UNDER THE BOOT floor of this outwardly conventional 3-series there’s a stack of lithium ion batteries, serving two principle purposes: first to power an 87bhp electric motor sandwiched between the 184bhp 2.0-litre four-pot engine and the transmission, and second to steal 110 litres of boot space. Is either purpose a laudable one? We start our drive with a fictitious search for the nearest plug-in facility. BMW’s own Charge Now app has five suggestions for this area of Germany, but on this particular Monday we draw five blanks.
The first charge point is occupied and would have required a special customer card, the second displays a hand-written Out of Order message, the third is blocked by a non-hybrid VW Sharan, the fourth has yet to be installed, and the fifth no longer exists. No bull. Which once again proves that we do need a more comprehensive infrastructure with more powerful, faster and eventually inductive charge stations. Right now, the PHEV lives on borrowed time. It is threatened by a potentially mandatory software which makes the users’ charging habits transparent- those who plug-in too infrequently will quickly lose their privileges.
Unlike the 225ex Active Tourer there’s no corruption of BMW’s rear-drive ethic here – both engine and motor act on the rear axle. And it does feel like a proper 3-series – ride and handling are well composed, body control is tight, and the sense of balance befits the fact that despite a 160kg weight penalty the weight distribution is a delicate 49:51, front to rear. You can even have a cheeky bit of fun with the traction control switched off – the needs of the planet do not necessarily outweigh the needs of the keen driver.
But the 330e is not about how fast one can get from A to B. Instead, it’s an emotional experience, detached from the heel-snapping traffic around you, as linear as a turbine but much more responsive. There is enough instant torque to bring back fond memories of the normally-aspirated sixes, enough mid-range punch to time-warp the overtaking process, theoretically enough stamina to keep the eDrive system in Max mode even beyond the city limits. The other modes, Auto and Battery Save, tell their own tale – the latter commandeering up to 50% of the engine’s power for charging duties.
A 0-62mph time of 6.1 seconds in Sport or Sport Plus tells you that this is still a quick car, but if you drive it like that you better find a charging point with a comfy armchair, as you’ll be there a lot. Drive more carefully and the logic quotient inches upwards, but 25 miles of EV range still seems on the fanciful side. Company car buyers will certainly find pleasure in the chance to nab a prestige car- retaining pretty much all the dynamic qualities of a conventional Three, but with huge benefit-in-kind tax treats. Only private buyers, however, benefit from the government’s EV grant.
But at £33,935 the 330e costs almost as much as the 326bhp 340i, so it still takes serious dedication to opt for a hybrid – especially in view of the real-life fuel economy which is not far off that of a 330d. Despite the tax or cash incentives, in the end it’s the product that must do the persuading. In this respect the 330e is almost there, but it only really shines between charge points. And there simply aren’t enough of those.