Plugin 3-er strikes incredible balance between EV efficiency and Bavarian driveability
Nearly five years ago, BMW Malaysia stirred up the premium segment by including in its line-up the ActiveHybrid variants of the pre-facelift F30 3-Series and F10 5-Series. That was in 2012, a year which sent sales of cars like the Honda CR-Z and Toyota Prius C flying due to newly introduced tax exemptions favouring hybrids. Local assembly was not a requirement then, but BMW’s early electrified models missed out nonetheless, which is why an ActiveHybrid 3 is harder to spot than an i8 these days.
The ActiveHybrid 3 gave the BMW M3 a run for its money with a price tag exceeding half-a-million Ringgit for one simple reason: the petrol-scented half of its hybrid architecture was essentially the 335i’s tax-heavy, three-litre six-pot turbo. After seeing the light in a 40kW electric motor, the government eventually recognised this eco-friendly M-car in disguise as an energy efficient vehicle that merited a discount. But RM400k was still a lot to pay for a 3-Series with a few extra batteries bolted on, even if it did have 340bhp and 540Nm of torque.
In the years that followed, the engineers at Munich deduced that hybrid owners didn’t need six cylinders or 300-plus horses to taunt the rear axle into a drift. This realisation set into motion a new strategy that coincided with the facelift of the F30 platform, or ‘Life Cycle Impulse’ (LCI) in BMW’s corporate lingo. The result was a range-topping 3-Series variant – in Malaysia, at least – which can be had from only RM248,800, plugin-hybrid powertrain included.
Enter the BMW 330e, a conceptual and more sensible successor to the ActiveHybrid 3 which utilises the smaller B48 engine and an electric motor with batteries that can be charged from a household power outlet. The two-litre four-banger used here is in the 320i’s tune, meaning an inoffensive 184bhp and 290Nm of torque. When paired with the 65kW/250Nm fuel-free motor, the combined output maxes out at 252bhp and 420Nm. This puts the 330e on par with the 330i in the power rankings, giving BMW Malaysia good reason to discontinue the latter to the protests of some.
We count ourselves amongst the few dismayed voices, having labelled the 330i as one of the finest all-round driver’s cars on sale in the country last year. But to continue selling a car with less tech for more Ringgit makes little marketing sense, especially when the emotional qualities conjured behind the wheel of a 330i can’t be quantified into brochure-ready selling points. So is the 330e a worthy recipient of the 3-Series torch, M3 aside?
Things didn’t immediately play in the 330e’s favour, not because we weren’t impressed by its performance, but because we struggled to identify it. For the first 10 minutes of driving, between collecting the car to stopping for lunch nearby, the 330e behaved as though no combustion engine existed underneath its hood – eerily silent, but effortless in its mobility. A quick look at the computer showed the powertrain to be in the Comfort setting and eDrive set to Auto, so the engine wasn’t being purposely restrained from coming to life. There was clearly a greater emphasis on the electric element in practice, more than we expected.
The engine remained unmoved upon restart, choosing instead to stay dormant as our gentle cruise out of Cyberjaya approached the 100kph mark. BMW claims the 330e can run without petrol propulsion up to 120kph. At that point, we had already worn down the 5.7kWh lithium-ion battery to less than half its charge, having clocked 10 emission-free kilometres in mixed conditions – the official full EV range reads 35km – so we were braced for a jolt as we steadied our foot on the throttle. It never came.
Instead of the heavy swing of a tag-team wrestler’s arm we’ve become accustomed to in other hybrids, the Bimmer’s engine signalled its participation with a gentle prod and a blip of the tachometer that was almost inaudible. The transition from electric to hybrid operation is incredibly refined by segment standards, and it’s helped by the fact that NVH insulation in the cabin is top class as well. In fact, the 330e scores many points for comfort in iPeformance Sport trim, with the steering leaning on the light-and-right side in its default setting and the fixed dampers scoring five stars for all-round pliancy.
Don’t let the Mercedes-taunting elegance fool you, though. A flick of a button to put the car in Sport and a stab of the accelerator bring out the Bavarian DNA in the 330e, with its reflexes sharpening to every driver input. The aggression of 252 horses on a strict petrol diet that’s evident in the 330i may have been a little diluted here, but the 330e is a rapid continental bruiser in its very own way. Additionally, there’s an odd sense of accomplishment in slowing down after a brief highway blitz when you see the charge meter building up from regenerative braking.
Because the car recharges as you drive, albeit not past 50 percent, you could ignore the extra flap on the passenger side and treat the 330e as a conventional bolt-on hybrid. In that sense, you’d be driving a nicely specced 320i with 230kg of additional electric baggage that’s only useful half the time. But keep the batteries juiced up with the same effort you put into keeping your iPhone’s battery in the green and the 330e rewards you with a solid impression of an i3 on short strolls while reserving its 330i impressions for the long haul.
There’s a little learning curve involved in maximising the 330e’s full potential, but we think it’s worth the effort. Heck, it’s probably the future of luxury motoring.
Engine: 1,998cc, 4-cylinder turbo, 65kW electric motor, 252bhp, 420Nm combined
Performance: 0-100kph in 6.1 secs, 225kph
Economy: 2.1L/100km, 49g/km CO2
Electric powertrain more involved than expected. Full EV short journeys doable, with impressive hybrid performance when called upon.