Ten years ago, petrol-electric hybrids were considered by keen drivers to be a joke. Bob Lutz, the founder of BMW Motorsports, who later went to head product development at Ford, Chrysler and GM famously said "Hybrids are an interesting curiosity and we will do some. But do they make sense at $1.50 a gallon? No, they do not," referring to the cyclical low fuel prices of that era.
The German carmakers who have long prided themselves as custodians of driving pleasure, have traditionally favoured clean diesels over hybrids.
My former colleague Daniel Wong, who has since moved to Australia, once interviewed a Toyota engineer responsible for the Prius, asking him “Why not diesel?” He simply answered – “Because NOx,” as if he has answered this silly question many times. “You will see, eventually everybody will have to go hybrids, it’s only a matter of time, as emission regulations gets tougher,” he added.
Fast forward to 2016, Toyota’s predictions came true as it is getting increasingly expensive for diesel engines to meet the next generation of EU emission regulations.
Ironically in Malaysia, it is the Europeans rather than Toyota who are actively pushing hybrid cars. Mercedes-Benz was the first to rock the boat with its S400 Hybrid and E300 BlueTec Hybrid, followed by Volvo with its even more sophisticated plug-in hybrid XC90 T8.
BMW responded by pricing its X5 xDrive40e plug-in hybrid at a shockingly low RM388,800.
In fact, Malaysia is one of the few, if not the only country in the world where a supposedly more expensive hybrid model is priced cheaper than a regular petrol- or diesel-powered model.
Later this month, BMW Group Malaysia is expected to launch the most competitively priced premium plug-in hybrid car in the country. The forthcoming BMW 330e is expected to be priced upwards of RM240,000, slotting nicely between the RM231,800 320i Sport and RM297,800 330i M Sport.
Specifications for BMW 330e (European market model)
- Engine: B48 2.0-litre turbocharged four cylinder
- Motor: 88hp/250 Nm synchronous electric motor
- Traction battery: 5.7 kWh (net), lithium-ion
- Total system output: 252 hp, 420 Nm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Safety: six airbags, electronic stability and traction control, ISOFIX, tyre pressure monitor, blind spot monitor, lane keeping assist
- Claimed Fuel consumption: 1.9- to 2.1-litre/100 km (NEDC combined cycle)
- Price: RM240,000 to RM260,000 (estimated)
What is it?
More than just a regular full-hybrid like the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid, the BMW 330e is a plug-in hybrid.
For those unfamiliar with the term, plug-in hybrids (charging is optional) are a category of engines that sits midway between a regular mild-hybrid (no charging required, no electric-only drive), full-hybrid (no charging required, limited electric-only drive) and a full electric vehicle (charging required, full electric drive).
The advantage of plug-in hybrids, sometimes referred to as PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle), is that it allows the vehicle to travel much further and much faster on electric power alone. In the case of the 330e, it can do about 40 km, with a top speed of 120 km/h (ideal conditions), versus 2 km-plus and about 45 km/h in a regular hybrid like a Toyota Camry Hybrid.
Achieving the feat will require plugging the car’s traction battery to a power socket, hence the term ‘plug-in’.
However unlike an electric vehicle (EV), plug-in hybrids don’t need any special chargers. Regular domestic power sockets will do.
A plug-in hybrid car will run just fine without charging, but you won’t be able to tap the full performance of the electric motor plus petrol engine combo. In the case of the 330e, the combination of petrol engine, energy recovered from coasting and regenerative braking can charge the traction battery only to no more than 50 percent.
The soon-to-be locally-assembled 330e builds upon the F30 generation LCI (facelift in common folk speak) model’s body.
Unlike the X5 xDrive40e which uses the previous 20i series engine – the N20 four-cylinder engine - the 330e uses the latest B48 four-cylinder that’s also fitted in the current 320i Sport LCI and 330i M Sport LCI.
In fact, the 330e’s petrol engine-only output is exactly the same as the 320i’s – 184 hp and 290 Nm.
Once the 88 hp electric motor in the ZF-supplied 8-speed automatic transmission comes into play, the total system output goes up to 252 hp and 420 Nm. The value does not equal to the sum of the petrol and electric motor’s output because the two peak at different speeds.
The numbers closely match the 330i M Sport’s 252 hp and 350 Nm, hence the 330e designation. In fact, the 330e is even more powerful than the Mercedes-Benz C300 AMG that we've reviewed recently.
The refrigerant cooled 5.7 kWh (net) lithium-ion traction battery is fitted under the boot. As a result, boot space is reduced to 370-litres, 110-litres less than a regular 3 Series sedan.
It takes about 3 hours to fully charge the battery with a regular domestic power socket. Charging via a BMW i Wallbox (sold separately) shortens it to 2 hours and 12 minutes.
Apart from the eDrive badge at the C-pillar, charging flap on the front-left fender and the 330e badge on the boot lid, there are no other exterior cues to separate the 330e from a regular 330i.
Our test car comes with optional M Sport bumpers, brake callipers and steering wheel.
Inside, the only difference are additional hybrid specific displays in the instrument panel, and a eDrive button located at the base of the transmission’s lever. Pressing it toggles through the three eDrive modes – Auto eDrive, Max eDrive, Save Battery.
The default Auto eDrive, when paired to Eco Pro mode in the Driving Experience Control, delivers the best fuel economy. Top speed in electric drive is limited to 80 km/h, and the engine computer optimises the mix between petrol and electric power.
When used together with the Connected Drive’s GPS navigation system, the car even optimises the power mix based on the planned route.
Max eDrive mode drains the battery to deliver as much electric drive distance as possible, useful for polite people who don’t want to wake up their neighbours when coming back late at night. Despite the name, using Max eDrive delivers poorer fuel economy than Auto eDrive because like all hybrids/plug-in hybrids, the best fuel economy is achieved by optimally using both the petrol engine and electric motor.
Save Battery mode will run the petrol engine more to charge/maintain the traction battery’s charge level to at least 50 percent. The idea is to reserve the power for a later part of the journey – i.e. when re-entering a city or housing area.
How Does It Drive?
Together with representatives of several other publications, Carlist.my had the opportunity to share some driving time in the 330e on roads in and around Munich. The driving time allotted to each driver is limited but it is good enough to give an overall impression of what to expect when the 330e arrives in Malaysia.
When driving at low speeds in the city, the 330e is library quiet, with only a faint whine of the electric motor audible every time you accelerate. Unlike regular hybrids, the 330e can continue doing this for quite a distance.
In fact, my driving partner and I covered more than 20 km in electric drive alone, and this is without plugging the car to recharge in the night prior. The distance is enough to get me to work without using a single drop of petrol.
The air-conditioning uses an electrically-driven compressor, so no worries about the air-conditioning cutting off when the engine isn’t running.
On the move, when the engine does fire up there is faint but noticeable noise. So it’s not as smooth as a Lexus/Toyota hybrid model, but it’s none poorer than an equivalent Mercedes-Benz hybrid. Thankfully occupants won’t feel any jerk when the engine fires up, but the driver can hear the starter motor firing the engine every time you lift the throttle to coast, before accelerating again.
Out in the autobahn, the 330e drives pretty much like a regular 3 Series. Adhering to the 120 km/h speed limit, it cruised along effortlessly. Cabin noise is a tad above an equivalent C-Class and A4, but that’s typical of many BMWs, as the driver-centric brand don’t believe in isolating the driver too much from mechanical noise, which BMW considers as an integral part of the driving experience.
Once we speed past the derestriction sign, which means that speed limit has been lifted, we floored the throttle to keep up with an Audi A4 Avant TDI ahead of us, which was also accelerating at full throttle. The 330e kept pulling until 210 km/h with little effort, and could still push further but going that much faster than the surrounding traffic would not be wise, even on a derestricted autobahn.
Compared to the 330i M Sport that we’ve reviewed earlier, the 330e actually felt more responsive. The 330i M Sport had a mildly noticeable turbo lag. It doesn’t impede your progress but is noticeable enough to make a keen driver factor the lag when overtaking. The 330e however, aided by the on-demand delivery of maximum torque thanks to the electric motor in the transmission, accelerates more progressively.
Exiting the autobahn and driving on scenic countryside roads, the 330e exhibits more or less of what you would expect from a 3 Series. It’s agile and engages the driver’s emotions, even if the steering is somewhat lacking in feedback.
We didn’t drive the Malaysian specifications 330i in the same type of challenging roads as we did in the 330e in Munich so it’s difficult to say how far off the mark the 330e is. But with the European specs 330e already weighing 1,735 kg when fitted with 16-inch tyres (our test car had 18-inch tyres), it is safe to say that the 330i M Sport, which is at least 190 kg lighter, will still hold its ground as the most dynamic car in the segment.
At the end of the journey, after swapping between two drivers, the trip computer showed an average fuel consumption of around 6-litre/100 km, rather acceptable considering the high speeds that we were doing.
How Comfortable Is It?
Driving impressions done on well-maintained German roads are usually a poor indicator of how a car will ride on poorly maintained roads in Klang Valley, but there are moments where we felt that the 330e was a bit too stiff when driving over expansion joints.
Typical for hybrids, the additional weight in the 330e’s rear necessitated a stiffer suspension to maintain balance.
Our test car was fitted with rather thin 255/40 ZR18 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres but a 205/60 R16 set is also available for the European market.
Inside, the 330e fits like a regular 3 Series, meaning that rear legroom is tight, while the front of the cabin fits snugly. The reduced boot size is still big enough to fit 3 adults’ worth of baggage – one large suitcase and two cabin size bags, but it took a bit of struggle to squeeze them in.
The BMW 330e is expected to be launched in Malaysia later this month. It’s an interesting proposition as it performs nearly as well as a 330i M Sport, but it’s a lot cheaper.
The only downside is the 330e's reduced boot space, and the 3 Series's typically tight interior, but if interior space is your thing, you are looking at the wrong car. Even the C-Class is not good enough in this aspect. Only the upcoming B9 generation Audi A4 offers better interior space, or look to the Lexus ES. Just don't expect any of those cars to drive and thrill you like the BMW.
A more comprehensive review on Malaysian roads will done once we get our hands on a locally registered unit from BMW Group Malaysia.
What’s left now is for BMW Group Malaysia to ensure that there are enough cars to meet the demand. As it is, the waiting period for the X5 xDrive40e has already stretched into mid-2017.
It is also worth noting that Mercedes-Benz Malaysia is also expected to launch the Mercedes-Benz C350e sometime between late-2016 and early-2017. Like the 330e, the C350e is also a plug-in hybrid with a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine.