Full Review: BMW 330e

It’s not electric, it’s a Plug-In Hybrid

Parking a BMW 330 on one’s driveway would be a point of pride for any motorist, but what about that ‘e’ tagged onto the end? At first glance you’d think it was a fully electric version of the fabled 3 Series – a popular choice in the BMW range particularly among UK motorists.

However then you might notice the cover to the fuel filler – what gives? Well it’s not quite a full-fledged EV, the 330e is in fact a petrol-electric plug-in hybrid. This car features a 2.0 4-cylinder engine under the bonnet producing 181bhp and 221lb ft of torque. Under the boot floor – admittedly robbing it of a little space – lives the… petrol tank. You thought I was going to say the batteries right?

Those are under the floor, which makes sense, as permanently added mass, it’s better to put them low in the chassis to keep the centre of gravity as close to the ground as possible – desirable for dynamic handling, a raison d’etre of BMW – while the electric motor is installed just ahead of the eight-speed automatic transmission.

The motor produces 111bhp and 195lb ft of torque, however combined output is not a matter of just adding up the figures, so bhp is quoted as 250bhp and 310lb ft of torque, neither of which should be laughed at it. And driving the rear-wheels – which is only correct and proper for a Beemer – it endows the 330e with a top speed of 143mph and a 0-62mph acceleration time of 5.9 seconds, which is pretty much on par with the 330i petrol-only car.

The 330e is roughly over a thousand pounds dearer, model-for-model, compared to the 330i, meanwhile add at least another £5k for the oil-burner. Strangely the diesel is a little quicker in acceleration though, while the petrol is still a tenth up on the ‘e’.

There’s little in it though, and where the ‘e’ is supposed to win the argument is with claimed fuel economy figures of up to 200mpg – which is frankly preposterous. It compares with a little over 40mpg for the petrol car, with the diesel doing a little better at 46mpg. In the real world I’d expect the ‘e’ to achieve closer to the diesel’s mpg.

Perhaps it’s easier to swallow the claim of just 39g/km CO2 emissions though that is a fraction of what the others will achieve. To be fair, there is clever electrickery at work here. The ‘e’ can go up to 40miles on electric power and will reach motorway speeds if coaxed. In the first 55 miles of my test, when the car arrived decently charged, about half the time, it drove in electric mode only. This was by leaving it in auto and letting it decide for itself.

Where you’ve set up the satellite navigation, it gets even smarter, because the anticipatory drive system figures out where best to deploy electric power (less useful on motorways, more thrifty and less polluting for urban areas). In the latest and newest update, Plug-In hybrid models in BMW’s range now recognise the low emission zones in London and Manchester using GPS Geo-fencing technology and automatically switch to electric only – battery charge allowing.

Of course it helps if you regularly plug the car in to charge the batter independently of the internal hybrid system. After my initial 50 miles, that was mostly depleted, and then you’re into the whole EV dilemma, particularly if you don’t have a home charging facility, which as a flat-dweller, I don’t. So then where do you charge it? Do you have time? Is it worth the hassle? Speaking to other owners confirmed my own suspicion that in the longer term, you might attempt to charge it once or twice out of novelty when you first but it, but then just fall back on the far greater convenience of using it as a hybrid only.

This does mean you’ll miss out a little on the longer EV range and cleaner emissions, but you won’t miss out on the experience of driving a BMW, or even the ‘boost’ function, which provides an extra 40bhp for a short burst of 10 seconds when you accelerate hard either from standstill, or on the move, say for overtaking, thanks to the aid of the electric motor.

The 3 Series cockpit is a familiar and inviting space, particular for those who’ve own a Three before, or driven many of them as I have, and you could drive it blindfold (not recommended) and still know that yes, this is indeed a BMW.

The additional electronics don’t appear to rob the cabin of any passenger space, which is generous front and rear for a junior executive saloon, but you do get a perception of bulk and mass from behind the wheel that seems a little at odds with the spirit of the car.

Just as you’d expect from a larger engine Three with an M Sport badged on it, this car not only feels solid, rigid, well-built and tough, but is also quick, sure-footed, playful enough to barge down twisty B-roads and will leave you smiling with confidence and reassurance at having made a sensible purchase. Hmm… ‘sensible‘ is that really enough when it comes to a Three?

It’s hard to outright criticise this particular BMW on any one count. Its compact size makes it ideal for the town, it’s long-legged cruising ability ensure it is a comfortable companion on the motorway cruise, the ride is cosseting in normal, but firm in Sport and the steering is accurate, and gives some feedback.

Step outside and you’ll look back at it. In fact I’ll rate this the third best looking 3 Series ever after the legendary E30 (I had one) and the E46. It’s sleek and svelte like a BMW should be, with some interesting contours and cuts in the flanks to give it visual intrigue and personality. Stylish it is, crass it ain’t. Desirable? Definitely!

And yet there’s something missing: that sprightliness, the familiar eagerness is perhaps a little dulled in this ‘e’ version. It’s like it delivers dutifully as per its programming, but stare deep into his laser-LED headlights, and there’s a vacant numbness, a resignation to electrified times foretold, possibly a hint of remorse at not being all it was born to be.

You could feel sorry for it, you could put up with the faff of frequently charging it so you can justify it to your friends, the taxman and the environmentalists, even though if you do a lot of miles and really need to keep your fuel bill down conveniently, the 330d is probably the way to go – albeit considerately more expensive.

Or you could just get the 330i petrol. I haven’t actually driven the current 330i petrol myself, but I’m pretty confident that that would be my choice.

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