There is a lot to love about BMW’s latest entrant into the world of part-electric cars, says Stefan Reynolds
The first time I was invited by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) to one of their Test Days, I had the opportunity to drive an electric car. It was not fully electric, a hybrid which combines petrol power with electric power, offering you the choice of three means of propulsion. It was also quite marvellous but well out of my price range and that of most of our readers. It was the newly launched BMW i8 Roadster and it certainly put a smile on my face.
This year, I still had that smile on my face but this was an altogether different proposition. It was also something that I might not only afford but consider as a replacement in the future for my current Audi S4 Avant. This was also from BMW and was one of the first UK registered models available for testing in the UK. I was therefore asked to drive it carefully…
The BMW 330e is a plug-in hybrid and the first time that this option has been offered in the best-selling 3-series range. It has the same 181bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine used in the 320i, combined with an electric motor that normally contributes 67bhp but can swell that to 111bhp for short bursts. This does mean that you can have 289bhp on tap with masses of torque (310lb ft) which makes it currently the most powerful of the new 3-series models (although not for long!).
These figures help understand why this partly electric car was of interest to a petrolhead like me. Another reason is that my daily commute is just 10 miles or so from home to the office and with a quoted range of up to 41 miles under electric power, this car would allow me to do my weekly commute with just one charge. And yet, as a hybrid, still enable me to drive the 500 miles to France for my annual holiday, in addition to other medium to long journeys in the UK.
First impressions of the car were very favourable. It is a good-looking car and offers as much space inside as most people will need. I had my first BMW 3-series in 2002 and the model is probably now at least 20% bigger. The only real negative is the boot space, which loses 100 litres compared to other versions due to the electric batteries, which are positioned under the rear seats where the fuel tank normally is. However, this does mean that a 330e Touring is possible, which will be launched in 2020 and would be my choice as a dog owner. The interior looks good and is of good quality, although to my mind not quite as attractive as my Audi.
On the road, there is no doubt that this is a supremely quick car. It starts off in electric mode and it pulls extremely swiftly, seamlessly switching between electric and combustion power. Slot it into Sport mode on the eight-speed Steptronic transmission and the XtraBoost system is activated which really does fire it up even more. One of the problems with electric cars is the weight increase of the batteries but I did not really notice it affecting the handling, which seemed more sure footed that my Audi and perfectly good, although I read that the normally aspirated 330i does feel more crisp and alert on windy roads.
How much this matters in a family saloon (or estate) is of course a moot point, as not all of us are petrolheads. It won’t suit anyone doing lots of long journeys but those who make short journeys and can charge the car either at work or at home could benefit significantly. The model I drove was the M-sport which starts at £39,075, which in price is not very different to the 330i and not unreasonable.
I was much more impressed than I expected with this car. It is a quick as you need, the change from electric to hybrid to conventional power is flawless, it’s great to drive and lovely to own. It really now is a very convincing alternative to a normally aspirated car for many people, and as we are forced to change the way we look at how cars are powered in the future, this car shows that it doesn’t mean the end of having fun on four wheels. I now can’t wait to try out the Touring version, which should make a very good car even better. Hopefully BMW might prevail to offer me one for a week’s test to see how it stacks up in everyday life… Watch this space!
These Test Days offer journalists and writers the chance to drive very different cars. I also tried out the Maserati Levante Gran Sport, which is the famous Italian marque’s first attempt at an SUV. It competes in what is now a fairly crowded market, against predictably the Range Rover but also similar offerings from other sports manufacturers such as Porsche.
This is a big car but not as big as some. It has a 3 litre V6 with 350bhp which I must say did propel this car along engagingly and swiftly. You sit high up, of course, and it was a pleasure to drive for a car of its size and weight. The interior is a very pleasant place in which to sit, is of very good quality and obviously has everything you would expect in a car costing from £71,800, but perhaps does seem a little dated compared to some of its newer rivals. From the front, the car looks quite mean and sporty but from the rear it rather starts to resemble any number of SUVs, although the four exhaust pipes and sloping roof line certainly help it stand out a little from the crowd. It is certainly a contender for anyone wanting something that is different to all the other luxury SUVs on our Surrey roads.
As an Audi S4 driver, the chance to try the RS5 was too tempting. This is a more-or-less a hatchback version of my car but with a 2.9 litre 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6 developed with Porsche which provides 444bhp instead of my 342bhp. While it looks pretty much identical inside, and the space was not too dissimilar, on the road it really was something else indeed. Its surge was prodigious and thrilling. It initially felt much quicker than my car, although a spirited drive home made me realise the difference probably wasn’t that great in the real world. That said, my car can get 35mpg on a motorway run, something a RS5 owner can only dream about. But then that’s not why you want to buy a car like this. But at £64,735 it’s a lot of money and there is a lot of competition unless you need the space that this car provides, there may be better choices available.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) exists to support and promote the interests of the UK automotive industry at home and abroad. Working closely with member companies, SMMT acts as the voice of the motor industry, promoting its position to government, stakeholders and the media. For more information, please visit www.smmt.co.uk.