The BMW 3-series has traditionally been the Bavarian firm’s best-selling model; it’s certainly one of its best known and it’s one of our favourites too. This stalwart saloon represents all that is good and proper in the company car park.
And that’s the obvious market for the car we’re driving here – a production plug-in hybrid (we drove a prototype towards the end of 2014) that borrows parts and tech from the i8, and uses a drive concept BMW calls ‘permanent excited synchronous machine’. The upshot of all this tech are CO2 emissions of just 44g/km, so benefit-in-kind tax will be less than half as much as a 320d SE. Impressive stuff.
The eDrive – remember this phrase, it’ll appear on many a BMW over the coming years, from 2-series Active Tourer to the mighty 7-series – layout is slightly different in the 3-series compared to the i8 we’re so fond of.
It features the firm’s ‘cluster architecture’ and employs a set of lithium ion cells under the 370-litre boot floor (a regular 3er’s luggage space is 480 litres so you’re not sacrificing too much) that feed power to an 87bhp electric motor situated in the car’s gearbox casing.
This can work on its own in silent, pure EV mode, or in conjunction with the 182bhp petrol engine – the same as in the 420i – under the bonnet, which also feeds its thrust through the same eight-speed auto. That’s right, driving fans: despite two sources of go, this 3 remains rear-driven.
So is the 330e still a driver’s car?
Even as a hybrid, the 3-series is an engaging experience because the purity of its rear-drive platform shines through and its ride and handling are still top drawer. We found the body control remarkable on our drive around BMW’s heartland in Bavaria but we were most impressed with the Jekyll and Hyde nature of this car.
It drifts silently (and relatively comfortably) along in electric mode when you’re in the city but prod the throttle on a roundabout in Sport+ mode with the traction control disabled and, once again, it drifts – but in an altogether more entertaining manner.
Despite this PHEV’s 160kg weight penalty over the equivalent 330i, the firm has managed to retain almost equal weight distribution between the two axles (49% at the front plays 51% at the rear) – and this is where the handling balance comes from.
As the rear end loses traction it does so in a measured, predictable fashion. Just like a 3-Series is supposed to. Keep the safety systems engaged and it’s rewarding, balanced and user friendly. They might not officially be Ultimate Driving Machines anymore, but they’re still impressive.
But this is a 3-series hybrid so it can’t be that quick, right?
With a total of 249bhp at your disposal, its performance is as decent as the chassis. The engine note isn’t going to win any awards, sounding more generic than potent, but its speed can’t be disputed. Switch to Sport or Sport+ to unleash its potential and you can expect a Boxster-baiting 6.1-second dash to 62mph thanks to its 332lb ft of maximum torque.
You’ve got three driving modes for the electric drivetrain at your disposal via the eDrive button under the air-con controls – Auto, Max eDrive and Battery Save – and all are pretty self-explanatory. Pick Battery Save to retain electricity for low-speed city driving or low-emission zones, Max eDrive when you want to force the car to run as much as possible on electric power alone, and Auto when you want the car to take care of things for you.
While we preferred the latter for ease of use, the other two modes are going to come in handy too. Theoretical range for travelling on electric power alone is around 25 miles, which is going to sate most commuters’ requirements. Let’s just hope take-up isn’t too quick or there will be fistfights at dawn for those precious few fast-charging points at work.
Our only criticism here is the transition between electric and petrol power – it’s a pronounced step as the internal combustion engine wakes up, which can feel like severe turbo lag if you catch it off guard with a sharp poke of the throttle in the more relaxed Comfort mode. Keeping it in Sport gets around this but you won’t be making the most of the fuel economy benefits of the hybrid system. Far better to play a game of drive on electric for as long as possible.
Does the 330e take all day to charge? What’s its range?
Using a fast-charge system means you can top up the battery to 100% in a couple of hours, or use a three-pin plug to charge it in around 3.5 hours. Either way, thanks to this car’s ability to remain on electric power for up to 25 miles, or at speeds of up to almost 75mph (but not at the same time), it’s surprising just how little fuel it uses.
Forget BMW’s claimed NEDC figures; they’re next to useless because fuel consumption depends heavily on how you use the car. You won’t use any at all if you can make do with the batteries’ range alone, for instance. Imagine only visiting a petrol station once a month.
Clearly with diminutive 16-inch alloy wheels hidden in those arches this is a company car first and foremost, so it’s been specified with that in mind. You can expect standard kit to include sat-nav, air-con, adaptive cruise control, parking sensors, Bluetooth and DAB radio – all staple requirements of the business driver.
And as ever with BMW, you can spec yours up to the nines – or indeed the nineteens, where alloy wheels are concerned. Adding flashy headlights, driving assistance kit and better infotainment are all on the menu for extra dosh.
Despite the Government’s £2500 contribution to the list price, the 330e is still a relatively expensive car to buy outright – but who does that these days anyway?
It’ll make far more sense for fleet drivers paying benefit-in-kind tax (who don’t qualify for the grant anyway) based on CO2 emissions, but the key here is you don’t miss out on any of the things which make the 3-series such a compelling car. It’s green, but still great.