The BMW 3 Series has been a sedan, a station wagon, a coupe, a convertible and a "Gran Turismo" 4-door hatchback. But in the 1990s, it was also a compact hatchback. Yes, that’s right: even though many people don’t remember it, the BMW 318ti existed in the 1990s as a 3-door compact hatchback version of the BMW 3 Series, with a lower entry price than the regular 3 Series. And today, I’m going to remind you all about it.
Here’s a general overview: the 3 Series first came out in 1975, and it was a big success, so the model range expanded over the years. In 1992, BMW debuted the "E36" model, which is generally agreed to be one of the best generations for the car — at least, according to enthusiasts who like its low weight and tossable nature.
At the time, the 3 Series was offered with two powertrains: a 2.5-liter 6-cylinder with about 170 hp, and a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder with about 135 hp. The 4-cylinder was the entry-level model — and BMW wanted to expand the 3 Series range even further, with an even cheaper entry-entry-level model. And so, the 318ti was born.
The 318ti was a regular 3 Series for the first half, with radical changes made to the second half: gone was the traditional sedan or coupe or convertible lines, and in place was an abrupt hatchback design. The regular 4-cylinder 3 Series was the 318i, and BMW called this the 318ti, for unknown reasons. The 3 Series of this generation was sold from 1992 to 1998, but the 318ti was only offered from 1995 to 1998.
In North America, the idea of a budget-priced 3 Series hatchback didn’t seem to resonate with consumers, most of which were generally turning their backs on hatchbacks — so when the E36 3 Series was replaced in 1999 with the E46 model, BMW ditched the 318ti altogether. That wasn’t the case globally, though: spurred by the popularity of the compact overseas, BMW had an E46 3 Series Compact in many global markets — something unknown to a lot of American car shoppers, and even BMW fans. The E46 3 Series compact was offered as a 316ti or a 318ti, a diesel-powered 318td or 310td, and even a 325ti with 190 hp.
Of course, the 3 Series Compact was foreshadowing what was to come: the 2004 model year was the end of the line for the Compact, but the new BMW 1 Series debuted the same year, bringing a true entry-level model to BMW’s lineup — and it all started with the odd, and rather unknown, 318ti.