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Is this crucial plug-in hybrid version of the big-selling saloon a true BMW to its core?

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When BMW introduced the current version of its evergreen compact executive option, the 3 Series, at the start of 2019, the proportion of UK sales it expected to be accounted for by the plug-in hybrid version – the 330e – was about a quarter.

That was then; and so much has changed since. The UK company car system now gives plug-in cars two or three times the cost-related tax advantage for fleet drivers that it did even a year ago. Meanwhile, no government mandarin wastes an opportunity to reaffirm the plan to outlaw the sale of internal combustion-engined cars before the middle of the next decade.

Charging point is on the nearside front wing. The seven-pin cable can take a car from flat to 80% charged, from a 16-amp supply, in less than two and a half hours.

We can say with some confidence, then, that no other version of the 3 Series is likely to be as important to the firm’s near- and mid-term sales success in the UK as this one; and that the verdict we’re about to come to may well be the most crucial we’ve delivered on any 3 Series to date.

The 3 Series line-up at a glance

With both M Performance versions of the G20-generation 3 Series present and correct in the range, as well as our plug-in hybrid and low-end petrols and diesels, all that’s now missing is a top-of-the-line M3.

It’s a fulsome line-up, with all cars except the entry-level diesel getting an eight-speed automatic gearbox as standard. SE and Sport Pro trim levels appear below M Sport on the 330e.

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DESIGN & STYLING

BMW 3 Series 330e 2020 road test review - hero rear

This G20-generation 330e is the second 3 Series with that derivative identity. It’s considered by BMW engineers to be the first 3 Series designed from ‘clean sheet’ to accept plug-in hybrid power, rather than being adapted for it. The difference that makes isn’t huge, but it has allowed the car some important technical gains.

Just like the last one, this 330e has a longways-mounted 181bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that drives the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission.

19in rims that top-spec M Sport Plus-package cars get is run-flat only from the factory.

Just like the last one, it has an AC synchronous electric motor sandwiched between that gearbox and the back of the piston engine, which is connected via a system of electronically controlled clutches.

The electric motor can contribute up to 111bhp into the driveline (up about 25% on the last car) and it can power the car by itself at speeds of up to 87mph. The total system output is now 289bhp with both pistons and electrons working flat out, with peak combined torque pegged at 310lb ft.

Further aft in the car, greater redesign has occurred. Whereas the previous, F30-generation 330e had a conventionally placed fuel tank under the back seat cushions and a 7.6kWh drive battery and power inverter living outside of the wheelbase and under the boot floor, BMW has switched the components around in this new one.

The latest 330e’s 12.0kWh lithium ion drive battery is sited under the back seats and its 40-litre fuel tank is to be found immediately above the rear axle. Usable ‘net’ battery capacity in the 330e has therefore almost doubled (from 5.4kWh to 10.3kWh) and electric range has risen significantly to up to 37 WLTP-certified miles, depending on which particular trim level you choose.

At the same time, the car’s major masses are better located, either within the wheelbase or at least as closely as possible, than they used to be. Suspension is via struts up front and multiple links at the rear. Kerb weight is claimed to be 1740kg unladen, which makes this car only 80kg heavier than the 330d xDrive.

INTERIOR

BMW 3 Series 330e 2020 road test review - cabin

It’s a big compliment that the 3 Series now looks and feels like such a ‘proper’, fully fledged BMW from within. In previous decades, you had to go all the way up to a 5 Series to get that impression. Now, however, the 3 Series looks and feels like a really solidly built, classily appointed and technologically replete car.

Sitting low and with legs and arms outstretched remains a key 3 Series selling point. You feel thoroughly well rooted in the car and space for your arms and legs is generous. You sit behind digital dials that remain slightly over-stylised for our liking and could be easier to read; but you’ll never be less than fully informed about road and engine speed, with several auxiliary digital speedos in the binnacle itself and a second graphical rev counter if you want it.

Head-up display comes as part of the Technology package. It can convey more than just a secondary speedo and projects straight on to the windscreen.

It certainly takes experimentation to configure the central infotainment screen, instrument screen and head-up display to show you just the information you want, just where you want it – and the process could be easier. But you can get there without too much trouble, and once you have, the modularity of the layout of the ‘home’ infotainment menu in particular saves a lot of finger prodding.

Second-row passenger space is pretty generous. All but the very tallest adults will find room to be comfortable over fairly long distances. However, boot space does take a slight hit, with the 330e’s fuel tank accounting for about four inches of what would otherwise have been available loading space across the rear axle. Seat folding and through loading remain possible, though, and a folding boot floor lets you make intelligent use of the 375 litres of space that exists.

BMW 3 Series 330e infotainment and sat-nav

The 330e has a more generous infotainment offer than the 330i or 330d. Whereas lower-level trims in those two derivatives get lesser systems, even the 330e SE Pro comes with BMW’s full-fat Live Cockpit Professional infotainment system, with its 10.3in central touchscreen and fully digital instruments. You get connected navigation services as well, and a year’s online music streaming subscription for no extra cost. All 3 Series are now available with Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring, but not mirroring for other phones.

BMW’s system is, without doubt, one of the best around. A rotary controller lets you input characters the old-fashioned way, if you don’t like touchscreen interfaces, and voice control usually works at the first time of asking. The nav’s routes are plotted quickly and mapping is displayed clearly and easy to follow. Audio quality on the optional Harman Kardon stereo is impressive, too.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW 3 Series 330e 2020 road test review - charging port

The 330e’s hybrid powertrain takes a bit of getting used to. The car has a multifaceted character that will seem overly complicated to those who like a car that’s simple to use; and if you’re not inclined to engage with the complication at least a little bit, you simply won’t experience this car at its best. But those who are prepared to explore the several dimensions of this car’s persona will find that it can be really convincing in so many different ways.

The column of little buttons adjacent to the gear selector, which in any other 3 Series would let you flick between Comfort, Sport and Eco-pro driving modes, are labelled differently here. There’s a Sport button among them, but otherwise there’s a host of new options.

Adaptive drive mode uses navigation route data to switch to electric mode automatically. Battery control mode allows you to restore charge

The car defaults to Hybrid mode, in which it will run electrically where it can until its drive battery is depleted before switching to run on a mix of combustion and electric power. Use Electric mode instead and a little more grunt is made available from the AC motor. It’s enough to deal with urban motoring on busy streets with a little performance to spare, although it begins to feel a bit meagre above 50mph.

Choose Sport mode or, better still, XtraBoost mode (which is the only one in which all 289bhp of power is available before you hit the accelerator pedal’s kickdown switch) and the 330e takes on an altogether more sporting flavour. It is not just hot hatch fast in outright terms but is also really responsive to part-throttle.

That sense of ever-ready responsiveness is clearest if you use the gearbox’s manual mode and ease the burden of that transmission to decide for itself whether to stick with its selected ratio or pause and downshift. The gearbox generally does a better job of quickly picking and then sticking with ratios than many plug-in hybrid (PHEV) transmissions we’ve tested, but if you really want to engage with the 330e, there’s no better way than picking gears for yourself.

At its most sporting, this car has overtaking torque to spare and revs fairly keenly beyond 5000rpm; not with the sweetness of an old BMW straight six, but with plenty of urgency and range. Brake pedal progression and feel, meanwhile – still where so many hybrids fall down – are generally good.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW 3 Series 330e 2020 road test review - on the road front

The derivative line-up of the current 3 Series is something of a maze when it comes to rolling chassis specification. For example, passive M Sport suspension doesn’t appear on any 330e, even as an option, as it would on a like-for-like 330i or 330d.

Moreover, all versions of the car bar one – including M Sports with the optional M Sport Plus package such as our test car (19in rims, adaptively damped M Sport suspension, variable sport steering) – run on run-flat tyres; and there’s no way to swap a top-of-the-line M Sport onto ‘performance’ tyres in order to avoid run-flats here as there is on a 330i or 330d. If you want to avoid run-flats on your 330e, the only ‘factory’ way is with an entry-level 330e SE Pro with 17in wheels and mobility foam.

I liked driving the car best changing gear with the paddles and with Sport mode selected; but you’ll find very few of the drivability quirks that PHEVs so often come with even if you just leave it in Hybrid. This really is a very slick operator.

The good news? That none of this need necessarily concern the wannabe 330e owner too much. There was admittedly a slight coarseness about our test car’s ride isolation, and a tetchiness to its secondary ride, which left it feeling just on the fidgety side of taut over less than perfect surfaces; and it was enough to suggest that M Sport trim – particularly with the extra trimmings of the M Sport Plus pack – is best left alone with a 3 Series this heavy.

However, on most roads and most of the time, our test car had the same incisive steering, compelling handling balance, good close body control and respectable refinement you’d expect of any 3 Series.

The 330e certainly feels like one of those old-school, lower-level 3 Series sports saloons in which less always used to mean more. Our test car had good roll control, steering keenly and with natural poise, and it felt agile and was absorbing to drive. It’s well worth noting, however, that the car’s torque level might have made for more engaging and adjustable handling still with a little less rubber on the road at those driven rear wheels; just as its ride might have been improved by the extra tyre sidewall a smaller rim would bring.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 3 Series 330e 2020 road test review - hero front

The 330e isn’t one of the PHEV options that will take a fleet driver down into the 6% benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax bracket; but it is, at least, a car rated for more than 30 miles of WLTP-certified electric range (and so qualifies for 10% BIK tax) whichever driveline, wheel size and trim level you go for. Right now, both rear-wheel-drive and xDrive four-wheel-drive configurations are on offer. Later this year, Touring bodystyles will join the fray.

Drivers should expect 20-25 miles of electric range in shortish-range real-world use after a full battery charge; and then to see between 38mpg and 45mpg under combustive power, depending on driving style.

Funny that run-flat tyres still cause dynamic issues on BMWs after all this time. I’d be asking the dealer to slap on a set of ‘performance’ tyres for my top-of-the-range 330e M Sport whether he was supposed to or not.

Exactly where that combination will leave your daily fuel economy return will depend more on how you use it than anything else. Our 330e long-term test car – which commutes around 20 miles each way every day, is charged at both the office and home but does plenty of longer-range running, too – is averaging 65mpg.

 

VERDICT

BMW 3 Series 330e 2020 road test review - static

It may no longer quite be the most effective route there is to cutting your company car tax bills; and it may never be the very best-handling saloon of its esteemed breed. And yet the BMW 330e’s pre-eminence as our plug-in hybrid compact executive option of choice is absolutely plain.

Unlike so many of its electrified rivals, this car hides the complexity of powertrain so well. It continues to handle like a powerful, poised, rear-driven sports saloon no matter how hard you care to push it. It has plenty of sporting character, and can be as quick across the ground as almost any other 3 Series, and as engrossing to drive, too, in its own way.

Slicker and sweeter-handling than the average PHEV; a true 3 Series

And yet it can also play the near-silent, super-efficient urban cruiser. As unused to it as BMW owners may be, there’s almost as much appeal to gliding serenely along in this car, watching your fuel economy readout improve, as there is to driving it in any other way.

Best of all, when you simply press the starter button and stick it in ‘D’, the 330e is really all slickness and normality. To keener drivers, it deserves recommendation among its particular rivals almost without caveat – so that’s what we’re giving it.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.