going to be quite a bit more polarizing than what I'm used to.
Ah the handling of the 318ti, if I didnt own an AW11 MR2 I probably would have given the 318ti a 10/10 here. The major difference between the E36/5 (318ti) and regular E36 chassis is that the 318ti utilizes an upgraded semi-trailing arm rear suspension that is most similar to that of an E30 M3. This allows for the rear end to step out very easily when asked to but with the same MacPhearson strut front suspension as the normal E36, is very easy to control. I routinely find that during an autocross the back end will step out due to the hard changing of directions but all I have to do is keep my foot planted and use a touch, if any countersteer and before I know it the car is back in line. With the new addition of a LSD to our particular 318ti this capability of pulling off nice slides with ease is even more pronounced and eliminates my personal worst enemy of the inside, unloaded tire. Everyone who hates on the 318ti should really give one a thrashing at an autocross and by the end of the day, Im convinced that most haters would have some serious reconsidering to do.
Initial turn in is set up for slight understeer as are most modern cars, but with added camber shims, polyurethane bushings and some good rubber, this can be virtually eliminated. The steering feel is very good, as one would expect from a 90s BMW, and offers the perfect amount of feedback to the driver. Now I wouldn't call myself a great driver, probably good to very good in terms of autocross but with the 318ti I am able to run raw times that are consistently on par with those set in a 2010 WRX driven by someone who I would consider an excellent driver. If this little hatchback can make me competitive with a WRX solely based on handling I dont think anyone could honestly knock its abilities.
The 318ti makes use of a Getrag 250 transmission which in my mind is spectacular. Every gear is easy to find and the box itself is very smooth. The only real issues that I have are that the throws are a bit long and the gear knob itself is awful. Despite having long throws its very easy to slot into gear at a quick pace. The major issue is the plastic gear knob which is almost guaranteed to be pulled off by me trying to get 2nd gear during an autocross. Its very flimsy and does not feel particularly good in your hand. With that being said its really an easy fix and mainly stems from the fact that Im to cheap to buy a nice weighted leather shift knob.
Admittedly, the 318ti does not come with any great toys in base form. That changes significantly when the box for the California Roof is checked on the order form. Again being a 1999 model meant that my 318ti was one of only 656 that made it to US soil that year, all of which were Sport models and came with nearly every option available. Thus I have an on-board computer that can cycle through my average speed, fuel consumption, external temperature and a few other little things. It also has heated seats which are nice for the upstate NY winter. But going back to the California Roof, first available in 1996, its a fully retractable canvas roof that covers nearly the entire roof of the car. Once you open the California Roof you get, in my mind, the closest experience to a convertible as possible without actually having one. The amount of air over your head is simply amazing when you consider that you're in a hatchback. Starting in 1998 a pop up wind deflector was added as to cut down a significant amount of wind noise, which makes a huge difference in the experience. Were the 318ti not to have a California Roof I would be forced to give it a score of 3-4/10, so if you're looking for a 318ti I would strongly encourage seeking out one with a California Roof.
Image from Wikipedia
Finally, something about the 318ti that you can't fall in love with. Frankly the audio in the 318ti is average at best and mediocre most of the time. Apart from having a 6 disc CD changer theres nothing of note about the audio system, I prefer to drive with the windows down and California Roof open and just listen to the engine and exhaust notes. Being a 4 cylinder car its not the best sound in the world, especially when used to a BMW straight 6 but for a 4 banger its quite good and always sounds like it wants you to rev right up to the redline.
My father and I bought this car together 3 years ago for $4000 and for what we got we could not be happier. This car can literally do everything. Being a hatchback and having rear seats that fold down makes this the most practical BMW you could have outside of a wagon or SUV. We've used it to make countless trips to the hardware store, shuttling our dogs around and all in all moving a bunch of shit around with ease, all while being able to just as easily be an awesome cone killer on the weekends. Over the past few years the 318ti has actually started to become more and more desirable and prices have pretty much stabilized, good ones go anywhere from $3500 to $5000 and you should be able to pick up a decent one for $2500. If you're limited to having 1 car and have a tight budget but still want to have a fun car to drive, I dont think you could do any better than a 318ti.
Engine: 1.9L DOHC M44 I4- 138HP @ 6000RPM, 133lb ft @4300 RPM
Transmission: 5 Speed Getrag 250
Drivetrain: Front engine, rear drive with limited slip differential
Weight: 2750 lbs
0-60: 8.5-9.0 seconds
Top Speed: 135mph
A sample of what the 318ti and myself are capable of at an autocross!