Can BMW’s New 3 Series Make Hybrids Cool?

BMW 3 Series ActiveHybrid

Mainstream hybrid vehicles have long had a reputation for being slow, aesthetically unappealing, and generally all-around boring, even if they do sport some rather impressive fuel consumption figures.

Now, hybrid technology is finding itself moving away from the quiet suburban streets, and into the hearts of some of the most intense and powerful ultra-performance cars available (not to mention the most downright expensive, too). McLaren Automotive’s latest supercar — the successor to the classic F1, the P1 — sports some serious hybrid tech, as does the lastest from Porsche, the 918. However, these cars are not using the technology to help improve mileage or fuel consumption. In terms of performance, hybrid power trains can offer healthy doses of torque off the line, as the electric motor launches instantly while the gasoline component takes a couple of seconds to reach its sweet spot.

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At nearly $1.4 million and $845,000 respectively, the McLaren and Porsche are just a wee bit outside of the typical consumer’s price range. To remedy this, Bayerische Motoren Werke – more commonly known as BMW — has attempted to bring the performance hybrid to the greater masses, in its new Activehybrid3 sedan.

Hybrid offerings for the masses, although growing, are still victim to the usual drawbacks mentioned earlier. Toyota’s (NYSE:TM) Prius is a terrifically functional family car, but it won’t likely be winning any races in the near future, and is rather dull as a driver’s car. The same story is true for Honda’s (NYSE:HMC) Insight, and the other vehicles that use the companies’ hybrid power trains. Other luxury brands have also made attempts at hybridizing their offerings — Infiniti offers the M35h, and Lexus has a slew of hybrid models — but many of these attempts result in large, sleepy versions of their big siblings, and with only marginal mileage improvements.

According to Consumer Reports, the new 3 Series has succeeded in coupling performance with the economic benefits of hybrid power trains. The 3 Series version of the 5 Series ActiveHybrid uses a 55-hp electric motor comfortably nestled within the twin-turbo six-cylinder engine from the 335i. Whereas many hybrids are forced to trim cargo space to accomodate the battery pack, the BMW does not — though admittedly, it does not come with a spare, either.

While the electric motor is supposedly capable of getting the BMW up to 60 mph or so solo, in real-world driving, the gas engine generally kicks in much sooner. In the city, CR reports that the gas engine clicks on and off seamlessly, and with 300 horsepower on tap (the electric motor will kick in 55 extra horsies) when it fires up, the car will take off when the pedal is fully depressed.

As a result, the BMW is indeed a performance car. Rather than trying to make the 3 Series as efficient as it possibly could, BMW balances power with efficiency, and ultimately gives the car an average of 28 miles per gallon — not great for a hybrid, but quite impressive for a 355 horsepower performance sedan.

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While considerably cheaper than the P1 and 918 — and who are we kidding, the BMW is in no way meant to compete with those — it will still run about $50,000 at base, and well over $60,000 once all the bells and whistles are added. Although still above the average citizen’s budget, it puts performance hybrid technology within closer reach than the exclusive seven-figure hyper cars.

For efficiency, the diesel edition of the 3 Series offers comparable mileage (even a bit more), but at about $10,000 less than the base hybrid. Rated at 134 horsepower, Toyota’s Prius probably won’t be leaving rubber streaks on the pavement, although its 50 or so miles per gallon is hard to beat.

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