[REVIEW] 2021 BMW 330e PHEV

The BMW 3-series has long been the benchmark for compact luxury sport sedans. Traditionally the Bavarian firm’s best selling model, it’s a favourite of auto enthusiasts around the globe. Representing all that is good and proper when it comes to sporty sedans, the 3-Series is certainly one of the best-known BMW models, be in in sedan or wagon form.

The car industry is in a transition period, with manufacturers from Volkswagen to Lamborghini having to offer a wide range of powertrain options in an attempt to meet increasingly stringent environmental legislation, as well as the changing needs of customers. COVID-19 has only accelerated consumers’ awareness of how their choices can have global impacts on the planet, for better or for worse.

The 3-series was one of the first models, and BMW one of the first companies, to jump on-board the alternative fuels bandwagon. Offering diesel power as a demonstration as to how a small car can both offer performance as well as economy, in more recent years the Bavarian-based company has pivoted to demonstrate how it also has a handle on electric power too. Just look at the innovations in its dedicated BMW “I” brand.

Although the “i” brand is forging ahead with some arguably controversial looking new products, BMW has still been hard at work implementing plug-in hybrid models throughout its whole range. The stalwart 3-series is just such an example of their latest efforts, and indeed one of the earliest to be offered as a plugin-hybrid (PHEV).

Now on its second generation, once again as the BMW 330e, let’s take a closer look at whether this latest plug-in 3-series is a good all-rounder for Canadian drivers.

What’s new for this generation?

BMW didn’t sell a ton of previous generation 3-series PHEV sedans. Perhaps because it was only available as a rear-wheel-drive model, it wasn’t an all-year-round car for Canadians, especially out in Eastern Canada where the winter conditions can be quite harsh.

Happily, this second-generation 330e PHEV is not only now equipped with xDrive, but it is also the most affordable 3-Series you can buy In Canada by a few grand. The starting MSRP creeps in just under the $45,000 cap that the starting price has to be in order for the car to be eligible under the Canadian government’s federal tax rebate of $2,500.

My 2021 BMW 330e M Sport test vehicle was optioned out to over $65,000 due to a plethora of desirable options such as the M Sport package with bigger wheels and adaptive suspension, various driver assistance systems, as well as the BMW ConnectedDrive internet connectivity package bundled with the iDrive infotainment system.

Power comes from a similar drivetrain configuration as the 2021 BMW X3 xDrive30e SAV courtesy of a turbocharged 2.0-litre four cylinder supplemented with a 107 horsepower / 77 lb-ft electric motor that is neatly integrated into the transmission. This puts total combined power output at 288 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque.

The packaging is so good that the new transmission casing is just 15mm longer, compared with the standard eight-speed auto fitted elsewhere in the 3-series range. Having the electric motor in this position is great for efficiency too, particularly when it comes to brake-energy regeneration. But the most important advantage of this arrangement is that the integrated transmission/electric motor combination allows the 330e to come equipped with all-wheel-drive.

Due to the PHEV’s electric motor and battery pack, curb weight rises by an additional 366 lbs resulting in a half a second deficit in 0-100 km/hr sprints compared to the non-hybrid 330i. Still, a 0-100 km/hr dash of 5.9 seconds is very respectable, feeling especially quick off-the-line due to the electric motor’s instant torque delivery.

Unlike the larger X3 xDrive30e, the battery pack does result in noticeably less cargo space than the non-electrified 330i. To minimise the impact on the trunk capacity, engineers had to steal room from the fuel tank, resulting in a drastically smaller 40 litre tank (down by 19 litres compared to the 330i).

The impact of this is mostly on longer road trips, where you might have to visit the gas stations more frequently due to the electric configuration having less positive impact on fuel consumption during highway driving versus city driving.

How does it drive?

Like its X3 xDrive30e PHEV SAV cousin, there is real pleasure to be had from the quiet and refined brilliance of driving around in the BMW 330e on solely electric power.

Is it a true BMW to its core? Yes, but it takes some getting used to. If you’re one who is not inclined to explore the features of your car, you simply won’t be able to experience the 330e at its best. The 330e has a multifaceted character that may seem complicated to those who like a car that is simple to use.

Not to say that you can’t just leave the 330e in auto eDrive hybrid mode and forget about it. But in order to maximise the electric range and minimise the use of gasoline power, there is some thought and pre-planning that should go into the journey. Once you get used to its features and quirks, the multiple dimensions of this car’s persona will seem completely intuitive.

The column of little buttons adjacent to the gear selector, which in any other 3-Series would let you flick between Comfort, Sport and Eco-pro driving modes, are labelled differently here in the 330e. There’s a Sport button among them, but otherwise there’s a host of new options.

The car defaults to Hybrid mode, in which it will run electrically where it can until the battery is depleted before switching to run on a mix of combustion and electric power. Use eDrive Electric-only mode instead and a little more grunt is made available from the AC motor. It’s enough to deal with urban motoring on busy streets and even when cruising on the highway a surprising amount of performance to spare, although it begins to feel a bit meagre above 80 km/hr.

In Sport mode, the 330e takes on an altogether more sporting flavour. All of the 288 horsepower output is available before you hit the accelerator pedal’s kickdown switch. While it’s certain not M3 fast in outright terms, it is still really responsive to part-throttle prods.

Brake pedal progression and feel, still where so many hybrids fall down, are both generally good, but there is a little bit of sponginess though less than in the X3 xDrive30e.

How about the ride and handling?

One thing linking all BMWs in the past has been a sense that all cars were instilled with the same virtues; a 3-series and a 7-series and an X5 all felt broadly similar to interact with as a driver, in the quality of their materials, the sounds, the smells and the way they went down a road.

The 330e feels strikingly similar in several respects, despite all using different platforms and powertrains. In other words, the hybrid elements of the 330e don’t get in the way of its BMW-ness, though it’s also fair to say they’re geared more towards efficiency than driving enjoyment.

With a torsionally stiff structure typical of recent BMWs, combined with the good ride and a comfortable high-quality cabin, the 330e is a satisfying car to drive but not a particularly engaging or entertaining one.

Despite the added weight of the battery, body control is good and handling is more than adequate, particularly with the larger M sport package wheels, brake pads, and adaptive dampers. As expected from a 3-Series, the precise and well- weighted steering is paired well to the 330’s overall balance, letting you find a flow down a twisty bit of tarmac.

Push it a bit harder, and there’s just a hint of the car’s rear-drive biased nature as you feed in the power through a corner.

Final thoughts

On paper, the 330e looks to be perfect. You get the looks, heritage, prestige, performance and handling of the 3-Series combined with the lower emissions and lower fuel consumption from an plug-in hybrid vehicle. So what’s the catch here?

Well it’s that while the 330e is certainly quick and can swallow a plethora of bends without blinking, a little bit of the joy has been removed from the equation. This, despite my 330e M Sport test vehicle being fitted with the most sophisticated M Adaptive dampers available in the latest 3-Series.

And so, the word that springs most readily to mind here is “impressive” – BMW’s new plug-in hybrid certainly doesn’t fall down as a box-ticking exercise, with plentiful performance, extended electric range and some clever new tricks. It’s just not necessarily the kind of car that gets under your skin, as well thought-out and even enjoyable of a tool it is.

But judging from the number of Tesla Model 3s on the road today, maybe that’s not what people are looking for during their Point A-to-B commutes back and from the office. In this regard, the 2021 BMW 330e makes a very compelling case indeed.


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