MUNICH, Germany—History is likely to declare plug-in hybrids the awkward ’tweens of electrification. Caught between internal-combustion childhood and fully electrified adulthood, plug-in hybrids must bow to two overlords in the current fuel-focused infrastructure and the nascent electron-powered future. While some gas-electric combos invariably drive better than others, the goal is ultimately the same: offer a modicum of improved efficiency and perhaps a shot at entering city-center congestion zones while ameliorating range anxiety with good, old gas.
The new 2021 BMW 330e doesn’t hit U.S. shores until summer of 2020, but the reason why is a good indicator of its place in the awkward march toward electrification. Qualifying for coveted HOV lane-access stickers via U.S. and California Air Resources Board standards required delaying its introduction in the U.S. As it stands, if you’re hot for a 3 Stateside and can’t wait a year, there’s always the $40,750 2.0-liter four-cylinder 330i or the $54,995 3.0-liter six-cylinder M340i sedan, both of which are featured on BMW’s all-new, slightly larger G20 platform.
As it stands, the new plug-in 3er claims a few improvements over the model it replaces, starting with the hard numbers: a top speed of 87 mph in EV mode (an improvement of 12 mph) and an estimated electric-only range of between 37 and 41 miles, a more than 50 percent bump. [Of course, that’s using European test cycle figures; once the car is rated by the EPA, figure something like 20 to 25 miles of electric range.) When the 2.0-liter turbo four’s 184 horsepower conspire with the 113 horses from the electric motor, zero to 62 mph is achieved in 5.9 seconds. Together, the powerplants send 310 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels.
Numbers are somewhat anathema to BMW’s marketing mantra of paramount piloted contraptions, but a necessary part of the quest included the valuable HOV sticker which will no doubt grace countless 330e commuters. So while the faithful may moan about the loss of a manual gearbox, our 330e plug-in comes configured in a way that will likely appeal to its target constituents, being equipped with an eight-speed, paddle-actuated automatic and low-rolling-resistance Pirelli Cinturato P7s.
The updated cabin presents itself nicely if somewhat innocuously, with improved appointments but a demeanor that remains more businesslike than dazzling. BMW’s new digital dashboard is a bit of a letdown with its overly stylized, un-aircraft-gauge-like depictions that make us miss the company’s twin, high-contrast speedo and tach gauges of yore. A cloud-based Intelligent Personal Assistant responds rather effectively to the “Hey, BMW” call, but my request to change the trigger phrase was less successful, making it difficult to talk about said Bimmer without triggering the omnipresent ears. For what it’s worth, Mercedes-Benz’s MBUX system with its “Hey, Mercedes” function is similarly meddling.
Our three-hour Bavarian test drive kicked off in the most ecologically thoughtful setting, EV, which will receive internal-combustion fortification when your right foot can no longer resist the urge to stomp. There’s good thrust on tap if you dip into the reserves, while Sport mode also offers a so-called XtraBoost effect that adds an extra 40 horsepower for 10 seconds. Upon activation, a somewhat flat-sounding aural engine enhancement instantly comes through the speakers, a fairly blatant fakeroo that doesn’t fade in or anything. But, hey, everyone’s doing similar stuff, so there’s that.
Steering feel is somewhat hazy, possibly due in part to the efficiency-focused rubber at all four corners. The car feels solid and harmoniously engineered, and drivers will feel confident cornering at elevated speeds, but the Pirellis squeal when you toss the car even at low velocities, and despite warm ambient temperatures. The muted feel becomes more pronounced during high-speed directional changes, making the body feel like its responses are a beat or two behind the steering inputs.
As for the drivetrain, the transitions between electric and gas power come smoothly enough to not draw any particular attention. “It’s designed so you are not supposed to think about it,” one BMW engineer told us, a frame of mind that helped make the drive experience more organic than rational. In fact, BMW has taken the guesswork out several aspects of the plug-in experience, particularly the drop-the-pedal-and-go part. Sure, you have a few trip planning tools in your 330e’s quiver, including a way to reserve spots at participating charging stations and automatically switch to fully electric propulsion when entering emissions-restricted zones. But the prevailing theme of the human/machine interface is one of polished ease: Apart from the sometimes-disconnected steering response, the modes—Hybrid, Sport, EV—work exactly as you would expect them to, and the regenerative braking system is intuitive enough to encourage trust. Being in Southern Germany meant an unrestricted autobahn blast was on the table, and the 330e achieved its claimed 230-kph (143-mph) Vmax with drama-free ease.
BMW may appear to be waffling on widespread electrification at large, given the relatively unchanged i3 and i8 and the lackluster range of the impending battery-powered Mini Cooper SE. But the company actually plans 25 electrified vehicles by 2023, and the biggest harbinger of BMW’s e-future lies in the upcoming i4, which is based on the current 3-series and is expected to drop in 2021. That fully electric model is built on the same G20 platform and claims 350 miles of range. We can’t yet speak to its value or it place in the pantheon of great-driving enthusiast machines. But it certainly does appear to offer a compelling enticement to skip the ’tween years and go fully electric.
2021 BMW 330e Plug-In Hybrid Specifications
|ON SALE||Summer 2020|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged I-4; 184 hp, 115 lb-ft; electric motor; 113 hp, 195 lb-ft; total system output, 297 hp, 310 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine RWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||32 mpg (combined, est)|
|ELECTRIC RANGE||22 miles (est)|
|L x W x H||185.3 x 71.9 x 56.8 in|
|WEIGHT||3,850 lb (est)|
|TOP SPEED||114 mph (limited)|