Can a plug-in hybrid 3 Series be as easy to live with as the 320d? We have six months to find out
Why we’re running it: Plug-in 330e will overtake 320d as the biggest-selling 3 Series. We’ll find out if it can match the diesel’s all-round appeal
Life with a BMW 330e: Month 2
Petrol power can still impress – 4 March 2020
My commutes are mostly electrically powered only, but longer trips bring the 2.0-litre petrol engine into play. At motorway speeds, it feels like any other 3 Series. It’s quiet and refined, and with a mid-range boosted by the electric motor’s torque. Oddly, the faster you go, the more economical the petrol engine becomes – up to a point. You’ll see 50mpg at 70mph running on petrol power alone.
Life with a BMW 330e: Month 1
Electric-only commuting is now possible in both directions – conditions permitting – 26 February 2020
The company car tax benefits of plug-in hybrids like the BMW 330e are such that instances of them being returned with the charging cables in the boot still in the Cellophane wrapper still occur, admits BMW.
But that is becoming a rarer occurrence, and in my entry for understatement of the year, you need to be charging your plug-in hybrid to get the most out of it. You could just drive it and never charge it, but then you’d be struggling to get 35mpg from a 2.0-litre petrol 3 Series with a load of extra weight you’re making no use of, plus a much smaller fuel tank that means you’ll be stopping to fill up with fuel more often anyway.
With an electric-only range that sits between about 20 and 25 miles with the cold weather at this time of year (the official range is 35 miles), the 330e needs to be charged quite frequently and driven on electric power for as long as you can to really get the most out of it to save money on fuel as well as in tax.
My commute is between 25 and 30 miles in each direction, depending how bad the traffic is on any given route, so I can tackle it almost entirely on electric power and feel a bit of a poster child for the effective use of a plug-in hybrid, given that the longer journeys I undertake at the weekend mean I’m also making use of the petrol engine. I’m able to be said poster child because we have the luxury of charging at work and, as I have a driveway, I can charge the car at home, too. For someone like me, plug-in hybrids are a very sensible and pragmatic solution.
Getting a charging point installed at home was much more straightforward than I thought it would be and was explained to me by the BP Chargemaster fitter in electricity terminology that even my limited DIY ability allowed me to understand. I’d had my fuse box upgraded last summer, leaving a spare connection for a charging point to be hooked up to and given its own switch on the consumer unit.
The BP Chargemaster Homecharge unit I went for typically costs £449, assuming there are no special requests or circumstances that deviate from what should be quite a straightforward installation.
That figure is after a £500 grant from the government’s Office for Low Emissions Vehicles’ Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme. Put simply, anyone getting an electric or plug-in hybrid car can get that grant, and up to two per household are allowed should there be two qualifying cars per household. The BP Chargemaster unit is a 7kW charger (which I went for), but it can fit a 3.6kW if your property’s power isn’t sufficient.
You can choose where the Homecharge unit is fitted – I went for down the side of the house – so long as an earthing rod can be fitted in the vicinity (and your car’s charging cable can reach, which in the case of the 4.5m-long cable offered in the 330e and the charging point being located on the front wing, requires reversing as close to the house as I can get).
All in, installation took about two hours, and the 330e can now have its 12kWh battery fully recharged on my drive in about two and a half hours, at a cost of about £1.30 on my current electricity tariff. On that point, you can get tariffs now that give you cheaper power overnight specifically with charging your electric or plug-in hybrid car in mind.
BP Chargemaster offers an app that lets you track how much you’re spending. BMW also has one that allows you to precondition the car ahead of your chosen departure time so long as it’s connected to the charger – ideal for making the cabin toasty warm and the glass frost-free on the cold winter mornings we’ve had so far.
That’s now two chunky reports on the 330e and I’ve hardly said anything about actually living life with the car itself. That’s not posturing: it simply goes to show just how much there is to get used to with the car, and how much preparation is needed in advance to make sure it’s a sensible choice for you in the first place, and then know what you need to do to get the most from it as soon as it arrives. Seeds now sown.
BMW connected app Great for checking battery and fuel tank range – and turning on the climate control to defrost the car.
Engine cutting in Driving on electric power is so quiet and soothing that it’s a shame to be interrupted by the petrol engine.
Maximising range the right way – 12 February 2020
Early journeys show how similar the 330e is to other 3 Series, yet also such a new experience. Be aware of your journey length and battery range to truly maximise efficiency. Never charge it and drive it like any other 3, and you’ll only get about 40mpg. Charge it often and you’ll cover many miles on electric power alone and average nearly 70mpg.
Welcoming the 330e to the fleet – 5th February 2020
The BMW 330e comes with a lot of interesting numbers. There are the impressive performance figures (288bhp, 0-62mph in 5.9sec). Plus there are the official economy and CO2 figures (176.6mpg, 36g/km). Those then feed into the 330e’s real trump card – and its imminent crowning as the best-selling 3 Series in the range: its impending benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax rate of just 10%.
Put another way, come April it will cost a company car driver in tax around one third that of the currently best-selling 3 Series, the 320d, which, says BMW UK, the 330e will quickly usurp in sales. And all that for a car that’s significantly more powerful and which can travel on electric power alone for around 35 miles.
While talk of tax bands and BIK rates is not typical Autocar fare, from April it’s about to become increasingly significant as the government launches new company car tax rules unashamedly designed to increase the sales of electric cars and plug-in hybrids.
Car makers also need to sell ever-increasing numbers of these models to lower their fleet CO2 averages and avoid fines for being over the industry-wide 95g/km fleet average target. Electric cars and sub-50g/ km plug-in hybrids bring a double-whammy benefit of lowering fleet CO2 figures and qualifying for ‘super credits’ that in effect count as two sales in one, in turn allowing BMW to continue making higher-polluting cars such as the M3 without penalty.
Last year some 60% of new cars sold in the UK were to fleets, compared with 48% in 2010, with private car sales dropping from 47% market share to 37% in the same period. Those numbers were mirrored across the 3 Series range, according to BMW UK’s 3 Series product manager James Thompson, further highlighting the 330e’s importance to the German brand. Some 35,000 3 Series will find homes this year, around 10,000 of which will be 330es, and 95% of those 10,000 will go to company car buyers.
If your 330e arrives before the new tax year, you’ll pay either 8% or 12% BIK, depending on with which emissions standard the Treasury wants to correlate the CO2 figure. (You expected the motoring taxation policy to be clearly laid out by now?) Anyway, from 6 April it will be 10% for the plug-in BMW and 0% for pure EVs. Order one now and it won’t be with you before July anyway, so that 10% figure is the most relevant.
This whole topic is one we’ll look at in our news analysis pages in detail in the coming weeks before the tax changes kick in, but take away this for now: company car buyers will be able to save serious money by switching to EVs and plug-in hybrids. And perhaps the best of the plug-in hybrid breed right now is this 330e. It aims to be the 3 Series without compromise, keeping the sporting appeal for which the saloon has always been known but with some attractive cost and economy benefits.
The 330e uses a 181bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine familiar from elsewhere in the 3 Series range. Mounted within its eight-speed automatic gearbox is a 67bhp electric motor (its output increases to 111bhp with an ‘Xtraboost’ function in Sport mode) that powers a 12kWh lithium ion battery. That battery lives under the rear seats, with the fuel tank moving to the boot. The 40-litre fuel tank is 20 litres smaller than that of the non-hybrid 3 Series but results in the 330e’s one key compromise: a 105-litre cut in boot capacity.
The 330e is rear-wheel drive for now; xDrive four-wheel drive comes later this year, when a Touring version will also be introduced. Being rear-wheel drive with a fully integrated electric drive unit means the BMW system is claimed to be seamless in its operation in shifting between electric and petrol power, or a combination of both, as the electric motor sits on the flywheel and isn’t powering an entirely different axle, as is the case with some hybrid systems.
While driving this plug-in BMW is a straightforward process – it can be left in a simple Hybrid setting to leave the car to best decide from which source it should draw power – there are several other driving modes and many more functions to explore, all of which we’ll look at in the months ahead.
While the powertrain may not be as familiar, the specification of our 330e is. M Sport remains a popular trim level for the 3 Series, and it is offered on the 330e alongside entry-level SE and Sport. On top of the M Sport trim, which brings with it the usual array of visual and dynamic sporting upgrades, we have an optional M Sport Plus package that brings bigger 19in alloys, beefier brakes, variable sport steering and, intriguingly, adaptive dampers. This is the first time adaptive dampers have been included in a package – despite typically receiving rave reviews in the media, uptake from buyers had been less than 10%.
It’s rare for long-term reports like this to offer conclusions so early on, but it’s worth pointing out now that the 330e will not be suitable for all 3 Series buyers, specifically private buyers who won’t enjoy the tax benefits of company car buyers.
For them, offsetting the 330e’s list price against the potential money saved in fuel will be negligible, unless nearly all journeys are within the 35-mile electric-only range, at which point you may as well just buy a Tesla Model 3 for very similar money – or a BMW M340i, as Thompson says many private buyers are doing.
Not only is this our first long-term test of a hybrid 3 Series but it is also our first extended taste of a 3 Series in this G20 generation, which has already earned a five-star road test rating in 320d form. Finding out how much of that magic remains in this 330e will make for a fascinating few months to come.
The 330e has been a favourite of mine since I drove a skinny-tyred Sporttrim version of the last generation. The G20 is quicker and does 20 urban miles on its battery without trying too hard. But, as with so many more modestly powered cars, smaller wheels and less grip makes for more driver appeal.
BMW 3 Series 330e M Sport specification
Specs: Price New £39,860 Price as tested £49,300 OptionsM Sport Plus package £2200, Technology package £1900, Premium package £1700, Visibility package £1500, Comfort package £990, Aluminium mesh effect interior trim £650, Vernasca leather seats £500
Test Data: Engine 4 cyls in line, 1998cc, turbocharged, petrol, plus electric motor Power 289bhp at 5000-6500rpm Torque 310lb ft at 1350-4250rpm Kerb weight 1660kg Top speed 143mph 0-62mph 6.0sec Fuel economy 58.1mpg CO2 39g/km Faults None Expenses None