Here — for once — is a hybrid that does not suck.
Gas — or otherwise.
The BMW 330 eDrive.
You can drive the thing 80 MPH(or faster) on just the batteries.
And as far as 15-20 miles.
Without gimping along like a Vespa scooter, dragging a conga line of infuriated sufferers behind you. Punch it — and leave them all behind you.
Except maybe for the guy in the Mustang GT back there, who might be able to keep up.
The catch, of course, is that it’s not cheap.
But unlike a Tesla — which is even less cheap — the BMW’s not functionally ridiculous.
You’ll never find yourself stuck by the side of the road waiting for the batteries to regroup.
Or, for a flatbed.
WHAT IT IS
The 330 eDrive is the plug-in hybrid version of BMW’s 3 Series mid-sized luxury-sport sedan. Like a true submarine that can operate under water for long stretches — as opposed to a mere submersible that can briefly dive below the surface — the BMW can operate as a functional car, at normal road speeds and for long stretches, entirely on its electric drivetrain.
Most hybrids can only creep along for a couple of miles on just the batteries — and the handful of plug-in hybrids that can go farther (like the Chevy Volt, for instance) are much slower.
Of course, they also cost much less, too.
A 2017 Volt plug-in hybrid (review coming soon) lists for $33,200.
This one goes for $44,695.
But it also goes.
Zero to 60 in 5.8 seconds. Top speed — 140.
This blend of high-performance and high-efficiency puts the BMW in a class by itself.
The Chevy Volt is similar in terms of being a plug-in hybrid able to go a fairly long way (as far as 50-ish miles) on just its batteries. But it doesn’t go like a BMW when you mash the gas.
A Tesla is quicker — but only briefly. Mash the “gas” and you will soon run out of juice — because the Tesla is a pure electric car without IC engine back-up. Once the battery goes flaccid you are dead in the water until you can find a “fast” charger.
And then be on the road about half an hour to 45 minutes later.
If you can’t find a “fast” charger… maybe go see a movie, do some shopping, book yourself into a nearby hotel for the night.
Or, call for a flatbed and drag the corpse home.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2016
The 330 eDrive is a new model.
It kinda-sorta replaces the 2015 ActiveHybrid version of the BMW 3 — but that model was not a plug-in and wasn’t particularly economical to operate (25 city, 33 highway). And while it was quicker (zero to 60 in 5.1 seconds) it was also a lot more expensive: $51,145 to start.
High performance and high-efficiency … whether burning gas or electricity.
No Range Anxiety. Go anywhere you like — as fast as you like.
Refill in minutes with gas — or juice up (with electricity) in about three hours.
It’s not too expensive to be ridiculous on the face of it (like the Tesla) as an economic alternative to a non-hybrid car.
It’s not a Volt …. or a Prius.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
If you want xDrive AWD or a manual transmission, you’re out of luck. This model is rear-drive (and automatic) only.
Added weight of hybrid gear negatively affects the car’s handling, which is still very good relative to any non-BMW hybrid … but not as good as a non-hybrid BMW.
All-electric range (about 20 miles, give or take) is good — but probably not good enough to avoid burning gas on most trips. (The Chevy Volt, though not even in the same league as a performance car or a prestige car, can run 50 miles or so on a full charge; well within the orbit of most people’s daily commutes… coming and going. It’s very doable to run that thing on electricity-only almost all the time. And it costs about $13k less, too.)
A diesel-powered 3 Series ($39,850 and 42 MPG on the highway) is a compelling alternative. It’s not as heavy, it handles better, will probably last longer — and it’s about $5k less to buy.
UNDER THE HOOD
Like other hybrids, there’s a gas engine and an electric motor/battery pack under the 330e’s hood (and under the trunk). The difference here is the emphasis on no-compromises power/performance and efficiency of operation.
Most hybrids have an under-sized gas engine that’s just barely adequate to propel the car (Prius) and which needs a helping hand from the electric motor/battery pack to surpass adequate. The gas engine is small in order to keep gas usage low but the result is (typically) sickly performance.
Not so here.
The starting point is BMW’s already punchy 2.0 liter TwinPower (twin scroll turbocharged) four, the same engine that powers the standard/non-hybrid 320i and contributes 180 hp to the pot. To this is added a 76 hp electric motor, for a combined output of 247 hp. This is 7 hp more than the up-rated (240 hp) version of the 2.0 engine used in the non-hybrid 328i.
The battery pack and electric motor (integrated with the eight-speed automatic, not a CVT — as in most hybrids) add weight — but not that much. The 330 eDrive tips the scales at 3,660 lbs. vs. 3,410 for the non-hybrid 328i — a difference of 250 pounds. This difference explains the slightly less quick acceleration of the 330 eDrive.
But it’s still very quick — for a hybrid and otherwise.
Zero to 60 in 5.8 seconds vs. 5.4 for the 328i.
Some perspective? The 330 eDrive gets to 60 almost twice as quickly as a Prius.
That’s a shade of “green” I like.
The Chevy Volt is a more respectable contender, acceleration-wise (low sevens to 60) but no threat to the BMW’s status as the hybrid that hauls.
Like the Volt, the BMW is also a plug-in hybrid.
It has a high-capacity battery pack designed to be fully capable of moving (as opposed to merely powering) the car without the gas engine’s help at all — for about 20 miles.
Unlike the Volt, the BMW is set up to go quickly — even on electric power.
The same Sport mode you’d find in any other BMW is also to be found here. And you can engage it when in all-electric (“eDriveMax”) mode, too.
The latter is up to you, incidentally.
The car will either automatically toggle in between gas and electric mode or remain in all-electric eDrive Max mode — until the battery charge gets low — as you prefer.
But the critical thing to know is the BMW’s battery will never run entirely out of juice — unlike a Tesla or any all-electric car. There is no range anxiety here.
Because this is a hybrid car. The gas engine serves as an onboard generator as well as a motive source.
It powers the car — and recharges the batteries as you drive. So you’re never completely out of juice. And you’ll always have the gas engine to fall back on.
You will need to plug in again in order to recover the full 15-20 or so miles of all-electric capability. But you’ll still be able to go for short distances on just electricity (as in stop and go traffic) and the system will still be able to alternate between using the gas engine or the battery pack/electric motor to propel the car and run the accessories.
Which means — worst case scenario — you’ll still average lows 30s, as I did during a weeklong test drive.
That’s better mileage than the non-hybrid 320i, which isn’t nearly as quick.
And if say a third or more of your daily driving is less than 20 miles there and back — such that you can rely entirely on the batteries — your average MPGs will be much higher.
ON THE ROAD
This car was designed chiefly to address a European Uncle problem. Over there, carbon dioxide — an inert gas that doesn’t cause or contribute to smog — is nonetheless considered an “emission” and unlike hydrocarbon compounds and particulates, the only way to not produce C02 is to not burn gas.
Or, breathe (that’s another rant).
But even Europeans think electric cars suck. They’re either slow — or they can’t go very far. And they all take forever to recharge.
Enter this car.
It can glide into the IC No Go Zones and then go somewhere else, too. Without a long pause in between.
And on the Autobahn.
You don’t want a Prius on the Autobahn. And while a Tesla could handle it, it would only do so for a little while.
This one can run with the Porsches — and the Priii (plural Prius).
It goes both ways.
It’s also very much on the down low.
Other than the “eDrive” badge on each sail panel, it is not obvious you are driving a different sort of BMW.
The instrument cluster, for instance, is the same as the one you’d be looking at in a 320i or 328i. And forget using your ears to discern the difference. It’s quiet whether on the batteries or the gas or in between.
Oddly, the transitions are unnoticeable. Oddly, because in other (non-hybrid) BMWs I have driven lately, the auto start/stop system (which shuts off the gas engine when he vehicle is stopped to reduce fuel consumption, then restarts it automatically when the driver takes his foot off the brake) is discernible.
Unkind writers have referred to it as the “paint shaker,” like when you go to Lowes.
But in the 330 eDrive, there’s no sensation (or sound) to tell you when the gas engine has retired (or made its appearance on stage)… unless you closely watch the tachometer. If the gas engine is sleeping, the tach needle will be at rest. When the gas engine comes to life, so does the tach.
And also the temperature gauge.
It’s weird — at first to — see the needle not move even after you’ve been driving for 20 minutes. Get out and pop the hood. The engine’s still as cold as when you left the house.
A particular coolness of this car is that you can engage Sport while in eDriveMax (all electric mode). In other hybrids, everything defaults to maximum economy when the thing’s in electric mode, to eke as much range out of the batteries as possible. Here, you can haul ass without so much as a C02 fart coming out of the tailpipe.
If you keep your foot in it, the gas engine will step in. But the thing to know is that you can leave traffic behind you without it coming on.
There are some compromises, of course.
One is that the 330’s handling isn’t quite as deft as that of the non-hybrid Threes. This is surely due to the extra several hundred pounds of weight, which (because of the nature of the beast) isn’t as ideally distributed as it is in the non-hybrid Threes. There’s that battery pack over the rear axle, for instance.
The 330 also comes fitted with less aggressive rolling stock (17×7.5 inch wheels with all-season tires) for less rolling resistance and higher mileage potential.
That said, I think what will matter to most prospects is the adrenaline fix of Pure Speed. The way the car picks itself up and lunges forward on command, like a cheetah running down an antelope. There are not many cars — period — that can outrun this car.
Forget hybrid cars.
AT THE CURB
It seems everyone wants to be “green,” but not everyone wants to look green.
Well, not the clientele that shops BMWs.
Prius People bask in the goofy — and obviously hybrid — appearance of the Prius. They are making a statement as much as any BMW pilot.
Just a different one.
Which is probably why the 330e looks like a BMW 3. It is an incognito hybrid.
Sharp eyes will catch the little access door (for the electric pigtail) located on the driver’s side lower front quarter panel. But other than this, there is no obvious exterior difference between the 330e and a 328i.
The gauge cluster is the same — and focused on engine RPM, not kilowatts. The LCD Sport display calls up horsepower and torque.
Only subtleties give away the hybrid nature of this car.
Like the little button to the left of the gear shifter for the eight-speed automatic that manually engages all-electric mode. And if you look closely at the gauge cluster, you will see a little bar graph display indicating the state of the battery’s charge and the range left on the batteries alone.
But these cues aside, it is easy to forget that this is a hybrid — which is what was intended.
You are still driving a BMW 3.
Not a Prius.
And if you want to put even more distance between yourself and a Prius (or a Volt) buy the available M Sport package. It swaps out the 17x.7.5 inch rolling stock for lightweight 18×8.5 wheels and 45-series high-performance tires, a cinched-down suspension and an ECU flashed to allow triple the double nickel top speed.
This car is all about having your cake and eating it, too.
Recharging the battery via the supplied power cord — which plugs into any standard 115V household outlet — only takes about 3-4 hours. But you don’t have to wait 3-4 hours — or even 5 minutes — to get going again. Just gas her up and go.
That’s the appeal of a plug-in hybrid vs. an electric-only car like the Tesla.
The BMW is practical.
It even has a normal car’s trunk (made bigger on demand by the fully-folding second row seatbacks).
And it’s also a lot of fun.
The question is whether it’s economical.
It is a little Weird to apply that word to any car with a price tag over $40k — or even $30k. It is like ordering a diet Coke with a triple angus Thickburger.
But you are consuming fewer calories… .
You’ll pay about $6,400 more (all else being equal) to get into a 330 eDrive vs. an otherwise- comparable rear-drive 328i. As with any plug-in hybrid, justifying the additional up-front costs is a function of how little you use the gas side of the powertrain.
The less you use it, the more it makes economic sense.
And, the reverse.
Of course, part of this car’s appeal is its Green Appeal. That it is “environmentally friendly.” This, too, is a debatable thing. Even if it’s running on 100 percent electricity 100 percent of the time, it is still producing emissions. Just not out of the tailpipe.
Out of the smokestack.
Of coal and oil-fired utility plants.
And: electricity isn’t free.
Plugging in every day will increase your monthly utility bill. By how much is hard to say with precision because the bill does not separate out individual usage — how much power the fridge (or the car) uses. The government posts mileage/annual cost-to-fuel figures but hasn’t yet figured out how to quantify the cost of the electricity these things use.
It’s certainly less than the cost of gas — at the moment. But what will happen if there are millions of plug-in/electric cars drawing power from the grid?
Expect costs to go up.
This might happen sooner than we expect, too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s not cheap — but it’s not gimpy.
And it’s pretty.
It slakes the need for speed — and the pressure to be perceived as a Friend o’ the Earth by Uncle.
Probably, this is the only way we’ll be allowed to have cars that are still fun come the future.
If, that is, you can afford the freight.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos