BMW is taking a highly interesting approach to vehicle electrification, of the partial and fully-fledged varieties.
On the one hand, it makes the radically styled i3 hatch and i8 coupe, made with carbon-fibre in a sustainably-powered factory, and designed to shout an environmentally friendly pitch to the heavens.
On the other, there are plug-in hybrid vehicles like the X5 xDrive40e and the car we test here for the first time, the 2016 BMW 330e sedan, designed as a technology 'bridge' to drop mandated range-wide emissions averages (let's not beat around the bush here).
This pair of German-made plug-in hybrids from its new i Performance family look almost interchangeable with their petrol and diesel siblings (save some badges and kick-plates), use some of the i8's PHEV components (save the carbon-fibre), and will help BMW reinforce itself as one of Australia's greenest car brands.
That BMW’s first two ‘e’ models are based on its two top-selling nameplates is no accident. Neither of these cars are for those keen to be seen as green. They’re designed to normalise the idea of vehicles with plug-in electrification as quickly as possible — a tough, but some might say necessary, challenge in Australia given our terrible average CO2 emissions compared to Europe.
On the surface, PHEVs like the BMW 330e — or the Audi A3 e-tron and Chevrolet Volt — are a sensible bridging technology. There’s enough electric range for daily driving (37km) between charges, and a petrol engine with fuel tank that gives you a range of about 600km total, and removes range anxiety.
To get even close to this sort of range with a pure EV, such as a Tesla Model S, you have to spend up on larger battery setups.
Not so with the BMW 330e which, at $71,900 plus on-roads, is only $2000 more expensive than a petrol BMW 330i and scarcely slower. BMW admits the margin on this car is skinny. It also costs $2000 more than the vastly more interesting but less practical and dynamic i3 with range-extender.
The BMW 330e will be sold at all BMW Australia dealers, with almost all sales to come from urban buyers. BMW recommends country buyers buy something like the diesel-fired 320d.
The 330e’s drivetrain comprises a 65kW/250Nm electric motor, a 7.6kWh lithium-ion cell battery and a familiar 135kW/290Nm 2.0-litre turbo-engine from BMW’s TwinPower family, rather than the three-pot used in the i vehicles. The drive unit adds about 165kg.
The drivetrain is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission, mounted immediately behind the electric motor, meaning the gearbox ratios can be used in all-electric mode. This means a torque converter can be ditched, cutting weight.
The drivetrain offers a combined maximum 185kW of power and a thumping 420Nm of torque (80Nm more than the 330i thanks to the electric overboost functionality), giving it a 6.1 second 0-100km/h time (0.3s slower than the 330i).
The more important figure to note is the fuel consumption — 2.1 litres per 100km (equating to 49g/km) — and the 37km claimed pure electric range in the European test cycle, functioning at speeds of around 100km/h or less depending on throttle load and driving mode. Consider that the Australian Bureau of Infrastructure found the average commute to work was about 16km.
"For the majority of Australians, as long as they can plug their car in to a domestic power socket once a day, you could do all your commuting five days a week purely on electricity," said BMW Australia head of product and market planning Shawn Ticehurst.
The BMW 330e comes with a cable as standard. Because the battery pack is largely supplementary and smaller, your household plug should recharge the batteries in around three hours for about two bucks. The regenerative engine braking system also captures waste energy and sends it to the batteries.
The 16A wallbox option for even faster charging (just over two hours) costs $1750 plus installation. You can also use the 262 national Chargepoint public fast-chargers, most of which are free to use (will grow to 950 sites by 2020 on current projections).
What’s the 330e like to drive? In short, considering just how much is going on, it has a fairly seamless operation, performing largely like a regular car except when you’re running about in pure EV mode.
As a default, the 330e pulls away in electric mode, provided the cells have juice. From there, you have three modes operated via a so-called eDrive toggle button, the default being an Auto mode that controls the motor/engine relationship for you. Set and forget.
Max eDrive mode puts the car in silent and emission-free pure EV mode for up to 37km depending on the charge, making it a proper electric car. Save Battery mode uses the 2.0-litre engine to power the wheels exclusively while adding charge to the batteries via enhanced waste energy regeneration. This way, you can save the pure EV mode for later, such as during an oncoming urban run.
The energy recuperation system is so effective (though engine braking is never as 'grabby' as in an i3 or Model S) that you can add 10-15km of electric range to the batteries in Save mode in little time at all (almost kilometre for kilometre). In this way, you're essentially using petrol power to tick things over while the batteries recuperate.
On our relatively brief first impressions, we were impressed by the unobtrusive way the petrol engine kicks in when needed and rows through its eight ratios imperceptibly, and the wave of torque on tap when the electric motor is contributing between 100Nm and 250Nm. It feels like a large-capacity turbo. It's also sublime at take-off, because 100 per cent of the electric motor's torque kicks in immediately when called upon.
Genuinely, if you shuffle through the modes from Auto eDrive mode to Save mode, the engine immediately rev-matches and kicks in with zero fuss. You see the tacho go from zero to, say, 2000rpm, but feel nothing.
Less great is the maximum pure EV range that falls short of the A3 e-tron’s 50km.
From a dynamic perspective, the weight distribution is 48:52, front:rear, though the extra 165kg or so takes the sharpest edge off the handling. Throw the 330e into corners and you feel that extra heft in the slightly less tied-down body control. The 330e also misses out on the 330i's adaptive M dampers, which is less than ideal. Befitting its demographic, the 330e also gets a softer urban-focused suspension tune.
Essentially, the handling and ride are an excellent simulacrum of the razor-like 330i, which is a fairly decent compromise.
The battery cells’ positioning under the boot means storage capacity isn’t too badly affected, though at 370L it’s down about 100L. In a rare touch, the rear seats can still be flipped down 40:40:40 to allow through-loading.
The cabin itself is familiar 3 Series, though the eDrive toggle and some of the menus in the instruments are unique. Standard equipment is excellent, especially when you consider the modest premium over the similarly-equipped 330i.
Standard are 19-inch light alloy wheels, cruise control with braking function to keep speeds constant downhill, and the Driving Assistant pack with Approach Control Warning, Lane Departure Warning, and Pedestrian Warning with AEB.
You also get a head-up display, reversing camera with front/rear sensors, a bird’s-eye view camera, LED headlights, ambient cabin lighting, electric leather seats, DAB+ digital radio and an 8.8-inch screen with iDrive and Professional Navigation.
Naturally, being a BMW 3 Series, you can add a whole suite of extra-cost items if you like. One of our test cars had $18,000 worth of extras, including the Comfort, Innovations, M Sport and Visibility packages.
You also get BMW’s ConnectedDrive Services, including real-time traffic information, auto emergency calling, and its TeleServices, Remote Services and app-based eDrive Services suite. Finally, you get an Acoustic Protection system for pedestrians (to ward off issues associated with near-silent driving by emitting noise).
Servicing for these models is covered by BMW’s condition-based servicing system that uses sensors and algorithms to advise the driver when the car should next be serviced. BMW offers a pre-purchase service program, BMW Service Inclusive.
The way to think about the BMW 330e is this: it’s about as quick as a 330i, handles about 80 per cent as well, has similar levels of practicality, and can be driven like a pure EV over short distances with the ability to charge itself quickly on the move, and only commands a $2000 premium. In that context, it’s a bargain.
Just like the smaller and cheaper A3 e-tron — which is $1390 more than an S3 at $62,490 — it’s an example of how to offer a car with palatable bridging technology without a huge cost impediment. If you want a green car that doesn’t shout about it, it’s an experience almost devoid of opportunity costs.
If the BMW 330e’s job is to normalise plug-in electrification (a step ahead of Prius-style hybrids and a step behind something like a Tesla Model S) and make it a justifiable and viable technology, then this car seems to nail the brief.
Click the Photos tab for images by Tom Fraser, plus supplied press images.