Are BMW drivers any good at math? We know they’re a whiz at calculating things like 0-60 mile-per-hour times or braking distance—but when it comes to measuring fuel economy, or citing their monthly expenditures on premium unleaded, many BMW owners would probably get an “F.” That may be an issue for the 330e, the new plug-in hybrid version of the venerable 3 Series sport sedan. If you’re patient enough to do the math, the 330e delivers impressive mileage gains and at-the-pump savings versus a typical gasoline 3er. But for people who just want to carve corners, the 330e feels less athletic than any model shy of the pork-bellied 3 Series Gran Turismo.
That’s not a surprise, considering that the 330e, at a bit less than 4,000 pounds, weighs nearly as much as that larger GT version. The 330e’s plug-in hybrid system—shared in part with other electrified “i Performance” models like the larger 530e and 740e sedan—adds nearly 600 pounds versus a 320i with the same gas engine. The effect is like stuffing the back seat and trunk with a few couch-potato pals.
Naturally, all that weight blunts the agile handling that’s key to the 3 Series’s sport-sedan fame. That makes the 330e a different proposition, a car that sacrifices some performance for outstanding energy efficiency. In between those poles, however, the 330e maintains the familiar 3 Series virtues of snazzy looks, luxury, solidity and comfort.
The 330e combines the 2.0-liter gasoline turbo four from the 320i starter model with a powerful electric motor that generally contributes 87 horsepower and 74 pound-feet of torque—and up to 184 pound-feet in short bursts. Add the engine’s 180 horsepower and 215 pound-feet, and total hybrid horsepower is a healthy 248 horsepower and 310 pound-feet. The hybrid powertrain connects to rear wheels via an eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic that doesn’t require a conventional torque converter.
With both engine and electric motor cranking together, the 330e can surge to 60 in a peppy 5.8 seconds, nearly matching the lighter BMW 330i whose turbo four puts out 248 horses and 258 pound-feet. Top speed is 140 mph. Even when you’re in the Max eDrive setting that favors electric operation, pressing the accelerator past its kick-down point fires up the BMW’s engine for a burst of speed—and does so so seamlessly, you barely notice that fossil-fuel dinosaur stomping to life.
Of course, a gentler touch is required to unlock the hybrid’s energy savings. Officially, the BMW can cover 14 all-electric miles on a full battery charge. I did better, covering just under 18 miles on a throttle-feathering drive from Manhattan to Brooklyn’s Coney Island. That Max eDrive setting allows speeds of up to 75 mph on electricity alone; the default Auto eDrive mode hands off to hybrid power at anything above 50 mph. (On my electric run, I also dialed up a separate Eco Pro setting that slightly reduces power output to climate control, seat heaters and heated mirrors.)
It’s easy to scoff at a hybrid that can only cover roughly 15 miles in all-electric mode. Yet the BMW is also returning 71 mpg-e over those miles, which can seriously boost your average if you plug in faithfully. (Plug into the BMW-branded i Wallbox, which costs about $1,100 plus installation, and you’re good to go in about 2.5 hours). And when the gas engine finally fired up, I easily beat the EPA’s conservative rating of just 30 mpg in combined city and highway driving. On one long highway ramble, I kept the BMW at a frugal 39 mpg, a number I then maintained even through a long slog over the George Washington Bridge, through Manhattan, and into Brooklyn. Overall, the BMW returned about 33 mpg, and that’s not even counting my all-electric miles.
The counting is where things get difficult with any plug-in hybrid, because your mileage depends on how far you tend to drive and how often you plug in. So try this one: If you plug this BMW in every day, you could log a good 5,000 miles a year on electricity alone, at 71 mpg-e. Now, drive another 10,000 gasoline miles a year at 30 mpg—again, a lowball take on the BMW’s real-world mileage—and your combined energy usage would be right around 45 mpg. A BMW 3 Series that returns 45 mpg and still scoots to 60 mph in under six seconds? Sounds pretty good to me. Even with its conservative take on the 330e’s efficiency, the EPA figures a typical owner will spend just $1,350 a year in electricity and gasoline to cover 15,000 miles—a $600 annual savings over the 330i and 340i models.
The BMW’s “Save Battery” modes offer more flexibility, allowing you to use the gas engine and generator to recharge the 7.6-kWh lithium battery on-the-fly, or save those electric miles for any part of the journey. Plug in a navigation destination, and the BMW’s Proactive Driving Assistant combines static map information—including speed limits and gradients—with real-time traffic information to maximize efficiency; such as using electric power to climb hills and then recoup it on downhills, or to reserve electricity for emissions-free driving through residential neighborhoods. If you get bored and want to hustle, dialing the BMW into either Sport or Sport+ modes keeps the engine and electric motor operating in tandem at all times. You can also see how BMW wants this 330e to be perceived as just another 3 Series: There's not a hybrid badge in sight, or a icy strip of blue inside, as in an i8.
This 3 Series isn’t slow, but it doesn’t feel especially fast; especially at highway speeds or during quick directional changes, where all that hybrid pound cake leaves the 330e feeling a bit bloated. The 330e’s distant-feeling steering and mediocre, 18-inch Bridgestone Potenza all-season tires didn’t help matters—though the fact-acting transmission did provide a sporty jolt, especially compared with the continuously variable transmissions found on many hybrids. Don’t get me wrong, this BMW is still a relatively sporty car: The TwinPower engine loves to storm to its nearly-7,000-rpm redline. Regenerative brakes feel natural, if a mite stressed by the chunky curb weight.
As ever, the 3 Series’s sophisticated chassis tuning made for a happy, secure BMW in the twisty stuff. But jump from this car into, say, a 340i with some M Sport goodies and a 320-horsepower inline six, and this hybrid will suffer a serious ass kicking. The other sacrifices involve a smaller, yet still-roomy trunk, at 13 cubic feet versus the class-leading 17 cubes of a standard 3-Series sedan; and a scrawny 10.8-gallon fuel tank, though that still leaves an effective driving range of well over 300 miles.
That brings us to the 330e’s biggest math issue, a $46,595 price that’s a roughly $5,300 premium over the four-cylinder 330i. It’s also perilously close to the $46,795 price of the 340i, a version that rips to 60 mph in about 4.8 seconds. The federal government will soften the blow to the tune of $4,001, via a variable tax credit for plug-in or electric cars. So now you’re looking at a plug-in BMW that starts from $42,594, just $1,350 more than a 330i. In other words, the 330e’s energy savings would pay back its price premium in barely two years; drive the 330e for another five years, and you'd pocket a nice, $3,000 wad of cash in energy savings.
Now, a persnickety type might say that the proper comparison is with the 3 Series's starter model, the 320i that costs a mere $35,895, but I don’t see it that way: The hybrid’s 248 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, along with its acceleration and top speed, are far more in line with the 330i (again, which has 248 horsepower and 258 pound-feet) than with BMW’s relatively anemic, 180-hp starter model.
There is a far-more-uncomfortable comparison, though—and it's with the 530e, the plug-in version of the larger 5 Series sedan. That 530e is the screaming bargain of luxury hybrids, with a $53,395 base price that’s identical to the gasoline-only 530i version. After buyers take an even-larger $4,700 tax credit, this plug-in 5-Series costs $4,700 less than its comparable gas-only model...whereas the 330e still costs $1,350 more than its gassy brother after you take the tax credit. Put another way, while BMW tacks a nearly $5,300 hybrid technology premium onto the 330e, they’re offering the identical technology on the 5-Series free-of-charge. And where the 330e owner must drive for about two years to pay off the tech premium, the 530e owner is already $4,700 ahead when he pulls out of the showroom. So what gives? BMW says that where the 5 Series rides on an all-new platform, designed from the start to allow electrified applications, the 3 Series had to be retrofitted for its hybrid powertrain—a much-more-expensive proposition.
OK, calculators down, so we can calculate the logic of automakers and plug-in hybrids. With iPerformance hybrid models stretching from the 330e to the i8 sports car, BMW—and Tesla, General Motors, Porsche, and everyone else—is looking to make electrified cars desirable for more than fuel savings and environmental virtue. The 330e isn’t perfect in that regard—for one, because it's not a sexy new EV that can travel 250 miles without using a drop of gasoline. In an America knee-deep in affordable gasoline, most consumers just don't see any value in compromise, of trading some performance for significantly better economy.
But when gasoline soars to $5 or $6 a gallon seemingly overnight, as it likely will someday, today’s consumers will be desperate for cars like the 330e that boost efficiency yet are still a pleasure to drive. Even if gasoline prices stay flat, governments around the world, seeing a dire threat from climate change, are decreeing that electrified cars will play a growing role and that internal combustion is on the way out. BMW and other automakers might as well get started now...and hope that customers follow.
Lawrence Ulrich,The Autance’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at [email protected].