Plug-in hybrids kick ass for environmental reasons, but unless it’s an $850,000 Porsche 918 Spyder, they tend to suck for people who actually love driving. And as of late most of them look like reject four-wheel Gundams—and somehow not in a good way. The 2017 BMW 330e is here to slap some sense into hybrid cars.
This is more or less a Chevrolet Volt crammed inside a conventional BMW 3 Series, still the driving benchmark and reigning champeen as far as luxury sports sedans go. But the hybrid version is heavy and expensive, and mated to a car that’s good but showing its age a bit.
That doesn’t matter too much. This hybrid drives like a normal 3 Series, proving yet again that the future of the automobile may not suck.
(Full disclosure: BMW Canada wanted me to drive the 330e so badly, so folks from the company washed it, filled it up with a full tank of gas, and charged up its batteries for me to drive for a week.)
You shouldn’t need me to tell you what the BMW 3 Series is. Long the benchmark for compact luxury sports sedans, it was always designed to blend the driving enjoyment and performance of a rear-wheel drive sports car with the luxury, comfort, refinement and everyday practicality of a sedan. Japanese, American, and European carmakers have long attempted to beat the 3 at its own game. Very few have actually succeeded. And even in the age of crossover dominance, it’s still BMW’s bread and butter, the company’s top-selling car every month and year.
Now it comes in a new flavor: hybrid! The 330e (e for electric, if you couldn’t figure that out) you see here is the inevitable evolution of the breed. It gets an 87 horsepower electric motor grafted onto its conventional gasoline engine, drastically reducing its emissions, significantly improving fuel economy, and simply staying in tune with the times.
All that sounds great on paper. My job was to find out if the concept of a hybrid 3 Series could really execute on this promise, or if the gains were worth it over a normal 3 Series.
Like it or not, EVs are the future. With Tesla and General Motors closing in on the entire industry with innovative electric propulsion systems that offer long range capabilities, all carmakers need to up their electrified game if they are to remain alive in the years to come. And all the German brands are going big on electrification; Audi is charging up its post-Dieselgate apology machines, Mercedes-Benz has a huge onslaught of EVs coming, and BMW’s i8 hybrid supercar will accelerate from 0-60 in four seconds flat.
More than that, in theory a 3 Series hybrid should be hope for hybrids everywhere if it’s done right. If this is rewarding to drive, if it’s worthy of being a 3 Series, then maybe enthusiasts don’t have to fear the electric future. This thing could also be positioned as a Tesla Model 3 competitor when it comes out, but who knows if people will cross-shop both.
Under the 330e’s hood lies a conventional 2.0-liter, turbocharged four cylinder, essentially the same one found in the bargain-basement 320i. BMW claims it’s good for 180 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. That power is sent directly to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic.
With the electric motor, combined horsepower is claimed at 248 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. Here’s the big tradeoff: the added electric package adds almost 600 pounds of weight over a conventional 320i. That might hurt its performance promise.
The 330e has three distinct drive modes, all controllable through the eDrive button. Leave your 330e in the default Auto setting, and your Bimmer will run in full hybrid mode like a Toyota Prius, where both the gasoline engine and electric motor continuously work in harmony to deliver a combined fuel economy of 72 mpge. The electric motor takes care of getting the car to get up and go from a standstill.
As you dig deeper into the throttle pedal to get more go, the four cylinder fires up almost seamlessly. The only thing you’ll notice when that happens is the tach needle suddenly starting to move.
Max eDrive Mode is the 330e’s full electric setting, allowing the car to drive to a top speed of 75 mph for up to 14 miles solely on battery juice. Charging through its available charge port takes about six hours through a conventional 120-volt plug. Fast charging, 240-volt stations will replenish the 330e’s 7.6 kWh air-cooled lithium-ion battery pack in roughly two hours.
So if you live in an urban area and commute short distances to work, you’ll never spend a penny of fuel on your 330e. But they have to be very short distances; more on that in a bit.
Finally, if you desire more freedom from your luxury sports sedan, because, since you’re an overachieving go-getter that worked hard in life, then you’ll be happy to know that your 330e can run on its gasoline engine alone.
When doing so, the car will still sprint to 60 mph in roughly seven seconds. That mode is achieved by selecting the Save feature. In this setting, the gas engine serves as a generator to recharge the car’s batteries on the go.
The good news: the 330e doesn’t feel much different than a conventional 3 Series. This means the drive is absolutely fantastic.
I’ve driven all four different generations of the 3 Series prior to this one, two of them being an M3, and I can tell you that although this current model—due to be replaced next year—feels considerably larger and heftier than any 3 Series that came before it, nothing has come in the way of how it eats up the road while slapping a huge grin on your face.
The 3 Series’ ace up its sleeve is it chassis and suspension calibration. The small diameter steering wheel remains an enjoyable BMW trademark, and although its electric assistance lacks the feedback of older Bimmers, the car’s overall poise at any speed make it a blast to throw around. It just gobbles it all up.
The 2.0-liter’s willingness to rev is equally enjoyable, but it sounds a bit crude, especially when it fires back up when parked at a stoplight. The eight-speed automatic shifts smoothly, quickly and effortlessly, attracting very little attention to itself.
If before reading this you were worried that the complicated hybrid stuff has diluted the 3 Series’ legendary driver involvement, don’t worry; everything is totally intact and fine.
The EV range. Fourteen miles! What the fuck? That’s a big disappointment. A Chevrolet Volt, while clearly not a performance-oriented car like this is supposed to be, can muster more than 50 battery-only miles, completely shaming this BMW.
Then there’s the interior of the 3 Series in general. I mean, it’s fine; it’s well assembled, and has good quality materials. But the damn thing still looks and feels like all BMW 3 Series that came before it. Compared to more heavily revised competitors like the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class, or even BMW’s newer sedans like the 5 and 7, it’s feeling dated as hell in here.
The 330e also has one of the most complicated gear levers I’ve ever come across. You need to press a button to put it into park, and click a little toggle on the left of the shifter itself for it to actually get into gear. What grinds my gears is that the lever will move even if you don’t press the toggle thingy, but won’t actually get into gear. Instead, you get a message in the car’s gauge cluster to remind you to click the stupid toggle.
BMW’s been using this toggle thing for some time now on cars and besides looking like a sex toy, it’s not at all intuitive to use. I miss automatic shifters that actually, you know, shifted into gear when you move them.
Stated issues aside, I’d definitely daily this thing. It’s comfortable, smooth and insanely quiet, especially when running on full EV mode. Essentially, all the endearing traits that make the BMW 3 Series so enjoyable as an everyday car: it’s fun, it looks good, offers seating for five and an actual trunk, makes it ideal for the daily duties of our business and/or family lives.
Then there’s the whole hybrid stuff which will significantly lower your running costs at the pump while contributing to the future of sustainable transport, or at least making you feel smug enough to believe you’re doing that.
Remember when the iDrive interface was the butt of all those jokes? The system is now enjoyable to use. The software is now quick to react and easy to understand. Simple commands such as changing radio stations or checking fuel economy statistics are achieved through simple turns and clicks of a dial. Plus there’s a ton of ways to monitor and improve your power usage on the hybrid variant.
My only gripes for daily driving in this car are the absence of a spare tire due to the battery pack back there. Rear leg room is also rather cramped for a full-sized adult.
Set your 330e into Sport, pull the sex toy towards you to activate manual mode, hold the traction control off button to fully disengage all electronic nannies, and gun the throttle.
When using gas and electricity together the car is actually quickest; in that setting this 3,981 pound sports sedan will blast to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, according to BMW. This significantly kills the 320i, making this hybrid nearly as quick off the line as a manually-equipped 328i, which pulls the stunt in a claimed 5.6 seconds.
And the 3 Series, no matter kind of engine it has, remains one of the best cars to throw around on an empty back road. None of the electric propulsion gear gets into the way of solid fun.
The great thing with the 330e is that hooning will actually help charge its batteries. The more you’ll ring that little 2.0-liter to its redline, the faster you’ll crank up the juice for your EV duties. Or simply continue attacking those twisties in full EV mode. The flexibility of this car’s different propulsion methods makes the 330e that much more appealing for an enthusiast. Save the planet by covering it in burnt rubber.
Pricing for a 2017 BMW 330e kicks off at $43,695. My tester, which had optional luxury and connectivity packages added on, including a sunroof, a few semi-autonomous gizmos, navigation, the latest in smart phone connectivity capabilities, and an upgraded Harman Kardon sound system, goes for $55,695. A fully loaded 330e will sell for $62,345, which is almost as much as the starting price of a new M3—although these are clearly meant for different crowds.
Still, not cheap. The problem here lies in the fact that, while good, the 330e isn’t all that innovative in terms of its EV setup, so it’s hard to justify its considerably high sales price.
Granted, this is a BMW, and its target clientele is presumably loaded. And to BMW’s credit the 330e is conveniently priced between a 328 XDrive sedan and a 340i while still offering decent performance. So in that respect, within the BMW lineup, we could argue it offers a good value, especially considering the lower than average running costs you’ll get in return.
If you’re looking for the most hybrid for the price however, you’ll get much more EV range for your dollar from a Chevy Volt.
The cynical among us may think that the 330e exists only to satisfy regulatory requirements rather than being a legitimate competitor to the Volt or the Prius. The thing is, it’s actually way better than that, no matter why it exists. And it must be noted that while they aren’t electric, the 320i and 328i are both pretty efficient and good on gas, and cheaper.
What the 2017 BMW 330e lacks in EV range it makes up for in driver enjoyment, actual performance, and styling. It can hustle, it handles great and you won’t be embarrassed to be seen in it.
There’s definitely a lot to like here from an enthusiast standpoint, and the fact that the car looks identical to all the other 3 Series variants in BMW’s lineup, albeit a plug on the side of the car, is refreshing in a world of ghastly, over-styled hybrids. Here you’ll contribute to saving the planet (or at least you can tell people that) without missing out on performance.
One thing’s for certain: if this is the prelude to a fully electric Tesla Model 3 fighter from Bavaria, the future’s definitely looking up to be alright.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect the accurate electric range of the new Chevrolet Volt.