A 1,300-Mile Family Road Trip On The Wrong Side Of The Road

In the US, when we think about taking the family on a long-haul road trip, we usually conjure images of an SUV or minivan— some massive, three-row vehicle nearly the size of a local pub. But life is different in Europe. The roads are narrower, the parking spaces are tighter, and the fuel is even more expensive than it is in America. Across the pond, efficiency is everything— efficiency of space, energy, and performance— all concepts I was about to understand on a much deeper level. When I first laid eyes on the BMW 118i M Sport in London, its proportions instantly struck me.

Key Features

  • Hot hatch like styling
  • High-quality interior materials
  • 60-40 rear seat split
  • Clear information interface

  • Model: 118i M Sport
  • Engine/Motor: 1.5-liter Turbocharged 3-cylinder
  • Horsepower: 136
  • Torque: 162.2 lb/ft
  • Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive
  • Transmission: Automatic DTC

  • Agile handling
  • Confident braking
  • Surprisingly ample storage space

  • Slightly underpowered
  • Rear-view camera should be standard

At First Glance

The phrase “hot hatch” came to mind. The styling is sporty but tasteful; Dramatic intakes, upswept creases that transition into the rear fenders, and a channeled rear spoiler that extends over the rear windscreen. It sat on 18″ wheels, large enough to complement a car of this size. Visually, it resembles the rest of the BMW line, only… smaller. The bright Misano Blue paint added a flashy bit of panache like the little bows atop the shoes Yes, I was excited–until I walked around to the hatch, or boot, or whatever they call the rear storage area.

Cargo space that expands like a Tardis

I was traveling through the UK for three weeks with my wife and two children, and, in a valiant attempt to model European efficiency, we limited ourselves to one cabin-sized suitcase and one small carry-on. Opening the hatch, I took a deep breath and loaded our luggage into the tiny area. Shockingly, they fit perfectly. This was like the Tardis. As if BMW designed the boot to precisely hold four Rimowa cabin cases with room for little more than a couple of jackets and a bottle of Scottish Gin we’d pick up along the way and shove in a tiny cubby near the right wheel well. Who needs a Lincoln Navigator after all? After sliding everything inside, the hatch closed with a satisfying thunk, but it might as well closed with resounding applause.

If you’re used to 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, arrangement, and materials align with the BMW aesthetic, but this entry-level model’s quality is far better than I expected. The M Sport has leather in the usual places—the steering wheel, doors, and center console, but I was more impressed by all the other surfaces. The panels and sills felt thick and solid, wrapped in textured soft touch material, the door handles crafted from actual “Al-loo-min-ee-um”, and a pliable, rubberized material graces the instrument binnacle. This felt well-made. It felt purposeful. It felt like a proper BMW. The seats feature accent piping in the M livery, and the seatbelts M striping– a nice touch my kids picked up on straight away.

But all the striping in the world doesn’t make up for what it lacks— A rear backup camera. Sure, It’s a small car, but with the rearview mirror on the other side of the windshield and a backseat full of kids, a rear camera on this example would be a welcome addition. So would a few more cylinders.

All The Style, Half The Engine

But all the striping in the world doesn’t make up for what it lacks— A rear backup camera. Sure, It’s a small car, but with the rearview mirror on the other side of the windshield and a backseat full of kids, a rear camera on this example would be a welcome addition. So would a few more cylinders.

The 118i comes with a 1.5liter 3-cylinder turbocharged engine which, at first impression, leaves a lot to be desired. Stopping at my first roundabout and muttering, “Think left. Think left. Think left” to myself, the auto shut-off suddenly activated, causing the car to shudder and die. Releasing the brake caused the engine to start so roughly that I thought it was a diesel. This, accompanied by a slight lag on start-up, added an extra layer of stress to the already foreign concept of a roundabout, and I quickly got in the habit of switching off the auto-stop as soon as I put it in drive.

Despite its looks, a hot hatch, this was certainly not. Pulling onto the motorway in comfort mode, the throttle response lagged. In sport mode, it got better but still didn’t impress. I wanted The Clash; I got the Bee Gees. The engine emitted a curious high-pitched whine, the seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox was adequate but about as bland as mushy peas, and instead of a tachometer, the instrument cluster displayed the “power percentage” (what that measures, I am not entirely sure). But then I remembered to think differently.

I prefer smaller cars, and cruising along at the UK’s national speed limit of 70 mph, the ride is surprisingly smooth and solid for a vehicle of this size, and there’s a fair amount of feedback through the steering wheel. The rear seats were so comfortable that I did not hear any car-related complaints from the kids. Wind and road noise are very present, but the audio system is decent. The driver’s seat was supportive, comfortable, and offered most of the adjustments you’d want. I particularly enjoyed the power-adjustable bolsters that hugged me like a sausage roll. In fact, I adjusted them often just for kicks.

Related: Here’s What Makes The 1 Series The Best BMW Hatchback

The Long And Winding Road

But the magic of the 118i is not the engine or the transmission; it’s in the handling.

Unless you’re driving through a small village, the roads that wind through the UK countryside have a speed limit of 60 mph. They have narrow lanes, tight turns, and plenty of elevation changes. And thanks to the infrastructure, they are beautifully maintained. And once I learned that the little white circle with the black diagonal line meant the speed limit was back at 60 mph, they were positively delightful.

This was modern momentum driving. The 136 horsepower three-cylinder that was horrible off the line felt adequately on the backroads. At 60, the car lights up; It starts to get nimble and, dare I say, a little exciting. It starts to dance a little. In a very unusual move, BMW designed the 118i with front-wheel drive, and flooring it off the line, I felt a little torque steer and/or general weirdness. But on the sweeping, winding roads, it handled very well. Yes, I was enjoying myself. The M Sport brakes felt solid—smooth, and assured, especially when I quickly discovered an oncoming truck in my lane. And yes, I swear, it was my lane.

As the days went by, I started to adjust my expectations and see the 118i through a different lens. Petrol stops were shockingly fast, mainly because it has a smaller fuel tank than I’m accustomed to. Each time I loaded and unloaded our bags, I marveled at how it could not only fit everything we brought but the plush corgi, wool sweater, tweed refrigerator magnets, and aforementioned Scottish Gin we had acquired along the way.

As I got more comfortable on the left, I also got more comfortable with the car and the roads. I learned how to spot the traffic cameras, I understood more road signs, and even the roundabouts were a breeze (although I still have no idea what the blue circle with the red X means.) I didn’t miss the power too much, except maybe when I tried to pass a struggling motor home on a particularly narrow, rainy stretch of two-lane road through the highlands.

Related: 10 Weird Driving Laws In The UK That You Didn’t Know AboutYes, this little car was winning me over. Not only that, it was winning my family over. After several days, we knew where to stash the road snacks, how to work the nav, and I could pull into a parking spot on the first try (mostly). The kids made ample use of the charging ports, streaming music I hoped would be English (as I feared hearing anything remotely American might send me careening into the right lane out of sheer auditory muscle memory).

Learning To Love Less Car

Somewhere along the eight-hour, 450-mile drive from Fort William, Scotland, to Solihull, England, I asked myself– if I lived here, would this £35,000 ($41,390) 5-door be enough car for me? Sure 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 central London traffic. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe we can all learn to live with a little less car; if we could all enjoy a little more efficiency. The truth was staring directly at me through the incredibly inconvenient rearview mirror mounted on the left. My whole family and all our luggage had packed into a modestly-sized but well-designed hatchback, and we were having a blast.

Yes, maybe these Europeans are on to something after all.