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After five years, the F30-generation BMW 3 Series gains a plug-in powertrain. We find out if it was worth the wait

The choice for anyone looking to move their next executive saloon car purchase away from straight petrol or diesel power and into the plug-in petrol-electric hybrid fold has been somewhat slow to grow.

Now, though, we can expect it to hit another gear, with so many European governments having announced plans to legislate for a mandatory hybridised motoring future.

The 330e iPerformance isn’t the kind of plug-in hybrid that’s coy about showing off its tailpipes, and we think it suits the car well

That may be good news for us; but it means life for this road test subject, the BMW 330e iPerformance, may be about to get quite a bit tougher.

This electrified 3 Series claimed the spoils in a group test of the early-to-market plug-in hybrid (PHEV) executive options. Now comes our chance to examine its credentials more closely.

Nestling plumb in the middle of the current 3 Series range, the 330e combines the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine of the 320i with an 87bhp electric drive motor and a lithium ion battery.

It makes as much peak power as the more expensive 330i M Sport and considerably more torque – and it also offers fleet drivers savings on their CO2-related benefit-in-kind tax bill and environmentally aware owners the potential for limited zero-emission electric running.

On paper, that combination makes this one of the most appealing options in the 3 Series range, revered big-hitting diesels and Efficient Dynamics economy options included. But will it prove to be that way in practice?

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And, frankly, what if it is? This F30 generation of the 3 Series is now five years old, after all, and it has been estranged for half of that time from the class-topping ranking that its predecessors enjoyed.

If you want the best-handling compact executive option – an honour that was the BMW’s selling point for so long – has been arguably eclipsed by the Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Giulia.

For those seeking luxury, quality or with other priorities, meanwhile, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4 offer pretty stiff competition of their own.

So what exactly can a petrol-electric late-coming addition to an ageing range do to restore BMW’s standing among the aspiring business set? 

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DESIGN & STYLING
BMW 330e rear

We’re still at that juvenile stage in the development of the plug-in hybrid car when the good ones often distance themselves from the less good simply because they were designed from a clean sheet to accept items such as drive batteries and electric motors.

The 330e certainly feels that way for the most part, although there are a few compromises its buyer is obliged to make, and one or two sacrifices too.

Having tested the 330e in Sport trim for our earlier group test, I was slightly disappointed by the M Sport’s ride and handling

The car adopts a technical layout that is becoming increasingly common among cars of its ilk, where a combustion engine is hooked up in series with an electric motor and both drive through the same transmission.

Relative to the ‘electric rear axle’ route that other PHEVs take, BMW’s philosophy saves weight, although it may also penalise the car slightly on electric-only energy efficiency and operating range, with more inertia and friction for the electric motor to overcome than it might otherwise have had.

The 330e’s combustion engine is the same twin-scroll turbocharged 181bhp 2.0-litre petrol unit that powers the 320i. But hooked up in train with an 87bhp electric motor, it makes for an identical 249bhp peak as the 330i, as well as 52lb ft more torque than its petrol-only sibling.

That’s the kind of pulling power that ought to present itself in our in-gear acceleration figures – particularly since it’s on tap from just 1500rpm.

For competitive context, that’s a good 25 percent less pulling power than Mercedes claims for the C350e, but it’s marginally more than you get from a Volkswagen Passat GTE.

Drive battery capacity may be of greater interest to most clued-up PHEV buyers, of course, since that’s the biggest telltale of electric-only range and real-world fuel economy.

The 330e’s 7.6kWh of battery capacity exceeds what you get in a Mercedes C350e, but it’s beaten by the 9.9kWh of a Passat GTE and drubbed by the Volvo V60 D5’s 11.2kWh. But then batteries are heavy and can be very punitive on a car’s ride and handling, as the V60 shows.

The BMW’s are carried outside of its wheelbase, effectively in the spare wheel well; and its high-voltage power electronics take up space where the controllers for BMW’s adaptively damped suspension would otherwise be.

Upshot? Unless you go for SE spec, the 330e, unlike other examples of the 3 Series, can’t be ordered without run-flat tyres, and it can’t be ordered with adaptively damped suspension, either (SE or not).

Whereas the car that won our earlier group test was a Sport-spec example on smaller alloy wheels, our test car here is a 330e M Sport on optional 19in rims and equipped with variable-assistance Servotronic power steering, therefore sidestepping BMW’s optional active-variable-ratio Variable Sport Steering, of which we’ve been critical.

INTERIOR
BMW 330e interior

This being an F30-generation 3 Series, the driving position is beyond reproach and has seemingly endless scope for adjustment.

The instruments – largely still analogue – sit just below eye level for most drivers, although our car also had BMW’s crystal-clear optional head-up display (as part of the £2295 Innovation package). Either way, this is a top-notch driving environment.

Jumping from a less sporting rival such as the Passat GTE into the 330e feels like dropping into a bucket seat. The driving position is a peach

Back-seat passengers don’t have it quite so good. Most adults will find adequate levels of comfort although frequent occupants would probably thank you for choosing a Passat GTE instead of the BMW.

Boot space, meanwhile, takes a hit because of the battery pack tucked under the floor. At 370 litres, it’s more than 100 litres smaller than a conventionally powered 3 Series’.

With the exception of some blue detailing and a battery charge depletion/recuperation graphic in the main instrument binnacle, the 330e’s interior barely deviates from that of the rest of the 3 Series line-up.

The most significant addition is a small button marked ‘eDrive’ that sits just behind the gear selector. Auto eDrive, Max eDrive and Save Battery are the modes to choose from – respectively balancing the car’s two power sources, operating the powertrain on electric power alone or saving battery charge for later.

Overall, the 330e’s interior remains as intuitive and fundamentally ‘right’ as you’d expect of a volume-selling saloon from BMW.

That said, this is also an interior that, barring an occasional refresh, has been in production since November 2011.

Back then, you might have called it ‘driver-centric’, but now it feels more utilitarian, particularly next to the heavily digital, clean-cut class of the Audi A4 and curvaceous elegance of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Only the Alfa Romeo Giulia and the Jaguar XE can compete with the BMW from the perspective of keen drivers, though.

The 330e uses BMW’s iDrive system, with its rotary dial mounted on the transmission tunnel and digital display sitting a little incongruously atop the dashboard.

After years of refinement, it’s now an intuitive set-up — especially in comparison with newer touchscreen systems — if lacking the sophistication of the latest software from rivals such as Volkswagen.

BMW’s ConnectedDrive system analyses sat-nav data on the move to make the most efficient use of the energy stored in the car’s battery.

This can, BMW claims, result in the powertrain leaning more heavily on the electric motor than it otherwise would if you’re travelling through a built-up area, for example.

There’s also the option of finding available public charging stations — provided they are operated by ChargeNow, BMW’s own network of charging points.  

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE
BMW 330e on the road

Super-saloons such as the Tesla Model S have served as a vivid demonstration of the torque-rich potential of electric motors.

A word of warning, though: because the 330e’s electric motor is of only modest muscle and operates through the same transmission as the engine (rather than as a stand-alone power unit attached to an axle), you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting firecracker pace.

When traction is finally established, direction changes are pleasingly crisp, even under acceleration

Nevertheless, the car’s power sources are so expertly integrated that it never feels less than surprisingly rapid, largely because of the effortless way speed is accumulated.

The top portion of pedal travel is dedicated to the electric motor and thus offers unusually sharp response.

Squeeze the throttle harder and you get the meat of the turbocharged four-cylinder engine and an additional 110lb ft from the electric motor for brief bursts.

It’s a discreet, flexible and refined powertrain that gives the driver plenty to be getting on with and makes very light work of overtaking, as illustrated by its impressive in-gear acceleration times: 50-70mph in fourth is roughly a second quicker than for the Passat GTE, for instance.

Although the engine doesn’t spin with quite the same enthusiasm as the traditional straight-six that, BMW claims, this dual-source set-up emulates, there’s still satisfaction to be had in holding on for a 6500rpm upshift. 

Get to those heady heights and BMW’s paddle-shift-operated Steptronic eight-speed gearbox punctuates the power delivery only momentarily and without drama – for the most part.

Occasionally, you’ll experience an unexpectedly rough or delayed shift, which is presumably a consequence of the complexities involved in shuffling two sources of torque through the same ratios.

Our car’s recorded 0-60mph time of 6.3sec didn’t quite match the 6.1sec 0-62mph time claimed by BMW, but it’s comfortably ahead of the 7.6sec laid down by the Passat GTE we’ve tested and just about a match for today’s crop of front-wheel-drive super-hatches.

The four-cylinder 330i, meanwhile, will get the job done in a fraction under 6.0sec. By comparison, the 330e’s numbers are impressive for an eco-minded saloon with at least half an eye on luxury. 

RIDE & HANDLING
BMW 330e cornering

The 330e’s battery pack adds 89kg to its kerb weight. Fortunately, that mass sits well within the car’s track and straddles the rear axle, so the commendable chassis balance of the F30 3 Series remains largely unaltered (in this case, 48/52 front to rear).

The drawback is that there’s no space for the power electronics that operate BMW’s adaptive damper system, so the 330e is available with a passive suspension set-up only.

On a damp track, the 330e’s stiff front axle struggles to draw the chassis into the apex as the tyres fumble for purchase with the tarmac

A passive set-up is often the preference of those who value the way a car handles, but in the 330e, with no Comfort mode to soften things up, it can be detrimental to the driving experience if you’re not judicious with your choice of optional extras.

From previous experience of the 330e, we know that 17in wheels shod in run-flat tyres – a combination that’s standard in Sport trim – hit a sweet spot between body control and pliancy. Indeed, in an attempt to contain the exaggerated body movements brought about by the weight of the battery, BMW has already stiffened the basic suspension set-up and it’s well judged, yielding a refined car that still corners with satisfying precision and poise.

However, opting for the 10mm-lower M Sport suspension – as fitted to our test car – makes for an overly taut chassis that fidgets a touch too much at a cruise and never truly settles when you’re in the mood to enjoy the powertrain’s clout.

The rigid sidewalls of the 19in run-flat tyres worn by our test car seemed to exacerbate these traits, with the rear axle shimmying across the road surface through quicker corners when we would have expected it to remain planted.

If all that sounds a touch severe, know that the 330e remains the high-water mark for hybrid saloons in terms of handling, with or without M Sport suspension. Its ability to carry out grand-touring duties with aplomb shouldn’t be forgotten, either.

This is a BMW 3 Series, so it’s going to perform with a high level of dynamic assurance thanks to its excellent weight distribution and rear-drive chassis.

Factor in the 330e’s plentiful torque, responsive throttle and clinical gearbox and you have a machine designed to rise to the occasion of Millbrook’s hill route. 

And then the rain came. Where grip could be found, our test car exhibited good balance and the DSC was refreshingly sympathetic from the perspective of a keen driver.

However, our car was also over-wheeled and too firmly sprung and the limits of its chassis were reached regrettably early.

As a result, the front axle often washed wide of apices and the rear struggled for traction with the application of any meaningful amount of lock. Look to the M Sport springs and run-flat tyres for the reason why. It’s a car at the mercy of the weather, to be sure.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS
BMW 330e

The 330e’s ownership case is at its most persuasive for company-car drivers subject to benefit-in-kind taxation, as is the case for all plug-in hybrids.

At present, between a typical contract hire rate and their ‘company car tax’, a typical 40 percent-income-tax-bracketed fleet driver will probably pay around £700 a month for a BMW 330i, £750 for a 330d and £620 for a 320d. Running a 330e instead can bring that down to about £550.

Just pips C-Class PHEV in percentage terms but beaten by cheaper Lexus IS. A 330i M Sport is identical on residuals

Compared with a PHEV rival, the BMW still looks financially attractive, its low list price making it about £40 a month cheaper than a Passat GTE on the same basis.

During our testing, the 330e wouldn’t quite match BMW’s electric-only range claim of 25 miles but did cover a little over 18 on zero-emissions power in a mix of urban and restrained extra-urban driving. That’s some distance poorer than the battery range of a V60 hybrid but competitive with most rivals.

Real-world fuel economy will depend entirely on usage and the 40.6mpg average we recorded reflected mostly high-intensity testing and long-distance touring, neither of which flatters the car.

However, running on combustive power alone, the 330e returned 47.2mpg touring economy – and even if you chose never to charge the car at all, that’d be pretty creditable for the performance on offer here.

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VERDICT
BMW 330e rear quarter

BMW’s first attempt at a plug-in hybrid version of its venerable junior saloon is a success. The 330e captures the benefits of an electrified powertrain while, in the main, preserving the athleticism of the standard car.

It’s certainly the most versatile 3 Series on sale and has enormous potential for future development.

Adept execution of electrification creates an appealing all-rounder

As far as this iteration of the 330e goes, its electric range isn’t as impressive as some rivals’ and the interior is starting to show its age.

However, the powertrain’s blending of two energy sources is executed with class-leading elegance and yields diesel-like torque that makes light work of everyday driving.

That the turbo engine returns good fuel economy even when used in isolation enhances this car’s substantial appeal as an all-rounder.

The spec of our test car shows that the existence of any serious weakness depends largely on equipment, but optioned with care, the 330e wants for very little next to the 330i or 330d in terms of driving dynamics.

Company-car drivers who can make the most of its limited electric range, meanwhile, stand to gain much from this hybrid 3 Series.

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BMW 3-Series 330e iPerformance 2015-2018 First drives