Charging flap distinguishes 330e

Charging flap distinguishes 330e

Those who doubt the appeal of plug-in hybrids should try the BMW 330e. Instant and abundant torque, a silent surge of electric or petrol turbo power plus low emissions and excellent fuel economy make this the best all-rounder in the 3 Series range.

The 330e is the newest variant to be added to the four-year old F30 3 Series line up. BMW showed a prototype of the car at its Innovation Days event in Germany in November 2014 with series production getting underway a year later. Car for the British market arrived here in June. 

Unlike the ActiveHybrid 3, which was a series hybrid, the 330e can be recharged via an external source of electricity as well as energy harvested from its brakes. There isn't quite as much power as the 203kW of the unique to China 530 Le, but the 330e's 185kW (248hp) and 420Nm are enough to get the car to 62mph in just 6.1 seconds. Top speed is 140mph.

The all-important CO2 number is 44-49g/km (it depends on the diameter of the alloy wheels you choose) and the official MPG figure is 134.5mpg. The range from energy stored in the cells is said be 25 miles but I never saw more than 22. With things such as A/C or heated seats on, the battery drains fairly quickly, so where it might say 22 miles remaining this soon drops to 16 or 17 after one or two miles. 

Yes, the handling is affected by those lithium ion cells with BMW noting a 200kg penalty in comparison to the 320i. Yet nine out of ten drivers probably won't notice the difference and apart from additional brake wear, does the overall heft of 1,735kg matter? If anything, the ride is better than lighter 3 Series variants, even if there is no way to hide a little additional understeer. Four-wheel drive is not available for the 330e, nor is there an estate.

The lack of a Touring is explained by the loss of boot space in the saloon from the battery pack: you lose 110 cubic litres and don't forget that like other EVs and PHEVs, there are two bulky bags of cables stashed in the luggage compartment which also eat into the available space. There's only 370 litres of room for your gear in what is a large D segment sedan, but that apart, the 330e has no serious flaws and a lot of assets.

It starts up in silence and as long as you don't press too hard on the right pedal, you won't wake the turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine. This has the electric motor attached to it, and the transmission is a ZF eight-speed automatic. I saw speeds as high as 80mph, at which point I eased back. The battery charge soon starts to be drained away if you drive at high velocity and this is when something fascinating happens. The petrol engine fires up and then you're cruising along with the coolant temperature gauge showing a cold engine even though you could well have already been half an hour into your journey. So smooth is the transition to petrol power that only the tacho swinging into action tells you that it has happened.

To look at, only the additional fuel flap in one of the front wings gives away that it's a 330e from the front, and there are eDrive logos on the D pillars. The car is blipped open with the usual loud click of a BMW's door locks and for a moment, there is the most beautiful soft light blue illumination throughout the cabin. When the door handle is pulled this changes to ordinary white light, which is a shame. 

If you like that blue, it also features in a pulsing ring around the charging port when the car is plugged in and this is accompanied by a faint whirring. The 7.6kWh cell pack takes about two hours to charge if you have BMW's i Wallbox and slightly more than three hours if only a three-point plug is available.

If you recharge overnight or at your office, the 330e can make a lot of economic sense and with a fast charger it's easy enough to top up regularly. The fleet manager will be happy with the £2,500 government rebate and the BiK rate of seven percent for fiscal 2016-2017 can equate to £2,000 or more, which takes some of the sting out of an on the road price which starts at £33,935.

Future electric BMWs

The pace at which battery advances keep happening means the next generation of the 330e will likely have a more commodious boot as well as less weight and more range. That car is due in the first quarter 2019 and G20 is the development code for the standard wheelbase 3 Series saloon (G21: Touring; G22: 4 Series Coupe; G23: 4 Series Convertible; G24: 3 Series GT; G25 3 Series Li; G26 4 Series Gran Coupe). By then, quite a few other electric BMWs will be available. Due to some of these being developed with inductive charging, I won't call these cars plug-ins.

The i range will be expanded with the arrival of the i5, an electric five-door hatchback for the D segment. It should be built alongside the i3 (replacement due in 2020 and next i8 in 2021) at Leipzig and like those cars, lots of carbon fibre should be used for the platform. 

One year after the i5 hits the market in 2019, an eDrive version of the next X3 will enter production at Spartanburg, though most of the drivetrain would be imported from Germany. Some sources are claiming that Magna Steyr might instead build this model at Graz.

For the moment, there are no official plans to export the clunkily named  X1 xDrive25Le iPerformance from China. This plug-in hybrid version of the long-wheelbase X1 had its global debut at the Chengdu motor show in September and will be built by Brilliance BMW starting in December. A 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine and one electric motor produce a combined 231hp of power and 385Nm of torque. BMW says the EV range is up to 60km. 

The 530 Le mentioned earlier is due to be replaced in 2018, about six months after the next long-wheelbase 5 Series enters production at a Brilliance BMW plant in Shenyang. Like the plug-in X1, the existing PHEV 5 Series is exclusive to China but there might well be exports of the next model. 

The follow up to the X5 xDrive40e is due out in late 2020 or early 2021 and this will again be US-built. It will switch platforms and use an evolution of 35UP as introduced in 2015 by the 7 Series.

Successors for the 740e, 740Le & 740Le xDrive are not due until 2022 or 2023, and these will be based on an evolution of 35UP. These three cars have only just gone on sale in relevant markets. All are powered by BMW's B48 four-cylinder petrol engine and one electric motor, which together generate total system output of 240kW/326hp. There will likely be the possibility of inductive charging as part of a package of mid-life revisions for the PHEV 7 Series variants in 2019. This might even come sooner than that in response to the same technology being offered in 2017 by the S 500 e L (S 550 e in North America) and next generation Audi A8 e-tron.

In January 2013, BMW and Toyota agreed to share their technologies and to jointly develop a fundamental fuel cell vehicle system. This, the companies stated, would include not only a fuel cell stack and system, but also a hydrogen tank, motor and battery, aiming for completion in 2020.

A small run of BMW Hydrogen 7 sedans were built between 2007 and 2008 but until the January 2013 announcement, the company had been quiet on fuel cell technology. News is awaited of the next BMW model to be powered by hydrogen. There have been suggestions that an i7 powered by hydrogen is under development. This would reportedly share much with the Toyota Mirai.