If you want to send the average automotive executive into a spin, ask her or him about the state of electrification these days. The topic is a confusing and contrary one, if only because the future of mobility is so entangled from a political, economic and social perspective. In the middle of the debate, literally, is the modern plug-in hybrid.
The hybrid is no longer a new concept. The era of the modern hybrid came about with the introduction of the Toyota Prius in 1997 and Honda Insight in 1999. The first plug-in hybrid for the North American market, the Chevrolet Volt, arrived in late 2010. Earlier this year, GM elected to end production of the Volt to focus their electrification efforts on all-electric vehicles.
Thus, we arrive at the crux of the issue with hybrid vehicles. Many people consider hybrids to be only a stopgap solution to a much bigger challenge. Others fail to see the benefit of paying a premium to drive a gas-electric vehicle when the gas vehicle still meets their needs, thank you very much.
It’s within this environment that we observe the launch of the 2020 BMW 330e, the plug-in hybrid version of the seventh-generation of this legendary model line. After driving the sedan on a variety of roads around the outskirts of Munich, one thing becomes clear: Its main competitor, far and away, is the new BMW 330i.
Here’s what this plug-in hybrid brings to the battle.
First, the performance of the latest hybrid system from BMW is utterly seamless and its all-electric capabilities are better than ever. The 330e relies on the same powertrain as on the previous version: a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder linked to an electric motor. But the more potent battery pack gives the sedan 50 per cent more all-electric range (up to an expected 66 km) and allows the 330e to hit 140 km/h on electric power alone (110 km/h previously).
The electric motor is integrated into the eight-speed automatic transmission, a particularly inspired decision that saves on space and increases efficiency. (The transmission is only 15 mm longer than a “traditional” BMW eight-speed automatic.) The regenerative braking system helps to recharge the battery on the fly; the feel of the brakes is completely natural and progressive.
Total system output for the 330e is 292 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. These figures incorporate the standard overboost feature (called XtraBoost), which delivers an added kick of 40 horsepower for up to 10 seconds. The numbers compare favourably with the latest 330i (255 hp; 295 lb-ft), although the plug-in hybrid weighs about 200 kg more.
To manage the added weight and preserve the brand’s legendary handling attributes, the battery pack has been placed under the rear seats. This move gives the 330e a weight distribution of 48/52, front to back, which is right in the sweet spot for a BMW. Out on the sweeping country roads, there was no sense that the additional weight had created a less involving driving experience – the responsiveness of the hybrid powertrain, aligned with the crisp steering, made this BMW feel like a proper BMW, which is no small feat.
Pricing for the 2020 BMW 330e will be announced toward the end of this year. The previous version had a starting price of $51,200 – or $5,600 more than the old 330i. The new seventh-generation BMW 330i starts at $49,000, so this gives some sense of where the new plug-in hybrid will likely land. On paper, the new 330e is better than its predecessor. The only question is, is the new 330e better than the new 330i?
2020 BMW 330e
- Base price: TBA
- Powertrain: Turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder + synchronous electric motor
- Transmission/Drive: Eight-speed automatic/rear-wheel drive
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km; combined): TBA
- Alternatives: Audi A3 Sportback eTron, BMW 330i, BMW i3 Rex, Hyundai Sonata PHEV, Kia Optima PHEV
If you’re expecting a slight variation of the latest BMW 3 Series sedan, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for in the new 330e. While the pencil-pushers at BMW have introduced some fairly radical looks for various models in the recent past, the 330e is completely recognizable in an instant – and there’s some comfort in that fact.
In terms of equipment and amenities, the plug-in hybrid version of the 330 is nearly identical to the gas-powered 330i. The battery pack in the previous 330e was in the trunk; this time around, it’s been shifted under the rear seats, so the hybrid has 110 litres less cargo space compared with the 330i sedan. The level of quality of the passenger cabin is high – the space is comfortable, sporty and luxurious.
There are big gains here over the previous iteration. The 330e features the same electric motor and gas engine as before, but a new battery pack and a new powertrain deliver more all-electric range, more all-electric speed and a new extra boost feature for better acceleration. The new car is also expected to be about 15 per cent more fuel efficient than the model it replaces.
The technological brilliance of the 330e is in the hybrid system itself and in the way in which the satellite systems support the driving experience. For example, the system software incorporates predictive modelling and utilizes geofencing technology to automatically save battery energy for emissions-free zones. So the 330e will run on electric power alone in restricted areas without the driver having to worry about monitoring battery charge levels at all.
The verdict: 8.0
A high-tech hybrid that drives like a proper BMW.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
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