Plug-in hybrid technology for BMW's 3 Series results in the most compelling model for company car drivers yet. But is it still the driver's choice?

What is it?

The BMW 330e is the latest entry in the fast-expanding market for plug-in hybrids. The demand is being driven not only by ever tightening EU mandated fleet average emission regulations but also government-backed clean vehicle incentives, such as the OLEV scheme in place here in the UK.

With the establishment of its i brand we’ve come to expect big things from BMW when it comes to electric and hybrid models. But while the 330e doesn’t push the technical boundaries in quite the same way as the BMW i3 and i8 did, it does rely heavily on the expertise gained in their development, not least in the area of its lithium ion battery cell technology and the power electronics which regulate the interaction between its electric motor and petrol engine.

To be sold exclusively in saloon guise at price of £31,435 in the UK (after a £2500 government grant), it joins the likes of the Mercedes-Benz C400e and Volkswagen Passat GTE in aiming to sway executive car buyers away from traditional petrol and diesel models by tempting them with the promise of a zero-emission range of up to 25 miles and headlining combined economy of 148.7mpg.

The starting point for the new BMW is the recently facelifted 320i, with which the 330e shares its turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. Mounted longitudinally, it produces a peak of 181bhp along with 214lb ft from just 1350rpm.

A brushless electric motor mounted within the forward section of the 330e’s standard eight-speed automatic gearbox delivers an added 87bhp and 184lb ft, either in combination with the petrol powerplant in hybrid mode or on its own in pure-electric mode.

All up, BMW’s latest plug-in hybrid provides a total system output of 249bhp and 398lb ft – figures the German car maker suggests put the model on a performance par with the 248bhp turbocharged four-cylinder 330i, which sells for £33,005. And just like its petrol engine sibling, the 330e delivers its drive to the rear wheels.

Energy to run the electric motor is provided by 7.6kWh lithium ion battery mounted in the floor of the boot. It is charged via a socket mounted behind a flap in the front wing. BMW claims an 80% recharge time of just over two hours via an optional wallbox charger, or it can be plugged into the regular mains, via which the recharge time extends to over three hours.

Additional electrical stores can be generated on the run using a battery charge function. The battery also receives a trickle feed during periods of trailing throttle and under braking, although never sufficient to add much to the claimed all-electric range. At 370 litres, boot capacity is reduced by 110 litres over other 3 Series saloon models thanks to the onboard batteries. 

What's it like?

The driveline technology adopted by the 330e provides it with quite lively performance and superb refinement without any great detriment to the overall dynamic properties or the everyday practicality displayed by other more conventional sixth-generation 3 Series models.

There is a nice flexible feel to the delivery in electric mode, while the combustion engine and electric motor combine seamlessly to propel the new saloon with real verve on the open road. To really make the most of its potential efficiency, though, you need to get accustomed to the three different driving modes - eDrive, Max eDrive and Save Battery - and be prepared to continually switch between them.

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Alternatively, you can leave the 330e to its own devices - but don’t expect to get anywhere near the official economy claims. In real-world driving, the reality is something in the region of 55mpg, or roughly what you’d expect from the 254bhp 3.0-litre six-cylinder diesel-powered 330d saloon.

From standstill, the new BMW is programmed to operate in electric eDrive mode provided there is sufficient charge within the battery. The generous torque loading of the electric motor sees the new BMW glide away from traffic lights in silence with abundant thrust that belies the 1735kg kerb weight.

Without help from the petrol engine there is a claimed electric range of 25 miles, although BMW admits it is only achievable at very gentle speeds without any major inclines.

Find a stretch of road to run the new BMW along in electric mode for an extended period and you do notice a faint pulsating effect from the electric motor, although it’s only evident on very light throttle loadings.

Seek out greater performance in Max eDrive mode with a more earnest nudge of the throttle, in which the full reserves of the electric motor are released, and you eventually hit a limited zero-emission top speed of 75mph, although by then the battery charge is rapidly drained, leading to a dramatic reduction in overall electric range.

If your journey is longer than the indicated electric range, you can sensibly preserve the battery charge for use later by switching into Save Battery mode.

When the state of charge of the battery falls below 20%, the combustion engine automatically fires to provide a combination of petrol and electric drive. Both power sources are fed directly into the gearbox, rather than being channelled separately, giving it a nice cohesive feel as the needle on the rev counter suddenly springs to life.

In hybrid running, the 330e is reasonably swift, displaying reasonably sharp throttle response, thanks, in part, to the abundant torque. With the electric motor assisting the petrol unit, it delivers solid low-end urge and impressive mid-range shove on kickdown. BMW claims 0-62mph in 6.1sec, which is just 0.3sec shy of BMW’s official time for the 1545kg 330i saloon in automatic guise.

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It is at typical motorway speeds, with the relatively tall gearing of the gearbox suppressing the revs of the petrol engine, where the new BMW does its best work, proving to be exceptionally refined.

Should I buy one?

Costing less than the 330i, the new 330e is competitively priced at £31,435 after applying a £2500 government grant. This will be cheaper than both the Mercedes-Benz C300h and Volkswagen Passat GTE when the car goes on sale.

With an official CO2 rating of 44g/km, it qualifies for the government’s OLEV grant and will allow owners to evade the London congestion charge, making it a particularly attractive proposition for those who regularly enter the capital.

If your workplace commute is mostly on urban roads and no longer than 25 miles each way, the new BMW could theoretically allow you to drive on electric power for the whole working week without ever engaging its combustion engine or requiring a visit to the service station forecourt - provided you have access to a high-voltage charger and are happy to plug it in each time you arrive at your destination.  

Being reasonably swift off the line and extraordinarily refined when running on its electric motor around town, the new 330e also impresses with its urgent nature and overall dynamic ability out on the open road when using a combination of petrol and electric power.

We’ll need more time behind the wheel on UK roads to provide a definitive assessment of its dynamic qualities, although on smooth-surfaced German roads its retuned chassis coped with the added weight brought on by the addition of the electric motor and battery quite well. There is added firmness in the ride, but overall this is one of the most engaging hybrids on the market right now.  

BMW 330e

Location Germany; On sale Now; Price £31,435 (after £2.5k grant) Engine 4cyl, 1998cc, turbocharged petrol and electric motor; Power 249bhp at 5000-6500rpm; Torque 310lb ft at 1350-2500rpm; Gearbox 8-spd auto; Kerb weight 1735kg; 0-62mph 6.1sec; Top speed 140mph; Economy 148.7mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 44g/km/5%

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Join the debate

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ekranoplan 1 October 2016

TOTAL energy consumption Petrol + KWh?

Come on AC, mpg plus how much electicity taken from the grid /100km? PHEVS never get NEDC in real world driving. Absolutely absurd taxpayers are subsidising them.

Heavy ICE when in EV mode, heavy dead battery in ICE mode! Fund research for "pure"EV and H2 maybe.

Meantime I'll keep driving something that betters official tests:

2.4l/100km Audi A2 1.2 TDI, CD 0.25, 875kg.

ekranoplan 1 October 2016

TOTAL energy consumption Petrol + KWh?

Come on AC, mpg plus how much electicity taken from the grid /100km? PHEVS never get NEDC in real world driving. Absolutely absurd taxpayers are subsidising them.

Heavy ICE when in EV mode, heavy dead battery in ICE mode! Fund research for "pure"EV and H2 maybe.

Meantime I'll keep driving something that betters official tests:

2.4l/100km Audi A2 1.2 TDI, CD 0.25, 875kg.

lightbody 3 February 2016

What if you never plug it in?

So if you bought this car, but never plugged it in, would the batteries stay permanently flat? What would that do to it?

I'd have thought with regenerative braking, that it would eventually charge up in certain driving situations, but the roadtest makes it sound like it woudldn't.

I don't like it. A heavy, complex car which would be far greener if it just had a smaller, lighter engine in the first place.