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Our plug-in hybrid saloon is great to drive but tricky to operate - 25 March 2020
So what is it actually like to drive? You’ll forgive me for only getting to answer this question now, in the third meaty report on the 330e. So rarely has a car needed so much scene-setting and prep, first to find out if it can actually be used as its maker intended, and second to learn how to use it yourself. Clearly this is nothing like the simple-to-use familiarity of having a 320d…
Charging points installed, hybrid tech learned and company car tax bill calculated, and it’s onto living with the car. And for the most part, it won’t surprise you to learn that the 330e is proving much like any other 3 Series.
It steers with an accuracy some bona fide sports cars can only dream of, and it is one of those cars that has the ability to make the most mundane and routine of journeys an enjoyable experience – and that’s simply down to everything the driver interacts with being engineered with the pleasure of driving in mind. That was true the last time we had a 3 Series at Autocar, a previous-generation 320d xDrive M Sport version back in 2016. That car also became a firm favourite for the way it could make every drive so pleasurable. An evolutionary approach has been adopted, then – and why wouldn’t BMW, when it has such a formula licked?
The one major dynamic difference you do notice is the extra weight. The 330e weighs in excess of 200kg more than an equivalent current-generation 320i, due to that electric motor plus the lithium ion battery pack under the rear seats. As such, the 330e doesn’t quite have the fleetfootedness of a 320d in its ability to change direction, yet it still feels more agile than an Audi A4.
The ride also suffers a bit on occasion, with a tendency for the impact of potholes to crash through the cabin, yet I’m not sure how much of that is down to the 19in M Sport alloys of our car. That was true also of the 2016 320d we had on similar-sized wheels, and the two cars also share the optional adaptive M Sport dampers. I’d be keen to try a 330e on smaller wheels and with the standard dampers for comparison, and find out whether the weight or the chassis set-up is to blame.
So the hybrid system doesn’t do anything major to mess with the dynamics of the excellent G20-generation 3 Series, which is, remember, an Autocar five-star road test car in its 320d guise. The changes are, predictably enough, found when you press your right foot to the floor.
This is where it gets a bit complicated. There are so many different ways of driving the 330e and so many modes to put it in, depending on how long your journey is and how you want to drive. These are as extreme as using electric-only mode and having the power reduced to try to preserve as much battery range as possible, or as extreme as Xtraboost mode, which liberates the full 111bhp of the electric motor and the 181bhp of the 2.0-litre petrol.
The point is this: everything needs a button pressed, and there’s no easy way to let the car choose. The normal mode, Hybrid, runs the battery down in the first instance to keep driving on electric power as much as possible, unless you want to save the battery for later or you have a route plumbed into the navigation system, in which case it’ll save the battery for you. So while very clever, even at its most ‘normal’, it’s not that simple.