What are you driving?
What was supposed to be a regular one-week test drive has, thanks to the lockdown, turned into an impromptu long-term test of BMW's 330e. Thankfully, we managed to get some decent mileage in before the shut-down fully kicked in, and since then it's just been the twice-weekly trundle to Dunnes and back. Still, this extra time has been useful and given us a chance to really get to know BMW's half-electric 3 Series.
The 300e uses the 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder petrol engine from the 320i and adds to that a 83kW electric motor (that's 113hp), tightly integrated into the eight-speed automatic gearbox. The combined output, when the electric motor is fully unleashed in Sport mode, is 292hp, enough to humble the petrol-only 330i. Maximum torque varies between 265Nm and 420Nm, depending upon how much engine grunt and how much electric grunt is being deployed.
The rest is as per the standard 3 Series, so you get mildly over-wrought styling, a deeply impressive cabin and a sparkling chassis. Does the combo add up, though?
Name its best bits
The good news is that yes, it does all add up, although that does come with the usual caveat that you have to plug the 330e in regularly to make sure that you can maximise its economy. Charge up its 12kWh battery and you should be able to squeeze at least 45km out of the 330e in pure electric mode. BMW says you can get as far as 66km on the battery alone, but that seems like an optimistic claim. The shortest distance we were able to cover on a charged up battery was 35km (it was a warm day and having the air conditioning on didn't help).
Once you've drained the battery, the 330e is pretty efficient as a regular hybrid. Prolonged use with a 'flat' battery saw consumption increase to around 8.1 litres per 100km, but as long as you're topping up reasonably regularly, your average should be more like 4.5-5.0 litres/100km. Even that 8.1 litres/100km figure doesn't seem so bad when you consider that this is a proper sports saloon with knocking on for 300hp.
It certainly feels fast, and when the electric motor is chiming in at low-to-medium speeds, the 330e feels quicker and more muscular even than the 5.9-second 0-100km/h time suggests it will. Put your foot down hard and the 330e feels properly potent.
It's almost, but not quite, as good through the corners. Thanks to the battery and the motor and the electric charging bits and pieces, the 330e has a chunky kerb weight of 1,800kg, which means that it just can't feel as sharp in the corner as, say, an equivalent 330i. The extra heft pulls the body over into a little more lean, while the same weight pushes the nose wide into a touch more understeer.
Now, it's worth saying that these observations represent only a minor degradation compared to a conventional 3 Series, but they are there, as is a sense of lightness to the steering that detracts, ever so slightly, from the feel of the front end. The 330e is still entirely delightful to drive, though, so it's not a major issue.
The cabin is a lovely thing. Our test car, painted black all over on the outside, had a mixture of cream and black on the inside. The seats are supportive and comfortable (if a little narrow across the shoulders at times for some drivers) and the overall quality of all the surfaces is exceptional. It's worth pointing out that the current 3's cabin is a major step forward over and above the interior of the previous generation.
The big screen iDrive system can now be controlled by touch as well as with the click-wheel (and voice control), which maybe seems like overkill, but it's slick and easy to use. The Bluetooth connection for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is also much better than before and less glitchy than it used to be.
Anything that bugs you?
We only have two criticisms of the 330e, really. One is that boot space is very much reduced from standard - down to just 375 litres. The other is that the ride quality is a little too firm at times, especially around town where the 330e is most apt to be used.
And why have you given it this rating?
Essentially this is a perfect car. The 3's slightly abrasive styling has grown on us, and the interior remains a class benchmark. The chassis and steering, allowing for the slight reduction in precision brought about by the weight of the electric bits, are still pretty wonderful. The powertrain has the potential for exceptional economy, as long as you keep it plugged in, yet has the sort of power and responsiveness to allow it to play with serious sports saloons in performance terms. Best of all, with the €7,500 discount thanks to Government grants, it's the best value 3 Series right now, too.
What do the rest of the team think?
About the only negative thing I have to say about this car is that its suspension (in conjunction with the tasty low-profile tyres and big alloy wheels of the M Sport specification) is a tad busy in everyday use. To be clear: it tackles big bumps well, and control over unwanted wheel or body movements is exemplary, but there's a little too much tautness to it for comfortable family-hauling duties around town. Still, I'd gladly put up with that as a small price to pay for the 330e's considerable talents. It's far closer to its non-hybrid siblings in terms of how it drives than the previous plug-in 3 Series was and, as Neil said, it's seriously rapid when you want it to be. In fact, I'd suggest that it should be the default choice of the 3 Series line-up for most buyers. Only those that really do pound the motorway network with little time for charging up the battery pack need consider a diesel version instead.
Shane O'Donoghue - Editor