Latest plug-in 3-series ditches six cylinders for four. A good all-rounder, but not a car you’ll fall in love with

The car industry is in a transitional period, with almost every manufacturer offering a wide range of powertrain options in an attempt to meet both the needs of customers and also stringent environmental legislation.

One of those is BMW, which was among the earliest companies to show diesel could offer performance as well as economy, and in more recent years demonstrated it had a handle on electric power too with its dedicated ‘i’ brand.

While i-BMWs have faded from prominence recently, BMW has still been hard at work implementing hybrid and plug-in models almost throughout its range, and the 3-series – one of the earliest to be offered as a plug-in – is now on its second generation of 330e plug-in hybrid.

Engine, performance and 0-100 time

While the last BMW 330e was based around the firm’s turbocharged in-line six – something a 330e-owning friend was at pains to point out as he heard this car start up – the latest 330e uses BMW’s B48 turbocharged in-line four. It’s a familiar unit, also found in… well, everything, from Mini Cooper Ss and conventional 320i 3-series, to the latest four-cylinder Toyota Supra and Morgan Plus Four, in various states of tune.

In the 330e it makes 134kW, giving it one of the lower outputs this engine is capable of, but that’s more than made up for by the implementation of hybrid technology. An electric motor squeezed between the eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox and the four-pot adds an additional 82kW, the combined efforts of which result in peak outputs of 185kW (or 214kW for up to ten seconds) and 420Nm of torque.

It’s good for 0-100kmh in 5.9sec as a result, with a top speed of 230kmh. The electric motor can also drive the car itself at speeds of up to 109kmh and for as long as 60 kilometres if you’ve charged it using the port on the nearside wing, though around 30 kilometres is more realistic, particularly if you’re using that higher-speed capability.

Technical highlights

Weight is always a talking point with anything carrying a battery pack, and at 1740kg the 330e is certainly far from lightweight – for comparison, a conventional BMW 330i using the same four-cylinder powertrain but without any hybrid components is 1470kg, a whole 270kg lighter.

Cars with EV abilities do come with other unique features though, including a subtle sound generator to alert pedestrians of the car’s presence up to 30kmh, and the ability to remotely precondition the interior temperature before you set off, without needing to start the car. The navigation system is also geared up for directing you to charging points on your journey, though as a plug-in hybrid, you’ll also be able to make it anywhere that has a petrol station.

What’s it like to drive?

One thing linking all BMWs in the past has been a sense that all cars were instilled with the same virtues; a 3-series and a 7-series and an X5 all felt broadly similar to interact with as a driver, in the quality of their materials, the sounds, the smells and the way they went down a road.

While that base feeling has changed over time the concept has remained largely consistent, and having recently driven a 1-series and a pair of BMW M8s, the 330e feels strikingly similar in several respects, despite all using different platforms and powertrains. In other words, the hybrid elements of the 330e don’t get in the way of its BMW-ness, though it’s also fair to say they’re geared more towards efficiency than driving enjoyment.

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Pace certainly isn’t a problem. Most of the time the car will creep away on the electric motor, and with a full battery there’s more than enough juice for day-to-day driving in EV mode alone.

The electric assistance also helps the car feel responsive to throttle inputs, and if you mat the pedal from rest there’s more than enough torque to light up the rear tyres before the traction control intervenes. Quick enough, too, that you rarely need to venture too high up the rev range, where this BMW four-pot has never sounded too happy. Braking, like many hybrids, is also imperfect – the power’s there, but pedal feedback isn’t quite as consistent as you’d get in a car not trying to blend regenerative and friction braking.

It’s a fine handler though. The ride deals with most B-road surfaces, but it’s not short of body control either, despite the extra weight of the batteries. Smooth, consistently weighted steering is well-matched to the car’s overall balance, letting you find a flow down a twisty road, and there’s just a hint of the car’s rear-drive nature when you feed in the power through a corner.

A stiff structure typical of recent BMWs, combined with the good ride and a comfortable, well-constructed cabin are all bonuses, whether you’re tooling around town, hacking up a B-road or sitting on the motorway.

The caveat, and this again is shared with recent BMWs, is that actual driver engagement isn’t quite where it could, or arguably should be. It’s a satisfying car to drive but not an engaging or entertaining one, without the fleet-footed and agile feel of say, an Alfa Giulia, and lacking the theatre of the Alfa’s revvy engine or large, tactile gearshift paddles. Antony Ingram

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