Some automakers leaped into the plug-in-hybrid market by designing new models from scratch — think and Chevrolet Volt and Kia Niro. While BMW’s all-electric i3 was all-new as well, the German automaker dared to develop a plug-in-hybrid version of its iconic 3 Series sedan. The 330e is still around two years later, despite fuel prices that (until recently) have been low enough to steer many drivers toward sport-utility vehicles and other relatively thirsty models.
Aficionados need not fear BMW somehow soiled the “3” brand. The 330e matches its gasoline-only brethren in every respect that matters — performance, balance, luxury, style and handling. The price of admission is higher, but the miles-per-gallon equivalent — assuming maximum use of the charging system — clocks in at 72 mpg-e.
Our test car, wearing a coat of Sunset Orange Metallic paint, carried a sticker price that reached the mid-$40,000s, compared with $34,900 for a conventional 320i. Since the base 3 Series is fuel-efficient in its own right — 24 mpg city, 35 highway — and has zero impact on its owner’s electric bill, the prospect of big savings from the plug-in-hybrid system is negligible.
The advantage of plug-in hybrids, compared with all-electric cars like the BMW i3, Nissan Leaf and Tesla, is their ability to switch from electric to gasoline operation. There’s no “range anxiety” with a plug-in or conventional hybrid. Indeed, our BMW discreetly switched from one system to the other on the highway as we did our daily commute from Bethel, Conn., to Waterbury.
The car’s only deficiency was its short range in all-electric mode. The Volt, also a plug-in hybrid, can cruise up to 53 miles on electric power alone, more than double the BMW’s range. When we test-drove a Volt a few years ago, the gasoline engine kicked on only once in the week we had the car. The BMW, driven along the same route we took with the Volt, didn’t come close to reaching the destination on household juice alone. The first day, we plugged in the charger outdoors, and the cold temperatures apparently lowered the car’s range under battery power to about 14 miles. The second day, we charged it indoors, and it went about 20 miles before the gasoline engine took over. After that, we didn’t bother charging it.
Bottom line? For most commuters, the BMW doesn’t go far enough on battery power to make the plug-in-hybrid system worth the extra price. For those who travel shorter distances and are able to park at charging stations near their workplaces, however, the combination of lower gasoline consumption in the long term — and state and federal tax exemptions in the short term — make the 330e worth a look.
There are many plug-in-hybrid sedans on the market, but only a few match the BMW 330e’s performance and European road manners. With the exception of the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, they tend to cost more: the Cadillac CT6 PHEV, Mercedes-Benz C350E and BMW 740e.
2018 BMW 330e Hybrid
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged Four with 87-horsepower electric motor, 248 horsepower, 310 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: 8-speed shiftable automatic
Weight: 3,541 lb.
Suspension: four-wheel independent
Wheels: 17×7.5-in. alloy
Tires: 225/50R17 94V run-flat
Seating capacity: 5
Luggage capacity: 13 cu. ft.
Fuel capacity: 15.8 gallons
Fuel economy: 72 mpg-e with charge; 32 mpg without charge
Fuel type: premium unleaded gasoline (recommended)
Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a long-time car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.