• Electric Dreams? Sampling BMW’s all-new hybrid #BMW-3-Series , the 330e, and it’s a lot better than we were expecting. BMW’s electrifying expansion of its mainstream range continues and this is the most crucial model yet: the 330e. But do we feel a spark when driving it? Time to find out… Words: Matt Robinson. Photography: / #BMW / #BMW-F30 / #BMW-330e-F30 / #BMW-330e / #2016 / #BMW-F30/2 /

    I remember my first encounter with a BMW 330d. It was a post-face-lift E46 Saloon, a dark grey SE that I had to pick up from BMW UK’s former headquarters in Bracknell and drive back to Gloucester on a typically grimy British winter evening. At the time, I was young and hot-headed, a staunch diesel naysayer. And I certainly wasn’t alone in my opinion; despite the fledgling years of common-rail injection bringing significant and rapid improvements to old Rudolf’s compression engine, to many the 330d was an inferior alternative to a 330i – BMW’s classic, compact, straight-six petrol heartland.

    You probably know what’s coming next. I’d barely got to Swindon and the turning for the A419 (which cuts off the M4/M5 interchange by running along the fringes of the Cotswolds) before I realised that petrol’s game was up. So phenomenal was the 204hp turbodiesel that it wholly converted me to a ‘dervangelist’ in the space of about 70 miles. The four-door Three demolished the distance with disdain as it scythed through the cold, dark night at well in excess of 40mpg. It really did appear to be all things to all men.

    Of course, BMW has been doing diesel for a lot longer than that 330d of 2004, with a lineage stretching right back to the E28 524td of 1982. But it was that M57 D30 six-pot engine, seen first in the E39 530d in 1998 and then expanding into the 3 Series and other model lines, that started the seachange within the marque that saw diesels become by far the preferred choice for the majority of BMW buyers; well, in this country and Europe, at least. Presumably, BMW is hoping for a similar moment of enlightenment for its customers with this new 330e. Like the difficulty Munich encountered in getting the public to accept a ‘d’-suffix at the end of the model number instead of an ‘i’, now ‘e’ is the latest fashion and it’s the letter that supposedly makes the most eco-sense in the wake of Volkswagen’s ‘Dieselgate’ shame. Ironic, really, that diesel’s future looks under threat from petrol once more, albeit petrol with the assistance of electricity.

    That’s right, the 330e is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, or PHEV. This is BMW’s i-brand know-how continuing to encroach into the marque’s core model offerings, the outlandish i3 and i8’s presence in showrooms bolstered by the likes of the X5 xDrive40e, the forthcoming BMW 740e and the 225xe Active Tourer we’ll be bringing you a review of next month. The 330e actually shares a lot of hardware with the X5 PHEV, as it has the same longitudinally-mounted 2.0-litre four-cylinder TwinPower Turbo petrol engine up front with the electric motor sandwiched into the glorious eightspeed automatic transmission, but it doesn’t get 340e badging, as its drivetrain is less powerful than the X5’s (252hp and 310lb ft, compared to 313hp and 332lb ft) and it’s also rear-wheel drive, where the SUV has traction at all corners.

    Lighter than the X5 by more than 600kg, though, the 330e is in another league in terms of its performance, be that against the clock or with regards to its energy usage. BMW quotes a rapid 6.1-second 0-62mph time and a 140mph top speed for the 330e, but it’s the official economy and CO² emissions that cause jaws to hit the floor. The 3 Series PHEV doesn’t just eclipse the X5 40e, it also embarrasses its 330i and 330d siblings; obliterating them with 148.7mpg and just 44g/km CO². Even upgrading to larger alloys only causes slight deteriorations, to 134.5mpg and 49g/km, so any way you cut it, these are truly exceptional, road tax-free returns.

    Naturally, the cynics out there will be gearing up to take the 330e’s case apart immediately, citing the fact no #PHEV can ever get near its stratospheric on-paper boasts. And, if our test drive figures are anything to go by, they’ve got plenty of ammunition. On a flat, urban/extra-urban route in and around Munich, where the temperature was seven degrees centigrade, we covered 79 miles at an average of 34.4mph and got back 62.8mpg, with 7.0kWh/62.5 miles of battery use at the same time. That’s 42 per cent of what the 330e is supposedly capable of.

    However, let’s reassess. BMW legally has to quote the NEDC figures and everyone associated with the automotive industry now knows that these bear little resemblance to reality, with the data for PHEVs particularly skewed. Furthermore, BMW maintains many of its customers worldwide only commute 19 miles a day. So, with plenty of access to charging points at home and places of work, such owners could use the 330e’s fully electric range of 25 miles day in, day out, and never touch the fossil fuel in the tank. Also, on the same route, despite it now being a four-cylinder motor, the 330i would probably have failed to surpass 30mpg and even a 330d wouldn’t have got close to the 330e’s returns. Thus, we’re inclined to label the hybrid Three as an economical success story.

    So, if we accept the electrification has, like the E46 330d did back in 2004, given all drivers the best of both worlds – economy and power – then we have to satisfy two further questions: how does the 330e drive, and has the integration of the electric motor and battery affected the car’s practicality?

    On the latter score, there’s a reduction in boot space of 110 litres to 370 litres in total – a result of the lithium-ion battery being mounted under the cargo area’s floor. However, it remains a large, wellshaped space and there’s a neat little pocket to the left-hand side in which owners can store the baggedup charging cable when it’s not in use.

    BMW has also decided not to equip the 330e with any distinctive signifiers, like flatfaced aero alloys or blue exterior trim, for example, which will easily mark it out. Only the boot badge, ‘eDrive’ logos on the C-pillars and the electric charging port on the nearside front wing differentiates it from a 330d. To all intents and purposes, from the outside the clever hybrid is just another 3 Series, which will be of appeal to potential customers.

    Inside, a few extra hybrid-related screens are available in the instrument cluster and iDrive display, there’s a read-out for the battery’s charge level, while blue stitching and mesh-effect cloth trim are specific to the 330e. There’s also the eDrive button, which – like the X5 and i8 – cycles between Auto eDrive, Max eDrive and Save. The first of these lets the car choose between electric, hybrid and petrol power as required, Max eDrive locks the Three into full electric mode (if the battery’s up to it) and Save favours the 2.0-litre four and brake recuperation to hold or replenish the battery’s charge.

    No matter which of these modes it’s in, the 330e drives in a supremely confident and composed manner, although its 1665kg bulk does rob it of the final degree of dynamic sharpness. However, the ride is fabulous, noise suppression is superb at all times and when it’s running in zero-emissions EV mode, it is so much quieter than either a 330i or 330d could ever hope to be. The steering is fantastic and the 330e’s body control is also top drawer, although the brakes have a slightly two-stage feel to them thanks to their energy-harvesting duties, while the 2.0-litre engine – always smooth and free-revving – isn’t one of BMW’s most charismatic units. The better news is that, whether it’s using only one of its motors or both in unison, the 330e feels extremely rapid; it’s simply that it prefers being driven just within itself, rather than being thrashed right up to the ragged edge. If that really bothers you, you’ll need a 335d, 340i or an M3 instead.

    Personally speaking, I’ve not been won over in such an alarmingly easy fashion by the 330e of 2016 as I was by the 330d 12 years ago, although this is probably the most comprehensively rounded #BMW-PHEV yet, i8 included. It’s a fine car that will absolutely meet the needs of a large proportion of 3 Series buyers, be they private or business users. There’s one more ace up the 330e’s sleeve and that’s a starting price of £28,935, including the government’s £5000 grant, as an SE; from 1 March, that grant reduces to £2500, increasing the 330e’s entry point to £31,435. But as an auto 330i starts from £34,690 (Luxury spec) and the cheapest 330d costs £37,800, you can see just how competitively BMW has priced this PHEV.

    Whatever we think of the slightly fuzzy dynamics, the fact of the matter is that the 330e is a stunning integration of electric drive into BMW’s single most important model. Does the 3 Series PHEV bring the curtain down on diesel’s short era of dominance, then? Not quite, but it’s increasingly looking like the beginning of the end for ‘d’. The future is clearly going to belong to ‘e’.

    Interior is basically as per all other F30 Threes bar the additional read-outs on the iDrive screen and the car’s ability to do 120km/h without bothering the petrol engine!

    Whether it’s using only one of its motors or both in unison, the 330e feels extremely rapid.

    Hybrid drivetrain includes an electric motor within the gearbox casing and a battery pack under the boot floor which does make the boot 110 litres smaller.


    DRIVETRAIN: 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four petrol with synchronous electric motor, eight-speed #Steptronic auto, rear-wheel drive
    MAX POWER: Petrol 184hp at 5000-6500rpm; electric 88hp at 2500rpm; combined peak output 252hp
    MAX TORQUE: Petrol 214lb ft at 1350-4250rpm; electric 184lb ft at 0-2500rpm; combined peak output 310lb ft, 0-62mph: 6.1 seconds
    TOP SPEED: 140mph
    EMISSIONS: 44g/km
    PRICE: From £28,935, including government’s £5000 grant (until 1 March)

    Charging point hidden behind flap on left front wing; it’ll take a full charge in three hours from a standard domestic setup, two and a half hours from a #BMW-i-Wallbox .