Having already had a taste of the 330e abroad, we knew to expect both sporting verve and outstanding refinement from this powertrain. And on UK roads, it doesn’t disappoint. The petrol portion of the car’s propulsion system is very well isolated, so you barely hear it when operating at low crank speeds, but it’s also nicely gruff and spirited when working hard.
There are three powertrain modes to choose between - Auto eDrive, Max eDrive and Save Battery – as well as the usual Sport, Comfort and Eco Pro modes selected via the Driving Experience Control toggle switch adjacent to the gear lever. All that may sound like the sort of complication likely to put many off a car like this but, in fact, it’s easily negotiated. You’ll leave the powertrain in Auto eDrive mode 99% of the time, allowing the car to manage its own battery condition and run in range-extended mode when it needs to.
BMW’s claim for a 25-mile electric-only range was made to look optimistic during our testing, when, on a chilly November morning on mixed roads and in mixed traffic conditions, we only managed 14 miles on a full charge. That’s not great. Still, that’d be enough to transform your real-world economy return on a fairly short-range commute. If you live about 30 miles from where you work, you can expect to better 80mpg after a full at-home charge. When touring, once its electrical resources are idling, the 330e will return around 45mpg at typical motorway pace – and that’s a return that, predictably enough, doesn’t deteriorate much in heavy traffic or on urban roads.
There’s a hint of a delay in accelerator pedal response when the car is pulling away from stationary, which is something you don’t find in electric cars with direct-drive transmissions. But the pay-off is that BMW’s technical solution for the 330e allows the car’s electric motor, driving through its eight-speed gearbox, to operate more efficiently at higher speeds than it might otherwise.
And once the car is rolling, electric and combustive power is blended with real skill. The electric motor is managed so that it’s always ready with an instant 74lb ft of ‘torque-fill’, which gives the top couple of inches of accelerator pedal close and precise initial control over the car’s rate of progress. The motor can also deliver short bursts of up to 184lb ft, timed to coincide with downshifts and with bigger dips into the pedal. Overall, the car’s powertrain feels not only nicely lavish and bountiful – you’d put BMW’s homologated peak power and torque claims down as conservative, if anything – but also cohesive and very highly developed. It never feels rushed and strained and takes as naturally to being driven with gusto as it does to the urban grind.
Being quite light for a plug-in hybrid of its size and with its battery location preserving a favourable weight distribution, the 330e handles with a sense of balance and keenness that would do any 3 Series credit. Our test car ran on the standard 17in alloy wheels and run-flat tyres that come with Sport trim, with standard Servotronic power steering and BMW’s optional M Sport suspension fitted (which not only firms up the suspension but also takes 10mm out of the car’s ride height). The adaptively damped M Sport suspension offered on other 3 Series saloons isn’t available.
Still, the 330e proves that if you choose your options carefully you can end up with a car with an ideal combination of lateral grip, handling response, control feedback and body control here – and one from which it is possible to take a great deal of pleasure driving. The car’s body feels flat through bends and tautly controlled at all times, allowing for instant bite from the steering – which itself is weighty, positive, informative and beautifully uncorrupted. There’s enough compliance in the suspension to deal fluently with uneven B-roads, and but not so much as to allow the body to get excited. Just enough adhesion, too, to make the car feel secure when leant on, but not so much as to make for a cumbersome ‘over-tyred’ feel to the steering, ride or handling.
More mature tastes might prefer the even greater compliance of the car’s standard springs, because there's a slight edge of firmness to the M Sport-sprung car’s ride over sharper edges. But that apart, you couldn’t really ask for a more sweet-handling saloon.