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Can a plug-in hybrid 3 Series be as easy to live with as the 320d? We have six months to find out

Why we’re running it: Plug-in 330e will overtake 320d as the biggest-selling 3 Series. We’ll find out if it can match the diesel’s all-round appeal

Month 3Month 2Month 1 - Specs

Live with a BMW 330e: Month 3

Our colourful car is the exception - 20 May 2020

Funny what you notice when you’ve got more time on your hands to look at cars rather than drive them. The latest news from 330e lockdown land concerns colour. Stick with me… Some 60% of new cars sold in this country last year were grey, white or black. How dreary. Our 330e, with its Sunset Orange hue, wasn’t one of them. Just when and why did Brits get so unadventurous with car colours? But then I started noticing other 3 Series, and monochrome seems an exception rather than a rule. Blue, red and, yes, orange like mine: brightly coloured 3 Series seem to be more common than the dull ones. Or maybe they just blended in with all the others on the road. Just me?

Mileage: 5104

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BMW 3 Series 320d 2019 Road Test review - hero front

In compelling 320d guise, Munich’s seventh-generation 3 Series successfully reclaims compact executive class honours

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Even when it’s not going anywhere, our plug-in hybrid has a fascinating story to tell - 6 May 2020

The keenest-eyed readers will have noticed that the mileage reading hasn’t nudged at all since the last update, because not even a short drive to Tesco is in order for your correspondent when living opposite a very well-stocked small shop, its excellent range of products including this very magazine…

Yet the 330e’s current dormancy has allowed for plenty of number crunching and reflections on what we’ve learned about this most fascinating of 3 Series now the 5000-mile milestone on the odometer has come up. Chiefly, the 330e’s continued kindness to your wallet and why it can make a lot of financial sense in running costs as well as in saving tax for company car buyers.

As we said right at the very start of these reports, plug-in hybrids should not be seen as the right choice for everyone. Those who do big miles will still want a diesel and private buyers who do fewer miles a petrol, but fleet buyers who don’t travel the length and breadth of the country and can charge either at home or work – or ideally both – will see a big benefit not only in tax bills but in fuel costs, too.

So that latter way has proven for us. Of those 5103 miles, the first 792 were done before BMW handed us the keys. But of the 4311 miles in our ownership, 2254 have been done solely on electric power, so just over half in total. That’s because I can charge at home and work, and my commute of about 28 miles each way is almost exactly in line with the 330e’s real-world battery range.

I’m doing (or rather was doing) longer journeys that rely mainly on petrol power on average about once every five to seven days, which has meant infrequent trips to the fuel station. Even with the smaller petrol tank (40 litres in the 330e, compared with 60 litres in non-plug-in hybrid 3 Series), I’m getting about 400 miles from that tank on pure petrol power.

So you’re looking at about 800 miles between fills with my combined petrol and electric usage (the record being as high as 1100 miles when I didn’t venture too far off the commute one fortnight), compared with the 627 miles between fills we got from the previous-generation 320d that was in our ownership from 2016 to 2017.

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That 320d averaged just under 50mpg in its time with us, which compares with the combined 76.5mpg being shown on the 330e’s trip computer in its time with us so far. Many company car drivers would be happy with the two-thirds cost saving in tax of a 330e over a 320d but, again with the caveat of being able to charge for as long as you can as frequently as you can, we’re finding that there is even greater overall efficiency to be had, as well as fewer visits to the fuel station needed, saving more time and money.

And if all that charging sounds a chore, surprisingly it isn’t: it simply becomes a habit and takes no more than 30 seconds at the beginning or end of a journey. Admittedly, dragging big awkward cables off the ground on a cold wet morning isn’t the most premium thing in the world, but get into the pre-conditioned cabin (toasty warm in the winter, nice cool air-con in the summer) and pull away in silence while enjoying that instant torque under your right foot and you’ll not even be bothered by that after a short while, either.

Love it:

The 3 Series’ looks It’s not the greatest 3 Series yet seen, but it’s got plenty on BMW’s other recent range additions.

Loathe it:

Static presence I miss driving it. I’d give plenty even for a traffic jam on the approach to the M3 motorway right now…

Mileage: 5103

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iDrive gets our vote - 22 April 2020

There wasn’t tons of praise lavished on the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupé in our recent road test, but one positive was its infotainment system. Which is familiar, of course, from the 330e. One bit in particular struck a chord: the approval of the rotary controller and shortcut buttons that make “the system that much easier to operate while on the move”. The more miles I do in the 330e (not too many right now, admittedly), the more that praise rings true. It’s so much faster, more intuitive and safer to use the controller than any touchscreen. The tide is turning somewhat against touchscreens and how much of a distraction they can be by taking your eyes off the road. BMW already has the answer.

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Mileage: 5103

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Life with a BMW 330e: Month 2

Our 3 Series is proving both environmentally and driver friendly - 8 April 2020

While SUVs may seem to be taking over the world, when you look at the sales charts and the traffic on our roads, the BMW 3 Series is still showing just how important and relevant saloon cars are.

As I’m discovering after recent extended stints in many an SUV, driving a saloon makes you feel so much more involved in the drive. There’s something about sitting low with your bum on the floor and having your legs near-horizontal that allows you to become really immersed in the experience. Things just come easily and with an air of familiarity. And no saloon does it better than the 3 Series, whether it’s this plug-in hybrid 330e or any other version.

BMW now offers far more SUVs than it does saloons, but the relevance and significance of the 3 Series is as strong as ever. “A typical 3 Series year in the UK is 35,000 units, and volumes have stayed stable even as the X3 and X4 have risen,” says BMW UK’s James Thompson, the product manager for all models with a 3 or 4 in their name. “The 3 Series is as important as ever, and buyers have stayed with it.”

For many buyers, it’s not just the quality of the car that attracts. The dominance of SUVs is felt mainly in the private retail sector (which makes up 43% of new car sales in the UK) but, in the fleet market (55% of sales), it’s saloons and other ‘low’ cars that continue to appeal, due to their lower CO2 rating.

“The corporate world is still dominated by saloons and estates, not SUVs,” says Thompson. “The CO2 is lower and most fleets won’t put you on the list if you’re over 130g/km.”

The 3 Series sales are split 40% to retail, 60% to the corporate sector. While CO2 rules are changing so much of the car world as we know it, they’re also ensuring that such a well-loved bodystyle as the saloon can continue to survive and thrive.

Mileage: 5102

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Boot takes a hit - 1 April 2020

Having both an electric-only range and a fuel tank of substance means that something has to give in terms of packaging. It’s easy enough in an SUV, with extra room in the floor, but not so in a saloon like the 3 Series. So it’s boot space that suffers, fitting only a couple of weekend bags for two humans and a dog and all the wires for charging the battery.

Mileage: 4612

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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.

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Love it:

Public chargers Used one for the first time at a Hampshire garden centre that had a dozen free. Got eight miles of range in 20 minutes, gratis.

Loathe it:

public chargers Went to use one at a hotel that had been good enough to install them but not good enough to stop an old BMW X6 and an Audi A4 parking in the spaces.

Mileage: 4221

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an immediate impression from behind the wheel - 28 March 2020

By rights I ought to be concentrating on this 330e’s excellent, efficient powertrain, but when I drove the car, I couldn’t put aside my obsession with its phenomenal steering: supremely accurate, perfectly weighted and geared, with a wheel of ideal diameter and rim size. Who, I kept wondering, can be enjoying a better steering system? My answer: nobody, even at treble the money

Steve Cropley

Mileage: 4093

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Petrol power can still impress - 4 March 2020

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My commutes are mostly electrically powered only, but longer trips bring the 2.0-litre petrol engine into play. At motorway speeds, it feels like any other 3 Series. It’s quiet and refined, and with a mid-range boosted by the electric motor’s torque. Oddly, the faster you go, the more economical the petrol engine becomes – up to a point. You’ll see 50mpg at 70mph running on petrol power alone.

Mileage: 3446

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Life with a BMW 330e: Month 1

Electric-only commuting is now possible in both directions – conditions permitting - 26 February 2020

The company car tax benefits of plug-in hybrids like the BMW 330e are such that instances of them being returned with the charging cables in the boot still in the Cellophane wrapper still occur, admits BMW.

But that is becoming a rarer occurrence, and in my entry for understatement of the year, you need to be charging your plug-in hybrid to get the most out of it. You could just drive it and never charge it, but then you’d be struggling to get 35mpg from a 2.0-litre petrol 3 Series with a load of extra weight you’re making no use of, plus a much smaller fuel tank that means you’ll be stopping to fill up with fuel more often anyway.

With an electric-only range that sits between about 20 and 25 miles with the cold weather at this time of year (the official range is 35 miles), the 330e needs to be charged quite frequently and driven on electric power for as long as you can to really get the most out of it to save money on fuel as well as in tax.

My commute is between 25 and 30 miles in each direction, depending how bad the traffic is on any given route, so I can tackle it almost entirely on electric power and feel a bit of a poster child for the effective use of a plug-in hybrid, given that the longer journeys I undertake at the weekend mean I’m also making use of the petrol engine. I’m able to be said poster child because we have the luxury of charging at work and, as I have a driveway, I can charge the car at home, too. For someone like me, plug-in hybrids are a very sensible and pragmatic solution.

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Getting a charging point installed at home was much more straightforward than I thought it would be and was explained to me by the BP Chargemaster fitter in electricity terminology that even my limited DIY ability allowed me to understand. I’d had my fuse box upgraded last summer, leaving a spare connection for a charging point to be hooked up to and given its own switch on the consumer unit.

The BP Chargemaster Homecharge unit I went for typically costs £449, assuming there are no special requests or circumstances that deviate from what should be quite a straightforward installation.

That figure is after a £500 grant from the government’s Office for Low Emissions Vehicles’ Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme. Put simply, anyone getting an electric or plug-in hybrid car can get that grant, and up to two per household are allowed should there be two qualifying cars per household. The BP Chargemaster unit is a 7kW charger (which I went for), but it can fit a 3.6kW if your property’s power isn’t sufficient.

You can choose where the Homecharge unit is fitted – I went for down the side of the house – so long as an earthing rod can be fitted in the vicinity (and your car’s charging cable can reach, which in the case of the 4.5m-long cable offered in the 330e and the charging point being located on the front wing, requires reversing as close to the house as I can get).

All in, installation took about two hours, and the 330e can now have its 12kWh battery fully recharged on my drive in about two and a half hours, at a cost of about £1.30 on my current electricity tariff. On that point, you can get tariffs now that give you cheaper power overnight specifically with charging your electric or plug-in hybrid car in mind.

BP Chargemaster offers an app that lets you track how much you’re spending. BMW also has one that allows you to precondition the car ahead of your chosen departure time so long as it’s connected to the charger – ideal for making the cabin toasty warm and the glass frost-free on the cold winter mornings we’ve had so far.

That’s now two chunky reports on the 330e and I’ve hardly said anything about actually living life with the car itself. That’s not posturing: it simply goes to show just how much there is to get used to with the car, and how much preparation is needed in advance to make sure it’s a sensible choice for you in the first place, and then know what you need to do to get the most from it as soon as it arrives. Seeds now sown.

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Love it:

BMW connected app Great for checking battery and fuel tank range – and turning on the climate control to defrost the car.

Loathe it:

Engine cutting in Driving on electric power is so quiet and soothing that it’s a shame to be interrupted by the petrol engine.

Mileage: 3289

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Maximising range the right way - 12 February 2020

Early journeys show how similar the 330e is to other 3 Series, yet also such a new experience. Be aware of your journey length and battery range to truly maximise efficiency. Never charge it and drive it like any other 3, and you’ll only get about 40mpg. Charge it often and you’ll cover many miles on electric power alone and average nearly 70mpg.

Mileage: 2999

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Welcoming the 330e to the fleet - 5th February 2020

The BMW 330e comes with a lot of interesting numbers. There are the impressive performance figures (288bhp, 0-62mph in 5.9sec). Plus there are the official economy and CO2 figures (176.6mpg, 36g/km). Those then feed into the 330e’s real trump card – and its imminent crowning as the best-selling 3 Series in the range: its impending benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax rate of just 10%.

Put another way, come April it will cost a company car driver in tax around one third that of the currently best-selling 3 Series, the 320d, which, says BMW UK, the 330e will quickly usurp in sales. And all that for a car that’s significantly more powerful and which can travel on electric power alone for around 35 miles.

While talk of tax bands and BIK rates is not typical Autocar fare, from April it’s about to become increasingly significant as the government launches new company car tax rules unashamedly designed to increase the sales of electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

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Car makers also need to sell ever-increasing numbers of these models to lower their fleet CO2 averages and avoid fines for being over the industry-wide 95g/km fleet average target. Electric cars and sub-50g/ km plug-in hybrids bring a double-whammy benefit of lowering fleet CO2 figures and qualifying for ‘super credits’ that in effect count as two sales in one, in turn allowing BMW to continue making higher-polluting cars such as the M3 without penalty.

Last year some 60% of new cars sold in the UK were to fleets, compared with 48% in 2010, with private car sales dropping from 47% market share to 37% in the same period. Those numbers were mirrored across the 3 Series range, according to BMW UK’s 3 Series product manager James Thompson, further highlighting the 330e’s importance to the German brand. Some 35,000 3 Series will find homes this year, around 10,000 of which will be 330es, and 95% of those 10,000 will go to company car buyers.

If your 330e arrives before the new tax year, you’ll pay either 8% or 12% BIK, depending on with which emissions standard the Treasury wants to correlate the CO2 figure. (You expected the motoring taxation policy to be clearly laid out by now?) Anyway, from 6 April it will be 10% for the plug-in BMW and 0% for pure EVs. Order one now and it won’t be with you before July anyway, so that 10% figure is the most relevant.

This whole topic is one we’ll look at in our news analysis pages in detail in the coming weeks before the tax changes kick in, but take away this for now: company car buyers will be able to save serious money by switching to EVs and plug-in hybrids. And perhaps the best of the plug-in hybrid breed right now is this 330e. It aims to be the 3 Series without compromise, keeping the sporting appeal for which the saloon has always been known but with some attractive cost and economy benefits.

The 330e uses a 181bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine familiar from elsewhere in the 3 Series range. Mounted within its eight-speed automatic gearbox is a 67bhp electric motor (its output increases to 111bhp with an ‘Xtraboost’ function in Sport mode) that powers a 12kWh lithium ion battery. That battery lives under the rear seats, with the fuel tank moving to the boot. The 40-litre fuel tank is 20 litres smaller than that of the non-hybrid 3 Series but results in the 330e’s one key compromise: a 105-litre cut in boot capacity.

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The 330e is rear-wheel drive for now; xDrive four-wheel drive comes later this year, when a Touring version will also be introduced. Being rear-wheel drive with a fully integrated electric drive unit means the BMW system is claimed to be seamless in its operation in shifting between electric and petrol power, or a combination of both, as the electric motor sits on the flywheel and isn’t powering an entirely different axle, as is the case with some hybrid systems.

While driving this plug-in BMW is a straightforward process – it can be left in a simple Hybrid setting to leave the car to best decide from which source it should draw power – there are several other driving modes and many more functions to explore, all of which we’ll look at in the months ahead.

While the powertrain may not be as familiar, the specification of our 330e is. M Sport remains a popular trim level for the 3 Series, and it is offered on the 330e alongside entry-level SE and Sport. On top of the M Sport trim, which brings with it the usual array of visual and dynamic sporting upgrades, we have an optional M Sport Plus package that brings bigger 19in alloys, beefier brakes, variable sport steering and, intriguingly, adaptive dampers. This is the first time adaptive dampers have been included in a package – despite typically receiving rave reviews in the media, uptake from buyers had been less than 10%.

It’s rare for long-term reports like this to offer conclusions so early on, but it’s worth pointing out now that the 330e will not be suitable for all 3 Series buyers, specifically private buyers who won’t enjoy the tax benefits of company car buyers.

For them, offsetting the 330e’s list price against the potential money saved in fuel will be negligible, unless nearly all journeys are within the 35-mile electric-only range, at which point you may as well just buy a Tesla Model 3 for very similar money – or a BMW M340i, as Thompson says many private buyers are doing.

Not only is this our first long-term test of a hybrid 3 Series but it is also our first extended taste of a 3 Series in this G20 generation, which has already earned a five-star road test rating in 320d form. Finding out how much of that magic remains in this 330e will make for a fascinating few months to come.

Second Opinion

The 330e has been a favourite of mine since I drove a skinny-tyred Sporttrim version of the last generation. The G20 is quicker and does 20 urban miles on its battery without trying too hard. But, as with so many more modestly powered cars, smaller wheels and less grip makes for more driver appeal.

Matt Saunders

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BMW 3 Series 330e M Sport specification

Specs: Price New £39,860 Price as tested £49,300 OptionsM Sport Plus package £2200, Technology package £1900, Premium package £1700, Visibility package £1500, Comfort package £990, Aluminium mesh effect interior trim £650, Vernasca leather seats £500

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Test Data: Engine 4 cyls in line, 1998cc, turbocharged, petrol, plus electric motor Power 289bhp at 5000-6500rpm Torque 310lb ft at 1350-4250rpm Kerb weight 1660kg Top speed 143mph 0-62mph 6.0sec Fuel economy 58.1mpg CO2 39g/km Faults None Expenses None

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Comments
18

6 March 2020

Our 320i arrives next week. The dealer pushed hard on the plus pack which is £2.5k on worse looking wheels, worse looking grille, coloured seatbelts and other unwanted trivia. The adaptive suspension wasn't a big enough difference to spend the money on. Most used cars have it and it means used 320d buyers have the privilege of paying an extra £30 a month in VED come year 2.

For company car drivers the 330e is a no brainer. However for those on an allowance make sure you get the dealer to price up a 320d, 320i and the 330e and do your sums. After discounts the 320i was by far the cheapest to run overall and for 90% of the time has all the performance you need compared to the 330e (apparently most owers don't charge the car up and are effectively running a 320i).

6 March 2020
@SamVimes1972

Or just don't buy a BMW in the first place. How about buying something that's a bit less common and more interesting? I know most of them aren't bad cars but why not choose something else?

6 March 2020
Because it's my wife's car and after driving a few other cars she liked she decided she liked the 3 the best. Oddly enough impressing autocar readers wasnt one of her priorities when signing the PCP.

6 March 2020

That figure pretty much says it all.  The private buyers have obviously done their sums. 

7 March 2020
Usual drivel and uninformed tripe. Do you truly expect hundreds of thousands of fleet drivers to pay more tax than they are legally required to do?. You clearly have no idea, being a benefits scrounger, what paying tax on earned income is about. Fool, always.

6 March 2020

 Handing back ours after three years and 35,000 miles, been comfortable, sporty when needed , did about 42mpg average, would have another one if the base price hadn't gone up.

6 March 2020
I suppose the more the government give in subsides the more BMW can hike the price up. You end up paying the same but the BMW get more or our taxpayers money.

7 March 2020
Invoking the lord to make your stupid point...what do you know of paying tax on income?. How's life on universal credit?. Fool, always.

6 March 2020

This 330E is a prime example of why governments should keep tax rules simple, and not get involved in things they don't understand. This car will be favoured by Co. car drivers (one of our managers at work has recently received one). And yet how many of those Co. car drivers will charge the car up overnight at home using their own electricity?? Very few!

So in reality the government is subsidising a car that will be less economical and emit more CO2 than the 320D because it will rarely be pluged in. And I thought the government were trying to become carbon neutral? They haven't got a clue. The Dutch government realised these car were justy tax dodge specials and withdrew their subsidies, leading to a fall in PHEV sales but and increase in EV sales. I wonder how long our government will take to realise the same?

7 March 2020

I'm really surprised the 330i option doesn't get more coverage. It's genuinely fast, petrol, and will do 40mpg all day long.

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