Hybrids

2020 BMW 330e first drive review: Efficiency meets performance

With XtraBoost on tap, even a plug-in 3 Series is still pretty darn good to drive.

BMW
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The newest BMW 3 Series is an excellent return to form for the sports sedan, bringing back some of the intangible joie de vivre that we felt was missing from the last model. Yet as well as sportiness, BMW is also focused on improving the car's efficiency, so there's a revised version of the 3 Series plug-in hybrid. Don't panic, though: A brief drive near Munich, Germany, revealed that the 2020 BMW 330e plug-in hybrid is still a 3 Series through and through.

New PHEV powertrain

The 330e has the same basic powertrain components as any other plug-in hybrid: Up front is a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four gas engine, while an 83-kilowatt electric motor is integrated into the eight-speed automatic transmission. Under the back seats hides a 12.0-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, which is much more energy-dense than the last 3 Series plug-in battery. Total system output is rated at 252 horsepower, though BMW hasn't yet shared exact ratings for the gas engine. That's a 4-hp gain from the last 330e's combined output.

The car can drive just on the gas engine, just on the electric motor or on a combo of both. All-electric driving range on a full battery is quoted at 60 kilometers under European testing, but BMW cautions that US range will be less than the simple conversion of 37 miles, mainly because Europe's mileage-testing regimes are very different.

Still, it's safe to say that most 330e owners would be able to handle much of their daily commutes on electrical power alone. The previous 330e, by contrast, had an EPA range rating of just 14 miles thanks to its 7.6-kWh battery pack.

The new 330e's battery pack is more energy-dense than before, at 12.0 kilowatt-hours.

BMW

Straightforward efficiency

With just-right brake and throttle mapping, the 330e even in all-electric mode is just as satisfying to drive as any other BMW. The car is near-silent, though a low-speed sound generator will be standard in the US market as required by law. It's got ample power for country road driving and accelerates incredibly smoothly on battery power.

When the gasoline engine kicks in, it makes itself known with a somewhat coarse and gravelly sound, but it's still fairly muted as plug-in powertrains go. Acceleration with the motor and engine working together is well-judged: quick and responsive enough to feel involving yet smooth when you drive like you're transporting business colleagues. Even if you're driving in Electric mode, the gas engine will fire up if you depress the kickdown switch (pedal to the floor), which is a nice perk if you suddenly need or want to blast your way past some slow-moving traffic without first finding the drive mode buttons.

Though there weren't too many engaging twists and turns on my drive route, the 330e acquitted itself well on winding country roads. The well-damped ride and nicely weighted steering kept me involved in the drive, yet the car kept wind noise and road bumps subdued in typical luxury sedan fashion.

A digital instrument cluster shows battery charge and other driving information.

BMW

As with the 745e plug-in, BMW has simplified the hybrid drive mode controls in the 330e. The car has straightforward buttons labeled Hybrid (the default), Electric and Sport, as well as Individual mode for configuring based on personal preferences. BMW says the European-market 330e can drive at up to 87 miles per hour in Electric mode, with overall top speed pegged at a more-than-adequate 143 mph.

The car can even use a feature called Intelligent Deceleration with Adaptive Recuperation to decide whether to coast or regen power into the battery pack when approaching intersections. Battery Control mode, meanwhile, instructs the car to keep the battery charged at a level you choose (e.g. 65 percent) so that you can save your all-electric motoring for later in the journey.

Sounds like an energy drink, pulls like a six-cylinder

Being that the badge says 3 Series, BMW did not skimp on sportiness for the 330e and added a special driving mode called XtraBoost. It's one step above the regular Sport mode and gives a 41-horsepower power boost from the electric motor. It'll get the car from rest to 62 miles per hour in just 6 seconds. BMW representatives say you can use XtraBoost for up to 10 seconds at a time; in real-world street driving, they say, it's unlikely you'd ever "run out" of the power boost unless the battery were depleted.

The 330e can travel at up to 87 mph in Electric mode -- more than enough for US drivers.

BMW

XtraBoost also dials up some sportier sound enhancement, more aggressive throttle response, quicker downshifts from the automatic transmission and some unique graphics on the full-digital instrument cluster. The transformation is dramatic, and not only because of the orange-tinged gauges and rortier sounds.

Throttle response in XtraBoost is so strong, even at not-legal-in-the-US autobahn speeds, that the 330e feels like it has a much larger-displacement engine. Swapping back and forth between XtraBoost and the standard Sport mode really makes the difference evident: The car feels like it punches way above its weight class thanks to the instant responses and always-on torque delivery of the electric motor. If it weren't for pesky things like "traffic" and "optimizing efficiency," I'd recommend driving the 330e in this mode all the time.

The 330e launches in Europe in July, it'll take some time -- and emissions certification -- before the car reaches the US.

BMW

A compelling plug-in option

The conversion to plug-in propulsion is not without its downsides. BMW officials say the 330e is about 220 pounds heavier than a gas-fired 330i, though an exact US curb weight isn't yet available, and because the fuel tank is located under the trunk, the floor is higher and cargo space will suffer a very slight hit.

Though the BMW 330e will launch in Europe in July, its journey across the Atlantic will be delayed by several months, as BMW representatives say that certifying the powertrain for the US will take some time. Our car will receive a version of the 2.0-liter engine dubbed B46 while Europe gets the B48: It's essentially the same mill, with the same power outputs, but with different emissions tuning.

Still, it'll be worth the wait for the way the 330e seamlessly integrates hybridization into the classic 3 Series package. A BMW US spokesman says the car will even be available with all-wheel drive, making it more appealing to BMW's many customers in the Snowbelt. And for those in California, BMW expects the 330e will be approved for one of the state's coveted carpool-access stickers. If you're ready to switch to electrified driving but not ready to give up on the Ultimate Driving Machine, the 330e may be just what you're looking for.


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