Exiting the A1 autobahn and onto the outskirts of Vienna, the heads-up display of the BMW 330e is showing 11 kilometers left to the destination. With its battery charge hovering at 50%, which in theory should return 18.5km worth of electric drive (or 37km when fully charged), the challenge to reach the hotel without spewing anymore greenhouse gases is duly accepted.
The Austrian suburban speed limit is 50km/h, the 330e’s combustion engine goes silent on its own accord as we slow to a traffic light stop. Progress is resumed on electric power, the female voice guidance noticeably more audible than before, interspersed by the faint whine of the electric motor as we pull away near silently. This is cool stuff.
Substance to back the promise
Few brands have earned the privilege to radiate as focused a brand message as BMW yet maintain an appeal so universal. To have done so while outselling its rivals over the last decade is testimony to the product substance which lends authenticity to the message. BMW has rarely failed to deliver its brand promise of driving pleasure, even if you can’t tell FWD from RWD, people buy BMW cars for what they stand for.
As the 330e’s 18-inch tyres thrum over the cobble stone streets of the city centre, the BMW is in the good company of electric-powered trams. I can’t help but imagine the many choppy meetings where marketing and communication heads of BMW must have crossed swords on how best to communicate its most precious product – the sporty 3-Series – in an unfamiliar slant. This is after all the car that still writes the chapter on executive sedans.
The irony wasn’t lost as the 330e stealthily crept its way into the dungeon-like hotel basement car park. The engine never did fire back up, so the ‘electric’ mission is accomplished. For once, the pleasure of a BMW wasn’t derived from its combustion engine or how it handled. In a surreal sort of way, completing 11km worth of zero emission travel was more of a buzz than the 400km that preceded it. Time to refill the exhausted human tank with a wiener schnitzel then.
Every bit a 3-Series, yet different
The fact that nothing of note stood out en route to Vienna (from Munich) speaks volumes of the engineering and calibration work put into the 330e. The F30 3-Series is a known quantity, so while the 330e is heavier to the tune of around 150kg compared to a 330i with the same engine, you won’t feel the burden in the drive, certainly not in how it performs in a straight line or in the corners.
If anything, acceleration is more linear as an electric motor knows no lag. In the 330e, it has up to 88hp and 250Nm worth of motor assistance from standstill (battery charge permitting) and that takes care of the extra kilos and whatever power delivery gaps the 184hp/290Nm turbocharged four-cylinder might have at lower revs.
Just like how idle stop systems work, you can feel and hear when the combustion engine comes to life, but since both power sources are coupled directly to the 8-speed automatic transmission, the energy changeovers and transitions are near seamless. We’d like to think the lessons learnt from the i3 and i8 have been put to good use here. There are however instances where the 330e sounds more guttural than one would expect from a regular petrol-powered 3-Series, particularly when the engine is doubling up as a generator to charge up the battery in ‘Save’ mode (it’ll replenish up to 50%), the 330e’s hybrid system is surprisingly cultured in the way it goes about its business. Let’s just say it never gets in the way of fun.
And no, my butt sensors couldn’t subjectively discern the performance disparity between the 330e (6.1 seconds) and the 330i (5.9 seconds) from idle to 100km/h, or if the 330e is any less incisive than a regular 330i on tight Bavarian trunk roads, though whenever the 330e ran over sharp road creases, it does feel as if the spring/damping rates have been firmed up, along with some dulling of sensation through the brake pedal. As the left-hook loaner was fitted with the firmer and lower-sitting M-Sport suspension (passive type), the standard set up of the Malaysian-spec 330e may well be the better bet considering the sorry state of our roads.
Plug-in hybrids: the next battle ground
Over the last decade or so, manufacturers have pulled out all stops to make cars run more efficiently while emitting lower emissions; engine downsizing, turbo-charging, lighter body construction and of course, an increased use of electrics, whether to power mechanical parts (previously hydraulically driven) or to provide propulsion assistance for the vehicle itself. Clearly, plug-in hybrid is the logical progression of the aforementioned technologies, at least until the widespread availability of charging networks to support full EVs, which may take a while.
The 330e is returned unscathed to BMW’s press garage at Garching (just outside Munich) saved for a million bug kills chalked up over a journey of 1,009km. Considering that the 330e ‘cruised’ at over 200km/h on certain de-restricted stretches of the German autobahn when its efficiency is perhaps better served with lower average speeds (as most hybrids are), the achievement of 14.8km per litre of RON95 petrol over predominantly highways (around 70%) and a mix of trunk roads and city crawls is noteworthy, if not impressive.
As if BMW was ever going to trip up on a 3-Series, so for those who already have eyes on the 330e, you have an easy endorsement from us, that is if the highly attractive price of RM248,800 haven’t already brought out your cheque books. Yet I can’t help but feel that the 330e may be undersold and underappreciated in the current context of cheap fuel and global warming apathy (don’t blame governments, it starts with us), when it is in effect a clear affirmation that car manufacturers have gone beyond hedging bets and are in fact locked in on the path to full electric mobility. With the 330e, you can plug in and start living the electric dream.