BMW is going plug-in crazy with no fewer than three making their debut at Geneva. We've already driven 'em...
Press embargoes are strange things. We get to do something well ahead of time in exchange for promising not to write about it until an agreed point in the future. In the case of BMW's new range of plug-in hybrids, that meant getting a spin in prototype versions back in January. Now, with their official unveiling at the Geneva show, it's time to share what we've learned.
All were prototypes some way from final production spec – the display on the 330e's digi dash even thought it was an X3 – but I got a fair fang on BMW's Maisach test track in Bavaria, regular roads, and even a chunk of derestricted Autobahn.
While acknowledging that plug-in hybrids are only likely to exert a strong appeal in certain markets, BMW is fully dedicated to rolling them out as what is likely to be an intermediate step on the way to full electrification within the next decade.
The metric the company's engineers were keenest to push was definitely their electric-only range, something which is likely to become vital to deciding whether or not they are allowed into the zero-emission zones that are going to be thrown up around lots of European cities in the next few years.
The company reckons the 330e will make up a fifth of global 3 Series sales from launch, with that percentage set to grow in future years.
Let's start with the 330e and X3 30e, both of which are as closely related as their non-PHEV sisters. Both use a development of the last-generation 330e powertrain, with a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot engine with an electrical motor sitting between this and the gearbox, meaning that the ion-fuelled assistance passes through the eight-speed ZF auto.
The IC engine is – predictably enough – tuned for economy, making 135kW. The e-motor adds 50kW continuously or up to 80kW in a time-limited 'Xtraboost' mode available for up to 10 seconds meaning a peak total output of 215kW.
All of which is very similar to the last 330e, with the development being the arrival of a substantially bigger battery, this with 12kW/h meaning – BMW claims – a range of up to 60km on pure electric power under the (fairly flattering) WLTP testing regime; a 50 per cent improvement on the old car.
The good news is that the 330e hides the weight and complexity of the electrical system well, certainly better than the last-gen F30 version that BMW had for back-to-back comparison. It feels solid, but the mass is well contained and there is a well-damped pliancy to the ride.
Full-throttle progress is strong enough – BMW claims a 6.0-second 0-100km/h time – with the engine sounding less thrashy than the old car when worked hard; the Xtraboost mode is unlocked in the Sport mode, but the car will still deliver the full whack if the pushdown button is pressed in any of its less aggressive modes.
There is still a pure-EV mode, which is predictably less keen, but the 330e can now be driven in this at speeds up to 140km/h versus 120km/h in the last car.
The X3 30e uses the same base components and feels, unsurprisingly, both bigger and heavier than the 3 Series. BMW admits that it weighs around 200kg more than a regular petrol-only X3, but the hybrid powertrain does drive both axles.
The electric-only range is predicted to be a more modest 45km under WLTP, which means that only fairly short real-world journeys are likely to be completed under pure electron power. Of course, BMW will also be offering the fully electric iX3 alongside it in some markets.
Leaving the X5 45e, which – on the basis of a very limited experience – turns out to be the best of the bunch. As its name suggests, this uses the same base powertrain as the 745e, meaning a 210kW version of BMW's familiar 3.0-litre Twinpower straight-six and a motor which brings the total system output up to a brawny 290kW and 600Nm.
But it also gets a bigger battery than the 7 does, and although BMW hasn't told us what the total capacity is yet, it has given a substantial increase in EV only range – up to 80km under WLTP.
It works well, the six-cylinder sounding good and the relaxed power delivery of the hybrid system suiting the car's character. While it will hit 100km from rest in a claimed 5.6 seconds, it feels happiest cruising at a decent lick with plenty left to call on.
I didn't quite confirm the claimed Euro-spec 230km/h top speed on a brief stretch of Autobahn, but the 45e was still pulling strongly as the digital speedo swept past 200km/h...
So, BMW is clearly serious about PHEVs and the new crop all look set to be close to the top of their segments on both spec and performance.
This all leaves just the question of whether this brave new technology really offers any substantial improvements in markets like Australia, where buyers aren't being compelled to adopt it yet.
Check out the gallery for more images of all three cars – although BMW did not supply an exhaustive range of shots.