BMW says it's using the new model to expand its appeal and get back to its roots as a producer of affordable sporty cars, and reminds that it isn't the first hatchback BMW has ever made. In 1971 the automaker introduced a hatchback designated as a Touring model. That name continues today on BMW's station wagons.

Unfortunately, U.S. consumers usually associate hatchbacks with entry-level economy cars, and there are serious concerns among some critics that this design will turn off the younger, style-conscious consumers BMW is seeking. And while the car is sporty and handles well, acceleration isn't exactly thrilling: A Saturn can beat the 318ti in a race to 60 mph (97 km/h).

But the automaker says having a base price $5,000 less doubles the size of the potential market for the vehicle, and it clearly is hoping to use the car to expand its reach to younger, less-affluent buyers -- and more singles. A similar lower-powered version (the 100-hp 316i Compact) was introduced in Europe in 1994 with great success. About 50,000 were sold last year -- mostly in Western Europe.

BMW hopes to sell 6,000 to 10,000 units of the new 318ti in the U.S. during the first full sales year. A spokesman says there are no plans to build it in the U.S.

The front half of the 318ti looks the same as a regular 3-Series, but from the B-pillar back it is abbreviated, and the rear has a chopped-off appearance. Although it's body is much shorter than other 3-Series models, it rides on the same wheelbase, and is powered by the same 1.8L, 138-hp 4-cyl. engine that powers other 318 models. The shorter length makes the 318ti 132 lbs. (60 kg) lighter than other 318 models, but with a curb weight of 2,734 lbs. (1,240 kg) it's still no lightweight.

Base $19,900 versions (not including a $570 destination charge) of the car were not available, but test drives of the two up-level versions -- priced at $22,300 -- found them to be very solid and well-finished inside and out. These more expensive versions feature items such as aluminum wheels instead of steel, wider tires, nicer upholstery, a keyless entry system and a sunroof. Air conditioning, power front windows, dual air bags, antilock brakes and a sophisticated anti-theft system are standard on all models, but it's easy to get the price above $23,000 with options such as a 10-speaker stereo system ($550), full leather upholstery ($1,450) or automatic transmission ($975). A 4-speed automatic is available as an option on all versions, and more than half of U.S. sales are expected to be 318ti's with automatics.

The two key markets for the vehicle are 25- to 35-year-old singles with household incomes of $55,000, and 40- to 50-year-old "empty nesters" with incomes of $75,000.

BMW says competitors include the Acura Integra, Honda Prelude, Toyota Celica, Mazda MX-6, Nissan 240SX and Saab 900.

It would be easy to dismiss the 318ti as just a de-contented, shortened version of its 3-Series siblings, but it has been far too well executed to deserve such criticism. Although it is shorter, it is not necessarily a lesser car.

The 318ti was loads of fun to drive hard through the rolling Ozark mountains, where it felt rock solid through turns, and there was never a hint of fade from the brakes (11.3 x 0.87-in. ventilated discs front, 10.7 x 0.39-in. discs rear).

The 5-speed manual models did not feel underpowered, although it's unlikely the same could be said about automatic equipped versions, which were not available for evaluation (automatic-equipped versions have a 0-60 time of 10.3 seconds vs. the manual's 9.6 and weigh 90 lbs.[41 kg] more).

Aside from the hatchback design and shortened rear end, it's difficult to find the corners BMW cut to wring $5,000 out of a base 318 model. The automaker says a simpler instrument panel unique to the 318ti (which excludes features such as dual-zone climate controls) and different front seats also carved out some cost. Using the rear suspension of the previous-generation 3-Series also saved money. A few other cost-saving measures noticed: use of a flexible stationary antenna instead of an electric retractable unit, and a space-saver spare tire instead of the usual full-size.