Although in America, SUV-sized or minivan-sized cars are commonly used for long-distance road trips, this is a concept that doesn’t exist over in Europe. The roads are narrower and the parking spaces are much more difficult to find than they are in America. There’s more of a focus on efficiency and performance over size with the British in Europe. When I first laid eyes on the BMW 118i M Sport, I was instantly struck by its small-car proportions.
“Hot hatch” is the description that comes to mind for this car. Looking sleek and sporty, these features include large intakes, aerodynamic creases leading into the rear fenders, and an extended spoiler over the rear window. The bike sits on 18″ wheels, which complement its size while they resemble the rest of BMW Line. What I was drawn to was the bright red paint job on the car. Though I loved it up until the last minute; then I came across a strange-like hatch at the back of my car– or boot as they call it in England.
For three weeks, I traveled through the UK with my wife and two children, but in a move to model European efficiency, we limited ourselves to just one carry-on suitcase and one cabin suitcase each. Opening the hatch of our tiny car, I took a deep breath before loading our luggage into the space inside. Shockingly, it fit perfectly. This was like being able to go into the time machine from Doctor Who with our Suitcases in the Tardis. We welcomed this as if it were out of place and instead of having to drive a limo or ride in a fancy equipped SUV like most people would do after getting their four suitcases inside for no reason these days, it felt like BMW intentionally design the back tray of this car for specific cases that could hold four.
If you’re accustomed to driving BMWs, climbing into the driver’s seat will feel familiar. If, like me, you’ve never driven on the left, it will feel slightly more terrifying. The design of the M Sport is personalized for its audience: elegant and minimalist with a luxury touch. Unfortunately, the quality wasn’t what I expected. The M Sport has leather in the usual places that shoppers generally opt for: steering wheel, doors and center console, but I was more impressed by all the other surfaces; panels and sills felt thick and solid wrapped in textured soft touch material; door handles crafted from actual “Al-loo-min-ee-um”; and a pliable rubberized material graces the instrument binnacle. This feels well-made. It feels purposeful. It feels like a proper BMW. The seats feature accent piping in M livery along with seatbelts that have been stripped down to just one line of M painting – a nice touch my kids picked up on straight away!
However, with the rear camera being on the other side of the windshield, leaving behind a backseat full of kids, and not having access to turning signals or a backup camera is inconvenient for this vehicle.
Back-up camera and more cylinders would be a welcomed addition to this car. The rearview mirror on the windshield and kids so the backseat is full are just some of the hindrances.
The 118i comes with a 1.5 liter, 3-cylinder turbo engine, which sounds good at first. But the car made a lot of noise while I went around the roundabout and it suddenly shut off when I came back to reality. That was just as bad as what had happened before with the engine already starting so loudly that I thought it was a diesel engine. My anxiety level increased immensely with the car’s lag on start-up, because I quickly got into the habit of trying to shut off auto-stop after putting it in drive.
The engine sounded “curious”, the gearbox wasn’t thrilling, and the speedometer displayed a “power percentage” elevation. But then I remembered to not think like everyone else and changed my mindset!
I preferred smaller cars and was pleasantly surprised by how smooth and solid the ride felt at UK’s national speed limit of 70 mph. The rear seats were so comfortable, that I could not hear anything from the kids about their car. Wind and road noise were loud, but the audio system sounded nice. The driver’s seat was also supportive for long drives and offered a lot of adjustments to personalize my experience. I especially enjoyed adjusting the power-adjustable bolsters frequently just for kicks.
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However, the 118i’s biggest selling point is not the engine or the transmission; it’s in the handling.
The UK has many roads with a speed limit of 60 mph, which wind around through the countryside. These roads have narrow lanes, tight turns and elevation changes, and they are beautifully maintained. Once I learned that the little white circle on the road sign with a black diagonal line and the letters “60” meant that you should slow down to 60 mph, these roads were a delight to drive on.
BMW designed the 118i with front-wheel drive. Driving quickly on winding roads, a lot of torque steer and general wierdness would occur. On the other hand, it handled well when I drove at high speeds on the other types of roads like straights. And yes, I swear it was my lane! The M Sport brakes felt solid and certain, and were most efficient when used to quickly stop me from an oncoming truck.
John Chuldenko’s BMW 118i M Sport brake caliper
I soon learned to not expect human-level speed from the 118i, and I became more impressed with what it can do. Each time we loaded and unloaded our bags, I was amazed at how it could handle everything: the car, a treasure trove of items we brought, an impractical item like a corgi.
As I got more comfortable with the car, I understood more road signs and even knew how to spot traffic cameras. I didn’t miss the power too much, except when I tried to pass a motor home on a narrow stretch of two-lane roads through the Highlands.
With its cute profile, easy navigation, and sleek design, this little car really won my family over. After several days of use, the kids knew where to stash snacks in case we happened to be in the middle of nowhere, how to navigate without looking on a map as long as we had a GPS with us, and I could find parking less than an hour after buying it (mostly). The kids made great use of the charging ports that let them listen to music from streaming services like Spotify or Google Play Music while they were driving.
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Travelling from Scotland to England, I asked myself if the £35,000 ($41,390) 5-door hatchback was enough car for me. An Audi RS6 Avant would be spectacular on some of those B roads, but probably less enjoyable trying to squeeze through a 17th century alleyway in Stow-on-the-Wold. A Grand Wagoneer would be comfortable until you had to park it facing the opposite direction in London traffic. I hadn’t helped that my whole family and all our luggage had been packed into a modestly-sized but well designed hatchback and we were having a blast.