What is it?
Of the previous-generation BMW 3 Series, how many do you think were sold with a plug-in hybrid powertrain? One in 10?
The answer is actually one in three – testament to the car’s low benefit-in-kind rate and an ability to capture the appealing dynamics of a ‘normal’ 3 Series but with a genuine environmental edge (if, that is, you could meaningfully deploy its modest 25 miles of electric range).
BMW expects this second attempt, based on the new G20-generation 3 Series, to repeat the trick, if not prove even more popular.
To that end, the recipe is largely the same, so where revised plug-in hybrid versions of the 7 Series and X5 have graduated to six-cylinder petrols, the 330e retains a detuned version of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo unit found in the new 330i. As before, it makes 181bhp – a figure supplemented by an electric motor economically packaged within the car’s eight-speed automatic transmission, for a total of 248bhp.
However, there is now an XtraBoost feature available in Sport mode. It undams an extra 40bhp on kickdown and helps to take the rear-driven 330e to 62mph in six seconds flat.
That power fights against 200kg of hybrid hardware, which is a lot in the context of a junior saloon.
What's it like?
Not that you immediately sense its effects. A brief drive around one of BMW’s test tracks in a late 330e prototype highlights how well that mass is disguised, the only betrayal being a slight stiffness in the springs, which can make direction changes feel a little abrupt.
Drive the car hard and the weight of battery – a 12kWh unit positioned under the rear seats – becomes more noticeable, but it only exaggerates the right kinds of moments. The old 330e handled better than any rival and this new model is not only more rigid but also lighter than that car, with wider tracks and greater camber for the front tyres.
The engine itself is more present than a six-cylinder alternative and coarser, although it’s far from uncouth and spins sweetly enough. Even more impressive is the way it flitters in and out of action, the electric motor sporadically taking on propulsive duties. Drive the 330e in Electric mode and, with 67bhp on offer, maintaining speeds of up to 68mph (previously 50mph) is effortless enough, but you won’t always fire yourself out of a junction as quickly as you’d like.