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The BMW 318ti: When BMW Went Compact

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author photo by Doug DeMuro December 2016

At some point during the 1990s, BMW tried their hand at the compact hatchback game. At the time, the compact hatchback segment was crowded with excellent options like the Geo Metro and the Ford Aspire, but BMW decided to give it a go anyway. It didn't go so well.

Of course, the BMW hatchback -- dubbed the 318ti -- wasn't really intended to face off against the Metro and the Aspire. Instead, it was a smaller BMW aimed at a younger, less wealthy crowd -- sort of like the Mercedes-Benz CLA of the modern era. But while the CLA has largely been a success, the 318ti, well, wasn't.

Part of the reason, I think, was the styling: While the CLA looks like a smaller version of the luxurious Mercedes-Benz CLS, which is a car that everyone aspires to, the 318ti actually looked like a hatchback. There was no trying to hide it. The thing had the front end of a regular 3 Series and the rear end of a Honda Civic DX. Sure, it was a BMW -- but the 318ti screamed "entry-level model" to virtually everyone who saw it.

There were other problems, too. One was the price tag: While the 318ti's $19,900 base MSRP was impressive for a BMW, the car still wasn't exactly a great value -- especially when rival models like the Infiniti G20, Acura Integra and Saab 900 all offered more for less. Another issue was the 318ti's measly 138-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder, which didn't quite fit buyer perceptions of how a BMW should drive.

In the end, the 318ti accounted for roughly 10 percent of 3 Series sales from its arrival late in the 1995 model year through its cancellation when the "E36" 3 Series was replaced with the "E46" model after 1998. That figure is respectable, but not impressive -- and while BMW created a second-generation 3 Series hatchback for foreign markets, the model didn't reach U.S. buyers.

Interestingly, the 318ti's poor sales didn't seem to have much of an effect on Mercedes-Benz: BMW's biggest competitor debuted a hatchback version of its C-Class in 2002, which suffered from the same poor sales and lack of interest.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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