Crossovers are hot in the car market these days because they offer the best of all worlds. They have a higher ground clearance for light off-road driving on gravel roads to camp sites, more cargo room than a traditional sedan and better gas mileage than an SUV. What’s not to love?
Offering both versatility and practicality, it’s no wonder why crossovers are taking over our roads. In fact, the number of crossover sales has increased significantly over the past decade, with crossovers accounting for about half of all US passenger vehicle sales in 2017. The relentless appetite for SUVs and crossovers has left few manufacturers without some sort of crossover offering in their model line-up.
Case in point is the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class. Initially launched for the 2016 model year, the GLA has been a good success. It’s not difficult to see why.
What’s new for 2021
Want a crossover with the prestige of the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star but for the price of a Toyota Highlander? The GLA crossover hits that mark although it is not the only one in its category these days.
The first Mercedes GLA SUV was launched in 2014 to a rather modest fanfare. Although it was a supposed premium product, critics thought that it fell short of the three-pointed-star in a number of key areas. The interior was a little cramped, the ride was rather stiff and the bland styling was a further departure than expected compared to the stunning concept vehicle that was presented.
To compete against the likes of its upscale rivals such as the newly updated Audi Q3 and BMW X1, Mercedes-Benz has thoroughly updated the GLA250 from the ground-up for the 2021 model year without straying too much from its modus operandi of being a stepping stone into the brand for more budget-minded buyers.
Now in its second generation, the GLA-Class is not just a higher A-Class either. Mercedes has refined the GLA in all the right places. Compared to the original model, it’s more practical, has the best of the new corporate interior bits and pieces borrowed from the latest A-Class, and offers advanced driver-assistance tech. It’s overall a more comfortable place in which to travel.
When you add in a strong range of plug-in hybrid powertrains (outside North America for now) plus powerful AMG versions, along with the improved quality of materials throughout the cabin, the GLA has noticeably come of age.
Indeed, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA is one of the two entry-level SUVs in the Mercedes-Benz lineup. While it shares its platform with the GLB (previously reviewed in GLB250 trim here), the smaller GLA is sportier-looking than its boxy sibling and, significantly, it is a major improvement over the flawed first-generation GLA.
How does it ride and drive?
The 2021 GLA’s performance is well taken care of with a range of gasoline powered versions, at least for the North American market. Diesel and plug-in hybrid engine options are also available in other part of the world.
The GLA250, as tested, comes with a new M260 turbocharged 2.0-litre four cylinder turbocharged engine producing 221 horsepower (up from 208 horsepower in the previous model) and 258 lb-fts of torque from a low 1,620 to 4,000 rpms.
This new engine is closely related to the AMG’s 416 horsepower M139 turbocharged four cylinder, and is part of the new modular engine family that also includes the larger straight-six engine found in other Mercedes-Benz models.
For those wanting more power, Mercedes also offers the 302 horsepower GLA35 or the even hotter 382 horsepower Mercedes-AMG GLA45.
The transverse-mounted engines, at least for the Canadian market, is connected to an updated 4Matic all-wheel-drive system which primarily drives the front wheels. There is also a new quick-shifting eight-speed (up one cog) dual-clutch transmission operated through a column-mounted stalk.
To match its more grown-up exterior, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA250 has been tuned for a more mature audience. The suspension is more compliant and yet maintains much of the previous generation’s GLA’s nimble handling.
The steering response is still as precise and direct as expected, however the GLA’s other German competitors, namely the BMW X1 and X2, offer a higher level of driving enjoyment. Still, the GLA should satisfy most of its target market.
What about the new interior?
The 2021 GLA stands taller and wider than its predecessor at 63.5 inches tall (up 3.5 inches) and 72.2 inches wide (up 1.2 inches). Overall length is almost the same at 173.6 inches, but the wheelbase is 1.1 inches longer.
As expected, this additional volume has resulted in more passenger room and also a bigger cargo area. the new model’s increased height and width make the rear seat in particular feel significantly more spacious than before. A friend of mine commented that there was more rear headroom than even his larger Audi Q5 SUV.
Cargo space is improved enough so that six carry-on suitcases now fit in the cargo area. The bigger cargo area with 15 cubic feat (with the rear seats up) means that the GLA can compete on a practical level with the rivals mentioned above, while providing more load space than the Mazda CX-30, Lexus UX and even the Range Rover Evoque. Fold the rear seats down and the cargo area expands to 50 cubic feet.
Seating positioning in the 2021 GLA is more upright than before. Compared to its more angular GLB250 sibling, the roofline is slightly lower but the expanded dimensions are immediately noticeable. It’s easy to find a comfortable seating position wherever you are.
Inside, the changes are very radical compared to the previous generation GLA. My well-equipped test vehicle came equipped with a long list of all of the tech goodies, including two large 10.3 inch screens that face the driver. One acts as a highly configurable virtual instrument cluster and the other the MBUX infotainment system. The long black panel display looks particularly futuristic.
For better or worse, the system offers touchscreen, trackpad, and voice command inputs. While the touchscreen is very straight forward to use, the touchpad is finicky compared to the BMW iDrive system’s control knob.
While the previous generation GLA250 was sized and styled more like a raised CLA-Class hatchback, the second-generation 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA250 shows real growth without losing too much of its lively character.
It’s safe to say that Benz’s smallest SUV has matured into a more refined and practical package with style and luxury to match its intended audience. The improved tech features, significantly better interior materials, and new exterior are all marked improvements that bring the GLA-class in line with the rest of the modernized Mercedes-Benz line-up and are sure to be a hit with anyone looking for a compact premium crossover SUV.
[REVIEW] 2021 BMW X4M Competition
The traditional definition of a coupe conjures up phrases such as “form over function” and “difficult to ingress or egress”. You’ll probably also hear descriptors such as “sleek, low-slung”, but also “tricky in the wet”. Let’s put those preconceived limitations aside for now.
If you have trouble keeping track of BMW’s mind-bogging and ever expanding line-up, you’re not alone. Whether you want to consider the X4 a hatchback, a wagon, a coupe, or an SUV, critics have admitted the previous iteration drives like a BMW and a good one at that.
Now in its second-generation, the BMW X4 is based on the current X3 SUV, but emphasises sport over utility with its coupe-like rakish fastback roofline. We’ve now gotten accustomed to the idea of these SUV coupes, and there are more of them than ever from both Japanese and European manufacturers. It’s clear that rather than just existing, the SUV coupe genre in which the X4 started is now completely acceptable.
The subject of this review is not just the latest X4, but is indeed the greatest X4 available – the halo 2021 BMW X4M Competition. Will this M division fettled SUV stir your soul in the manner of their former glories? Or is it just an exercise for BMW’s niche-filling product strategists? Let’s take a closer look.
Is it an M3 Touring on stilts?
The X4M Competition is mechanically identical to its conventional-looking X3M sibling, and less so than the M3. Like it’s predecessor, it’s a coupe-inspired take on the boxier and slightly cheaper X3M Competition and squarely aimed at the similar-looking Mercedes-AMG GLC63S coupe, the Porsche Macan Turbo, and perhaps even the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio.
The M xDrive all-wheel-drive system is actually shared from the M5 sedan complete with its torque-vectoring rear limited-slip M differential that maximises traction when accelerating out of corners.
Although the X4M Competition may also share the same displacement as the cheaper X4 M40i, it shares very little else in common. Under the X4M’s hood is a true M division-fettled 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged inline-six engine, codenamed the S58, which churns out 503 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque at a low 2,600 rpms.
This engine is also found in the all-new M3 and M4 super sedan/coupe duo, with BMW M placing special emphasis on lightness and an instinctive free-revving nature. BMW says that the X3M Competition and X4M Competition have been tuned with the added assurance of M xDrive all-wheel-drive but with the driving experience of the upcoming M3.
With this prodigious level of power, BMW claims an official 0-100 km/hr time of 4.1 seconds for the X4M Competition. The Bavarians have been known for sandbagging their horsepower numbers though, so much so that some others in the automotive press world have clock 0-96 km/hr (60 mph) runs in the mid to low three-second range when launch control is used.
This means that while the X4M Competition may have less horsepower/torque compared to some of its competitors on paper, it is very likely quicker in the real world.
So how does it work in the real world?
Compared to its predecessor, the 2021 X4’s redesigned body results in some predictable alterations on paper. At 183.4 inches from nose to tail, it’s marginally longer while the roofline sits 1.93 inches lower at its tallest peak too. Additionally, the rear track is a little wider.
The nipped and tucked rear end design results in a cargo area sizing up at 525 litres with the rear seat back in place. Surprisingly, this is only a 25 litre drop when compared to the 2021 X3 M Competition.
Fold the rear seatback flat and the 1,430-litre room on offer is only a little more down on the X3M’s 1,600 litres. The main disadvantage here is that you won’t be able to carry cargo which is quite as tall due to the hatchback design.
Because BMW reckons that the X4M Competition ought to feel more like a sporty sedan than a hefty SUV, it should come with no surprise that the 503 horsepower powerplant helps tremendously to add to its emotional appeal when compared to the more pedestrian X4 models.
The S58 engine is less boomy and busty when compared to the Mercedes-AMG GLC63S’ 4.0-litre turbocharged V8. Still, throttle response is nice and linear regardless of whatever mode you’re in, and you can even wring out some amusing turbo noises from the engine as the virtual tachometer swings towards the engine’s redline.
Sure, it may not be a total step back to the M cars of old and their straight-six engines, but it’s darn impressive as to how the boffins at BMW M division have managed to tuned the turbos. The M xDrive system, borrowed from the M5 super sedan, doesn’t leave the performance aspect of the X4M Competition to any question. Although M xDrive is rear-biased, there isn’t a strict rear-wheel-drive-only mode as with the M5.
The 4WD Sport mode changes the stability and traction control system’s reactions to allow for more fun. But even when you row back the system’s limits, the front axle will always be there to help to step in if the back end becomes unhooked. Large 15.6 inch ventilated rotors up front and 12.5 inch rears provide fantastic stopping power.
If there is one characteristic of the X4M that I have to criticize, it has to do with its firm ride. Even at low or medium speeds, the dampening doesn’t seem to change a whole lot between Comfort, Sport, or Sport Plus modes.
While I felt that the X4M’s ride quality was actually better than the uncompromised ride quality of the X3M, it’s rather curious as to why BMW M engineers have chosen the tuning that they have given that these vehicles are mostly used as daily drivers rather than track machines.
On the inside
As with most modern BMWs, the interior feels extremely well-built and classy. While some may not fancy the combo, I absolutely loved the red leather interior combined with the placement of the carbon fibre trim.
I even liked the pantomime from the little illuminated M badges in the seats that light up when you open the doors. Look around and you’ll find other bits of subtle performance paraphernalia – namely M-branded badges – around the cabin that separate the X4M Competition from the rest of the X4 range. Bot a bad thing at all in my eyes.
Atop the thicker-rimmed steering wheel sit two suitably eye-catching bright red metal buttons named “M1” and “M2”. These allow you to configure and save your very own personal preferences for the X4M’s system configurations, right down to how you’ll like the heads-up display manipulated.
The heated and ventilated sports seats are muscular and upholstered in attractive quilted leather. Adjustability is excellent, as is the lumbar, thigh, and lateral support. The front chairs position you suitably low – lower than the X3M in fact – but aren’t so recumbent as to jeopardise the view to the road ahead over the attractively sharp creases in the X4M’s hood.
BMW’s iDrive infotainment system is still far superior to its competitors. The 10.25 inch touchscreen display has beautiful graphics and is clear and easy to read. There is enough graphical processing power to ensure that transitions between menus are slick and relatively seamless without any lag found the F-Pace’s or Stelvio’s systems. Only the Mercedes-AMG MBUX units are comparable in this regard.
Control is via touchscreen or iDrive rotary dial, although it’s the dial that proves to be the easiest means of interacting with the system, particularly when on the move.
Overall, what results is an interior that wants for little by way of technology, performance flavour or luxury appeal, looking and feeling very much in step with what we’ve come to expect from a contemporary high-performance BMW.
It’s agile, rides tautly, and has a beautifully trimmed cabin. The 2021 BMW X4M Competition does away with the bombastic nature of its Jaguar F-Pace SVR or Mercedes-AMG GLE63S coupe competitors for one with its distinctly own charm and appeal.
While the X4M doesn’t possess an obvious endearing trait, it’s grippy, fast, precise, and a completely different animal to the regular X4. It you can live with its firm ride and its smaller cargo hold, it will be sure to put a smile on your face.
[REVIEW] 2021 BMW M440i xDrive
When the first spy shots of BMW’s updated 2021 4-Series coupe first made the rounds on the internet, it was certainly not without controversy. From disbelief to delight to even dismay, BMW fans were quick to voice their opinions about the unconventional front clip.
In a twist of fate due to global pandemic restrictions, what would normally be a significant world premiere with the world’s press being flown into an exotic location eventually turned into an unconventional digital-only world premiere.
So what we had was the most controversial-looking BMW since the Bangle-Butt 7-Series, launching during unprecedented and unconventional times.
Whatever your opinions are about the new 4-Series, one thing is certain. You can’t accuse the new design of being bland or conservative. It’s hard to imagine BMW caring that much either, since the highly controversial kidney grills have generated tremendous publicity for the brand, getting far more eyes on this car than if it had just used the more conventional front end from the 3-Series.
Why the new look?
The whole idea behind the daring new look, says BMW, is to stop the model from being viewed as a two-door coupe version of the straight-laced 3-Series sedan, and to carve out the 4-Series as its own model. Other obvious benefits include better airflow to accommodate the greater cooling requirements of the more powerful newly revised engines.
BMW has also completely overhauled what is beneath the new skin, moving to BMW’s latest set of chassis components shared with the more practical 3-series sedan. The squatter, more assertive silhouette is thanks to a 128mm longer overall length, a 27 mm wider body, a wider front and rear track, and a 41 mm longer wheelbase.
The model that I tested for this review was the range-topper 2021 M440i xDrive, which is only one (albeit large) step away from the new M4 coupe.
What is it?
Adopting the same powertrain as the M340i xDrive sedan, the M440i xDrive coupe comes with a 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six cylinder engine that makes 382 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. This is an increase of 62 horsepower and 39 lb-fts of torque.
0-100 km/hr sprints happen in 4.5 seconds versus the base 255 horsepower 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder 430xi xDrive’s 5.6 seconds dash. Both engines can only be mated to an eight-speed automatic gearbox with launch control, so save-the-manual fans will be disappointed.
The M440i also includes a rear M Sport active differential for improved traction and a new 48-volt mild hybrid system which supports accessories without hurting fuel consumption. The mild-hybrid system recoups energy from braking to add up to 11 horsepower during hard acceleration.
Cleverly, it can fill in the power gap when the vehicle restarts after being shut off from the auto start/stop system. That system has also been revised to shut down earlier when the driver is braking for a stop and the car’s speed drops below 15 km/hr.
With its sweeping roofline and aggressive new rear styling, the M440i is further differentiated with a rear lip spoiler, grey satin accents on the front grille, mirrors, and exhaust tips.
How does it drive?
The M440i’s acceleration is as quick as the X3M competition, and indeed not as far off the pace of the last-generation M3. All the while, it revs with a sweet (albeit slightly digitally enhanced) growl in the sportiest of drive modes.
This revised B58 straight-six has a flat torque curve and oodles of grunt throughout the rev range. Pull on either one of the flappy paddles and you’ll find that the ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox is well-tuned, delivering quick shifts on-demand whether you’re going up or down the gearset. The system is even faster shifting than before, further emphasising the kick-in-the-butt effect during full throttle gear changes in Sport mode.
While the M440i is more of a gentlemanly touring car than a sportster, handling is taut, the ride steady, and the dampening surprisingly compliant. The adaptive dampers warrant acceptable compliance in Comfort, but Sport prioritizes rigidity and firmness. Sport Plus mode is quantifiably tauter still.
Take the car through a few corners on your favourite twisty road, and you’ll be reminded of the sheer grip and speed that even non-M cars can make it through the twisties. No doubt this is aided by the excellent Michellin Pilot Sport 4S tires which grip tenaciously even through tight, damp corners.
All-wheel-drive might not sound like an ingredient fit for a sports coupe, but integrated with torque vectoring technology and an M Sport differential on the rear axle means that the coupe is versatile without sacrificing any entertainment behind the wheel. Rather than totally neutralising the setup, there’s always a strong sensation of the car being rear driven along with the adjustability that goes with it.
On the inside
If you’ve been in a recent BMW 3-Series, you’ll feel right at home. The inside of the M440xi is a nice place to be, with much of BMW’s latest cabin styling. The new sports seats look and feel supportive thanks to BMW’s adjustable side bolster support which can be set from relaxed to almost race car tight.
The seats are comfortable enough for you to plant your behind through an hours long road trip, and the longer wheelbase means that normal-sized adults can even sit in the back seats as long as they’re not too tall. The M Sport steering wheel and M-branded door sill plates complete the appearance package.
I was also happy to see how BMW has revised the automatic seatbelt extenders to be more sturdy than the ones fitted to my personal previous-generation 435i M Sport coupe.
Among the vast array of safety systems is a new Driving Assistant Professional package, which adds Steering and Lane Control Assistant with new Active Navigation. This system uses navigation data to detect upcoming elevation changes and can adjust the transmission to accommodate pre-emptively. Everything works in tandem with brilliant new full colour head-up display – now 70 per cent larger than – relaying clear and relevant data.
The infotainment system is courtesy of BMW’s iDrive 7 operating system with a large 10.25 inch touchscreen display. While it’s not quite as large as the 12.3 inch unit on the 8-Series or the X5, the excellent graphics, logical menus and submenus, as well as the plethora of options are all shared. Paired up with this is a fully digital 12.3 inch instrument cluster ahead of the steering wheel, as well as standard wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. This system can also perform over-the-air updates, as long as you subscribe to the requisite data plan or use the BMW mobile phone app.
Driver-assistance systems are becoming increasingly commonplace in our cars nowadays and the M440i xDrive has more than its fair share of them. On the one hand, the M440i is a car that will all-but drive itself along thanks to its clever adaptive cruise control system, its computer-assisted lane-keeping steering system, and advanced pre-emptive braking system.
On the other hand, there will likely be little debate about how good it is to drive. Even as you cycle through the driving modes, from Comfort to Sport, you’re aware of how the M440i can deliver a proper hit of driving appeal with just a prod to the throttle pedal.
When the previous-generation marketing-led name change to the “4-Series” was revealed a generation ago, BMW fans were also up in arms. Regardless of whether you like BMW’s nomenclature or its styling, there’s no denying that there is no more quintessential BMW than the 4-series coupe, which lineage directly resonates with car enthusiasts.
The 2021 BMW M440i xDrive coupe truly feels more like a mini-8-Series coupe versus a two door 3-Series. With its driver-assistance tech features turned on or off, the BMW M440i is very impressive overall. Regardless of what you think of the controversial large kidney grille, there’s no doubt that you’ll ever miss it for a Mustang or a Mercedes. Spend some time behind the wheel and you’ll find that you may be able to overlook the 4’s new face afterall.
[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.
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.
[REVIEW] 2021 BMW X3 xDrive30e PHEV
Since its launch in 2003, the BMW X3 has been a resounding success for the company. Considered as the first compact premium SUV on the market, the X3’s list of competitors today is as long as you can imagine.
Now in its third generation, BMW’s popular crossover continues to be marketed as a Sports Activity Vehicle. This hints at the company’s continued focus towards producing segment leading Ultimate Driving Machines, regardless of how they are powered or what body shape they might come in.
Case in point is this new plug-in hybrid / electrified version of the latest generation BMW X3, known as the X3 xDrive30e.
Does it still live up to the company’s SAV branding despite its electrified powerplant? Let’s take a closer look.
What is behind the name?
Yes it’s true, this is yet another review on a plug-in hybrid crossover from yet another premium brand. However, as the electrified version of the “OG” model which launched the crossover craze, this is one of the more significant examples of the increasing new tax efficient/fuel efficient band of cars and SUVs.
In BMW-speak, the “xDrive” portion of the name denotes the xDrive all-wheel-drive configuration that this vehicle is equipped as. Meanwhile, the “30e” nomenclature denotes BMW’s dual powertrain combination of a 181 horsepower four-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine. assisted by a 107 horsepower electric motor.
Powering the electric motor is a 12kWh lithium ion battery that cleverly sits under the back seats, thereby avoiding any large sacrifice of cargo space. However, the cargo floor is raised up by a few inches, resulting in noticable lip. At least this allows for some storage space for the Level One 120v travel charger.
Unlike other manufacturers (such as Volvo), the electric motor is integrated within the transmission and is thereby able to drive all four wheels just as the piston engine does. In order to accommodate this feat of engineering, the fuel tank has been moved to a spot above the rear axle with a slight sacrifice of 50 litres less cargo space versus the non-hybrid BMW X3. Total cargo capacity is at 450 litres.
How well does it function as a plug-in hybrid?
While swapping the “i” at the end of the model name to an “e” costs a few thousand more, the addition of the hefty 12kWh battery pack and 107 horsepower / 77 lb-ft electric motor is impressive. Now with a combined 288 horsepower and 310 ft-lbs of torque compared to the gas-only xDrive30i’s 248 hp and 258 lb-ft, the X3 xDrive30e feels spritely off the line even in eDrive electric-only mode.
For those of you not familiar with plug-in hybrids, as long as there is gas in the fuel tank, you’ll never have to plug-in the X3 xDrive30e unless it’s convenient. However, the more you are able to plug-in, the more you will be able to take advantage of all-electric commutes.
Recharging via a level two 240v charger can be done in under three hours, but using the level one 120v travel charger with a household plug will take more than twice as long.
Choose the “Max eDrive” mode and the hybrid system will reduce speed and power delivery for the most efficient use of battery power. The auto eDrive hybrid mode blends engine and battery use on its own and even uses GPS navigation data to alter the powertrain’s characteristics based on the travel route planned.
For example, if it knows that you’ll be climbing up and down a hill, it will use the battery electric power for the uphill portion of the route, then regen to capture some of the energy on the downhill stretch. Cool beans.
In the real world
I managed to eek out a maximum of 37 kilometres of electric-only driving, even though BMW officially claims around 30 kilometres of max electric-only range. Once the battery is depleted beyond a certain level, the gas-hybrid powertrain starts up seamlessly by itself to take over when you’re driving.
In my test week, I was able to eek out fully-electric round trips commutes from the suburbs to downtown Vancouver, plugging in at my office parkade for a full charge during the work day so that the X3 was poised for an all-electric return trip home. I truly only used the gasoline engine on longer trips, during my weekend journey out of town. This, ladies and gents, is the practicality of having a plug-in hybrid vehicle.
The other scenario in which the gas-hybrid powertrain can start-up is if you demand full throttle acceleration where both powerplants combine forces to move you along at great urgency. Due to the electric motor’s instant torque delivery, the X3 xDrive30e’s throttle response is far sharper than its gasoline-only four-cylinder counterpart.
BMW’s fantastic ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox works well with either powerplant, shifting smoothly in comfort drive mode, but also quickly and precisely when called upon in Sport or manual shift modes.
To educate or entertain owners on the entire battery hybrid system, BMW’s iDrive system has a few extra screens and settings unique to the plugin-hybrid X3. Perhaps one of the most relevant and interesting screens for the purpose of this review is the “Battery Control” feature.
While not new to plug-in hybrids, this clever setting allows drivers to store the battery’s charge at a certain level to be used at a later time. Normally upon start-up, the X3 plug-in hybrid defaults to “hybrid” mode, leaving the switching or combination of both powertrains to the computer. In order to save as much fuel as possible, the system favours electric drive more than gasoline power.
However, “Battery Control” mode allows you, the driver, to control exactly when you want to use electric-only mode. The real-world scenario for me was on a longer drive (exceeding the battery-only range) where I knew I had the capability to plug-in the X3 at my destination.
Therefore, I could use the gas engine for the initial part of the journey, saving the all-electric range for the last 30-40 kilometres of my trip. I used this mode extensively, reducing as much of my time at the petrol stations as possible. In European countries with strict emissions controls, Battery Control mode can be used in downtown city centres, to reduce pollution.
How does the X3 xDrive30e handle?
The X3 has some great opposition to go against, the likes of which include the Jaguar F-Pace, the Porsche Macan, the Audi Q5, and the Mercedes-Benz GLC. At the time of publication, only the only luxury marque plug-in hybrid competitors to the BMW are the Mercedes GLC and the Volvo XC60 T8. However, a plug-in hybrid Macan is due for the 2022 model year.
This third generation X3 is built on BMWs CLAR (Cluster Architecture) modular platform, which was conceived with pure ICE drivetrains, mid-hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric drivetrains in mind. As such, there was no botching of the platform to create the X3 in this xDrive30e plug-in hybrid configuration.
Despite being slightly bigger than the first-gen X5, the X3 feels relatively athletic for its size and weight. With 288 horsepower, 0-100 km/hr sprints can be had in only 6.4 seconds. There are progressive body reactions and just a push of a button tautens the optional adaptive dampeners. Gearing is well-measured, as is response. The electric power steering is precise but not particularly communicative.
In the corners, the xDrive30e’s handling is tidy, but there is a bit more body roll during hard cornering in spite of its firmer dampening. Chalk it up to the extra weight from the battery. The aggressive energy regen can also sometimes give the brake pedal an overservoed spongy feel.
What about the inside?
Equipped in M Sport trim, my test X3 xDrive30e had an impressive blend of drivability and performance we’ve come to expect from BMW, plus the practicality, refinement, and interior amenities from the X3 line-up in general.
The cabin is typically spacious by compact class standards, and most of the high touch surfaces are high quality in look and feel. The X3’s cabin feels much more austere versus the GLC or XC60 though.
The typical assortment of Driver Assistance features are available, but BMW does make you pay for some of them. The full tilt package includes blindspot monitoring, lane-departure warning, and front collision warning. But adaptive cruise control and BMW’s Highway Driving Assist system (which combines adaptive cruise control with a lane-keeping system) are optional extras.
As previously mentioned, infotainment is by way of BMW’s excellent iDrive system displayed on a 10.2-inch touchscreen with secondary rotary controls. Wired or Wireless Apple CarPlay is available, and iDrive has apps for weather, news, and more. New infotainment software updates can even be downloaded over-the-air, thereby negating the need to have the firmware updated by the dealership only.
I particularly liked the BMWConnected functionality of the system, which connects the vehicle to the cloud. This means that various aspects of the X3 can be monitored and controlled via BMW’s mobile app. On the X3 xDrive30e, it makes a ton of sense as one can easily monitor the battery’s charging status, pre-heat or pre-cool the cabin, or even use the surround view cameras to see what is around the vehicle.
Is it worth buying?
BMW Group has ambitious plans to launch 25 new electrified models by 2023. These plans couldn’t have come at a better time as the COVID-19 pandemic has only driven up demand for these sorts of vehicles. After all, Canadians are viewing personal cars as the ultimate form of PPE, and studies have shown that we are now more conscious of our lifestyle choices and the impact on the environment compared to at the start of this pandemic.
The 2021 BMW X3 xDrive30e may not be as cheap or as powerful as some of its rivals, such as the Volvo XC60 T8. But if you are looking for a practical and fun-to-drive European compact luxury SUV, want to save fuel, but aren’t quite ready to go fully electric, the new X3 xDrive30e model might just be for you.
[REVIEW] 2021 Mercedes-AMG A35 hatch
Canada shares the world’s longest undefended border with the United States. But yet our cultures are distinctly different in many ways. Canada is a country that is often known for its culture of multiculturalism, and there are many values and beliefs that Canadians hold that are very different from Americans. Sometimes this can be confusing when the two cultures are combined and seem ‘obviously’ similar.
However, it is important to remember how unique Canada is not only in comparison to Europe, but also in comparison to America.
Case in point is with the 2021 Mercedes-AMG A35 hatchback, the test subject of today’s review. As previously written in my review of the 2020 Mercedes-Benz A250 4matic hatch, Canadians enjoy our small hatchbacks and wagons far more than our American cousins and we get to enjoy the Mercedes-AMG A35 hatch, which is not available South of the border.
Apparently part of this also has to do with global supply, as Canada has the highest AMG take-rate in the world (one in four Benzes sold in Canada are AMG models).
What is it?
The Mercedes-AMG A35 is the latest addition to the AMG “lite” family. As the most affordable AMG yet, one could be forgiven for wondering whether this is a cynical exercise in AMG logo placement. However, the depth of engineering and changes to the chassis that turns a regular A-Class hatch into an AMG means that the A35 is hardly the runt of the litter.
It might not have all the technical changes which go into the full tilt Mercedes-AMG A45, but the yet the upgrades are notable.
What are some of the changes compared to the A250?
These upgrades include a bespoke aluminum shear panel beneath the engine, additional bracing connecting the front suspension towers to the firewall, as well as bespoke suspension bits and bobs. Specifically, the AMG engineers have reduced unsprung weight and added stiffness to the front axle by introducing bespoke steering knuckles and new aluminum MacPherson struts. There are also four piston AMG front calipers on large cross-drilled rotors.
This inherent increase in stiffness across the chassis gave engineers a better starting point to best tune each of the respective hardware inputs with more precision than in the mainstream A250 hatch.
Powering the 2021 Mercedes-AMG A35 is an upgraded version of the M260 2.0 litre turbocharged four cylinder engine under the hood of the A250, rather than a detuned version of the AMG-built M139 engine from the A45 AMG.
It was no simple exercise in turning the boost up though. The standard turbo was replaced with a more sophisticated twin-scroll unit as well as an updated air-to-water intercooler amongst strengthened internals and upgraded breathing.
Power is rated at the aforementioned 302 horsepower, besting the Volkswagen Golf R and Audi S3, while torque peaks at 295lb-ft at 3,000rpm. The latter is a bit higher than I’d ordinarily like, as there is a bit of turbo lag at times.
The A35’s engine is paired with Mercedes-AMG’s seven-speed dual clutch gearbox (versus the eight-speed in the GLB35 or the A45), and power is sent to all four wheels via the latest iteration of Benz’s 4Matic all-wheel-drive system. This system powers the front axle only in normal driving before sending up to 50 per cent of the available torque aft when slippage is detected or during initial acceleration.
While there isn’t anything in the way of a torque vectoring rear differential to augment a rear-wheel-drive ‘feel’ into the handling balance – that’s the preserve of AMG’s more boisterous 382 horsepower A45 – the system is predictive and can determine exactly when drive should be shunted rearwards.
The 4matic system also has a Sport mode, activated in ESP Sport or off, which favours the rear axle more readily. There is also a range of five driving modes (Slippery, Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Individual), to suit your fancy to the environmental conditions.
Overall performance figures are strong with 0-100 km/hr runs taking about 4.8 seconds.
How does it drive?
Pull away and it’s not immediately obvious that the 2021 Mercedes-AMG A35 hatch is anything other than a standard A-class.
However, start delving into the plethora of AMG driver modes and the A35’s character changes quite dramatically, gradually sharpening the steering, throttle, transmission and the adaptive dampers. The ride is still rather stiff at times, but never punishing. If you’re looking for a boulevard cruiser though, this ain’t it.
Right from the off, the gruff four-cylinder is perhaps a little less refined than you would expect given the three-pointed star on the grille. Once inside it’s quiet enough, your attention instead drawn to the glitzy interior. While I won’t delve too much into the interior accoutrements as it is similar (in a good way) to the A250 hatch. Suffice it to say that the more aggressive AMG Alcantara sports seats (complete with mood lighting), red seatbelts, do add to the overall sportier character of the car.
The A35’s driving feel is unmistakably front-led/neutral. This isn’t a bad thing but it’s less rewarding to drive hard compared to its more expensive A45 sibling. Power is transferred aft seamlessly and without any chirping at the front wheels, and if you enter a fast corner on the brakes, the tail does lighten. That’s largely as exciting as it gets as the well-calibrated stability control system holds the line well and the A35 hatch is never intimidating to pilot.
On challenging roads, the A35’s inherent increase in stiffness is apparent especially if you’re on a challenging road. However, this also brought up a fit and finish issue in my test vehicle, which had all sorts of squeaks from the seats and trim pieces. I could never pinpoint the exact panels which were the issues, but other AMG vehicles that I’ve driven haven’t had this issue.
Overall, the 2021 Mercedes-AMG A35 hatch is a stylish and sporty compact hatch. If you’re looking for something that won’t break the bank but is a bit more unique, with more power, agility compared to the standard A250 hatch, this may be a good starting point to get a little dash of AMG in your life.
Just keep in mind that there is a new 2022 Volkswagen Golf R just coming around the corner.
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