You’d be forgiven for thinking the BMW ActiveHybrid 3 is a car aimed at cashed-up members of the Greens Party, but what BMW actually offers in its newest addition to the 3 Series range is a seriously quick sports sedan for drivers looking for as much grunt as green smarts.
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The 3 Series hybrid shares its 3.0-litre straight-six turbocharged petrol engine with the conventionally powered 335i. Supported by a 40kW electric motor and a high-voltage lithium-ion battery, the ActiveHybrid 3 produces a total system output of 250kW/450Nm, making it good for a 0-100km/h sprint of 5.3 seconds.
It also feels quick right from the get-go, displaying none of the restraint normally associated with hefty hybrids. This is one hybrid that simply never feels like you’re driving a hybrid, especially in its Sport and Sport Plus modes.
Turbo lag is non-existent thanks to the electric motor producing its full compliment of torque (210Nm) from a standing start.
In-gear acceleration is just as potent due to the engine’s unusually broad torque band, which delivers maximum torque of 400Nm between 1200-5000rpm. And then there’s the bonus 50Nm from the electric motor. Even a light dab of the throttle traveling at 80km/h produces scintillating acceleration that simply doesn’t quit.
The ActiveHybrid 3 gets a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, which is an exceptional bit of hardware (and software). Gear changes are super smooth and dual-clutch-style quick, and you won’t catch this unit in the wrong gear, regardless of your driving style.
Switch from the default Comfort mode to one of the Sport modes and things get even more entertaining. Shift points are held until near redline and throttle response is noticeably sharper.
At the other end of the spectrum, Eco Pro – as the name suggests – makes full use of the electric motor in the pursuit of optimum efficiency. Among its features is a highway ‘coasting’ function, which uses clever technology to shut off the engine and declutch it from the transmission for silent, zero-emission running at high-speeds.
Around town the BMW ActiveHybrid 3 is capable of running solely on electric power up to 75km/h for a range of up to four kilometres, provided the battery pack is fully charged and you’re easy on the throttle.
We found the all-electric propulsion entirely useful and efficient when roaming streets or shopping malls in search parking spots.
More impressive still is the transition from electric power to engine power or a combination of both for maximum performance – it all happens so smoothly and seamlessly that you’re barely aware it’s happening at all.
It’s a similar experience with the standard stop-start system on board the ActiveHybrid 3 – it’s virtually imperceptible from inside the cockpit.
The ActiveHybrid 3’s efficiency-enhancing technology combines to make it more than 25 per cent greener than the 335i on the official combined cycle (5.9 litres per 100km versus 7.9L/100km), although that’s only if your daily driving diet includes a healthy dose of peak-hour crawling.
We struggled to get close to the official number, however; instead recording an average of 10.5L/100km in a week that included both enthusiastic spurts and reserved suburban trips.
Clearly, BMW has first and foremost tuned this hybrid for performance, and like us you’ll most likely find it more difficult than expected to resist the urge to apply reasonable throttle whenever conditions permit.
There’s an inspiring snarl from this powerplant that’s evident right across the rev range. Even at idle there’s a high-tempo burble to enjoy.
Ride and handling have always been hallmarks of BMW cars and, by and large, the ActiveHybrid 3 delivers on most counts.
Despite its current standing as the quickest F30-generation 3 Series sedan, the BMW ActiveHybrid 3 gets the same MacPherson Strut upfront and five-arm rear axle suspension set-up found on the standard 3 series range.
The result is a deceptively fast performance sedan that isn’t quite as buttoned-down as it should be. At speed across uneven roads it can feel under-damped with too much movement in the chassis and a tendency to thump over larger bumps.
The ActiveHybrid 3 otherwise provides a mostly comfortable ride around town and on freeways.
BMW does offer adaptive dampers for $1400, but the M Sport Suspension isn’t available on the ActiveHybrid 3 – even with the optional M Sport package, as was fitted to our test car.
Cornering on the other hand is excellent, with the car turning in quickly and accurately, despite the hybrid carrying an additional 135kg over the standard 335i.
There’s loads of grip on offer, but less feel than we would like from the electric power steering.
Stopping power at speed is huge, but at low speeds brake pedal force isn’t consistent, or linear. It’s a feature commonly associated with cars utilising regenerative braking systems as the ActiveHybrid 3 does.
Like all 3 series sedans the BMW ActiveHybrid 3 offers comfort, space and practicality in equal proportions.
The big surprise is boot space. There’s lots of it, despite the hybrid system’s battery pack sitting under the boot floor – although that does rule out any room for a spare wheel, even a space-saver.
There’s 60:40 split-fold rear seats providing more than enough space for this reviewer to carry his 6ft 6in surfboard.
Rear-seat legroom is particularly generous as is storage space around the cabin.
The ActiveHybrid 3 is well equipped, too, boasting an extensive list of equipment including bi-xenon headlights, interior and exterior mirrors with anti-dazzle function, automatic headlights and wipers, full leather trim, front and rear parking sensors (although there’s no rear camera), and satellite navigation with an 8.8-inch screen. The 600-watt Harman Kardon audio system features 16 loudspeakers and produces great sound.
The $6100 M Sport package adds a set of superb, suitably bolstered sports leather seats, 19-inch alloy wheels, M leather steering wheel and various design elements inside and out.
Earning a five-star ANCAP safety, the BMW ActiveHybrid 3 comes standard with six airbags, stability and traction control, ABS with brake assist and corning brake control.
The BMW ActiveHybrid 3 currently has no direct petrol-electric competitor, and it will continue to enjoy a monopoly of the market until the introduction of the all-new Lexus IS300h in the third-quarter of 2013.
While we’re not convinced it’s a serious contender for any environmental awards, we’re more than comfortable in naming the BMW ActiveHybrid 3 the best performance hybrid available today.