Ultimate Recharging Machine: BMW Aims at Tesla with the 330e
BMW isn’t about to wait for the upcoming Tesla Model 3 electric sedan to spoil its party. Why should it? Tesla has certainly made no secret as to who it’s targeting with its $35,000 entry-level model that’s due to arrive in late-2017. Just look at the name, for crying out loud, and you’ll see the Silicon Valley-based automaker has a firm bullseye set on the Bavarian automaker’s most popular compact sport sedan.
But does the green revolution have to wait for Tesla’s next move? Not when you’re behind the wheel of the 2017 BMW 330e, a plug-in hybrid that offers true EV driving range, along with most of the dynamic prowess you expect from a car company that bills itself as building “the ultimate driving machine.”
Starting with the powertrain, this 3 Series combines a 180 horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with a 76 horsepower electric motor, powered by an air-cooled, 7.6 kWh lithium-ion battery pack mounted under the floor of the trunk. Total combined output is 248 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. BMW estimates a zero to 60 mile per hour time of 5.9 seconds, which is very impressive considering the 330e tips the scales at around 3,900 pounds. For comparison, that’s a couple hundred extra pounds more than the turbocharged six-cylinder-powered 340i sedan.
Batteries and electric motors add weight; we all know that. The major problem with many plug-in hybrid vehicles is that all this extra mass blunts every dynamic aspect of a vehicle, from its ride and handling balance, to stopping distances during heavy braking. In the BMW 330e, we’re pleased to report that the trade-off is well worth it.
Yes, you do feel some of this BMW’s weight when really diving 10/10ths into a corner, or slamming on the brakes as hard as possible. Then again, if you’re driving like this on a regular basis, you might want to invest in a go-kart — or switch to decaf in the morning. Under normal driving conditions, with a sane pilot behind the wheel, the 330e looks and behaves like a proper, well-mannered 3 Series.
There are quirks, courtesy of the available driver adjustable driving modes and electric gizmos lurking under the hood, but we like them. For example, the available 22 miles of electric-only driving range is a major plus. It’s also surprisingly easy to hold onto that range, simply by toggling the engine to Sport mode using a button on the center console. In addition to sharpening up the power and handling by a few degrees, Sport mode helps the gas-powered engine serve as an onboard generator to send charge back into the lithium-ion battery pack. It’s similar in design and execution to what you find in BMW’s hybrid-powered i8 sports car.
We have to admit, EV mode in this 3 Series is a blast. Silently cruising through city traffic, all you hear is the crunch of the tires and a slight whirr of the electric motor. Pulling onto a highway, the 330e stays in full-electric mode so long as you don’t absolutely hammer the gas pedal. The electric motor keeps you cruising along, emissions free, at speeds up to 75 miles per hour. Recharging using a normal 120-volt outlet takes six to seven hours. That sounds right to us, considering a three-hour recharge got us back to about 14 miles of range after running the battery almost dead.
About the only drive mode you should avoid is EcoPro. It simply takes too much out of the powertrain and adds a layer of lethargy that isn’t in keeping with a luxury sport sedan like this BMW. If you truly want to maximize MPGs that badly, getting out and pushing will at least help build your core muscles while you cheap out on fuel bills.
And being cheap isn’t something that comes along for the ride with the 330e. A starting price of $45,095 (including destination fee) is about $10,000 above the asking price of an entry-level 320i sedan. Good luck getting any 3 Series in entry-level anything, of course; German luxury manufacturers are the best when it comes to enticing you with pricey options. Adding even a few add-ons to the 330e — such as side and surround-view cameras, heated front and rear seats, blind spot detection, and larger alloy wheels — easily pushes the price above $50,000.
Let’s not get into a messy debate about how long, or how far, you’ll need to drive to earn your money back courtesy of this BMW’s long-term fuel savings. BMW says the 330e delivers 79 MPGe, once you factor in the available EV driving range. During our time with the car, the 330e routinely — and very easily — delivered mileage in the low to mid-30s. A 320i sedan would be pretty close to that figure, so the big question mark is whether you can get the most out of the EV mode.
From behind the wheel, or even standing outside the car, the 330e doesn’t shout that it’s eco-minded. That’s a good thing if you simply want to get about the business of enjoying the drive, and maybe not having to refuel so often. The cabin is relaxing and spacious enough for four full-sized adults. Is there a prettier sight than the crisp white needles on the speedometer and rev counter in this 3 Series? Nope, there is not.
The infotainment controls, pedal position, and even the thickness of the steering wheel all feel precisely honed and thought out. There is a reason the BMW 3 Series is the default choice for so many people when they want a German luxury sedan in their driveway — it just feels good, both immediately when you get in, and after many miles of driving.
The only major fault against the BMW 330e is the high price of entry. You have a lot of other choices in this car’s price range, and many people will dash straight for an SUV or crossover. But as far as elegant, fun-to-drive plug-in hybrids go, this BMW is truly a stand out choice.