THE GOOD: With its plug-in hybrid drivetrain, the 2017 BMW 330e achieves far better fuel economy than a standard 3-series. The navigation system communicates with the drive system to improve efficiency. Balanced weight makes for good handling.
THE BAD: The 330e only goes 14 miles under electric power, less than other plug-in hybrids, and the air conditioning does not feel very effective.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The 2017 BMW 330e gives a taste of electric driving, with its associated efficiency, in a competent sport sedan, but its multiple combinations of drive modes will really appeal to number nerds.
Range at 14 miles. That’s what the 2017 BMW 330e’s display says after I leave it on the charger overnight. Combine that zero emission driving with the 330e’s gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain, and you’ve got an EPA-rated 72 miles per gallon equivalent.
The 330e is a very economical BMW.
Then I switch the Driving Dynamics Control to Sport, and also pop the shifter into its Sport position, and suddenly the 330e feels like a BMW. The throttle becomes a sensitive instrument from which to dole out power and the car hangs its tail out in the turns.
It’s no M3, but the 330e holds up its sport sedan heritage.
While cruising down coastal Highway 1, approaching a hill, I feel the 330e’s eight-speed automatic transmission downshift, making a smooth transition on the grade. The navigation system told the transmission about the upcoming hill, so it could prepare with a lower gear.
This communication between navigation and transmission shows the 330e’s smarts.
Consider the 330e a Jekyll-and-Hyde car, with a little Einstein thrown in. It looks like a typical BMW 3-series, a compact rear-wheel-drive sedan in a premium segment. But amid classic BMW design cues such as the kidney grille and Hofmeister kink, it sports a standard electric vehicle charging port on the left-front fender and e-Drive badges on the C-pillars.
An 87-horsepower electric motor complements a turbocharged two-liter engine, which by itself makes 180 horsepower and 215 pound-feet of torque. The total output from both sources comes to 248 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. A 7.6 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack stores electricity from the grid and regenerative braking, giving the 330e its modest amount of pure electric range.
Like other plug-in hybrids I’ve driven, the 330e operates as a fully electric car while its battery level holds up. The electric motor may be low on horsepower, but its 184 pound-feet of torque makes it quick enough for cruising along with traffic. When I floor it, however, the engine kicks in to maximize acceleration. And if I were to get above 75 mph the engine would also fire up to assist the electric drive.
With the 330e’s Driving Dynamics Control, that rocker switch you see in all BMW models these days, set to Eco Pro, I enjoy the quiet of the ride and the easy drivability. However, the climate control struggles against external temperatures of 80 degrees, and the occasional pothole or bump in the road jars the suspension uncomfortably, probably exacerbated by the low-profile run-flat tires.
BMW’s tendency to complicate its driving modes shows up in the 330e with the addition of an eDrive button to the Driving Dynamics Control modes. eDrive lets me toggle through three modes, which range from saving electric range for later use to maximizing electric drive. I mostly just leave it in automatic, where it decides when best to use the motor and engine.
The most remarkable thing about the 330e is how the navigation system and transmission communicate. I previously saw this technology on the Rolls-Royce Wraith, where it increases ride comfort, but the 330e uses terrain information more extensively to get the most out of its plug-in hybrid drive system.
Along with preparing for ascents, the system also saves its electric range during highway driving if the final destination is in a residential area. I noticed the engine running while on the freeway near San Francisco, and was pleased to see it automatically switch into electric drive on city streets. While it might be nice to cruise stealthily home, the real advantage here comes from the electric drive being more efficient at slower speeds.
Of course, I had to program in a destination for this system to work. The 330e comes with the BMW’s current iDrive system, a wide LCD perched up on the center dashboard controlled by a dial and buttons pod on the console. I like this navigation system, as it makes online destination search available from an icon to the left side of the map. However, it would be nice to have saved home and work destinations if I’m using it to maximize drive efficiency for my every trip.
Along with typical navigation features, such as traffic routing, BMW includes two sets of online services. One set relies on the car’s own data connection for news, weather and a list of nearby charging stations, while the other requires a smartphone running the BMW Connected app, showing a number of third-party apps on the iDrive system. BMW doesn’t yet support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
Putting fuel economy considerations aside after burning up all the electric range, I switch the 330e and its transmission into Sport mode and take to the twisties. Taking advantage of both engine and electric motor, the throttle feels neatly responsive, but the transmission isn’t terribly aggressive. It doesn’t pull the revs high enough through a set of really tight turns, so I take control with the paddle shifters.
A snappy downshift to second gear and I can really make use of the power on the turn exits. With a 50:50 weight distribution, the 330e handles well, letting me break the back end loose just a little for that sweet rotation. Sport mode also affects the chassis, but I don’t notice much of a difference. The 330e holds itself pretty flat in the turns.
If you truly want a sport-oriented BMW, there are at least a couple other options in the 3-series lineup alone that will prove satisfying. But the 2017 BMW 330e presents a unique proposal, an occasionally electric drive car with a performance edge.
The 72 mpg equivalent number is not all that useful, as plug-in hybrid mileage varies wildly depending on how often you can charge it. In my driving, which involved daily two- to four-hour trips with only a single charge, fuel economy held above 40 mpg. Plug it in every night before a 20-mile commute, and the 330e will take a big chunk out of your monthly gasoline bill.
Against the standard BMW 330i, the 330e loses 4 cubic feet of trunk space and has to get by with a fuel tank that’s smaller by 5 gallons, impacting range between fill-ups. Add those deficiencies to the 330e’s complexity of driving modes, and you might think “why bother?”
Call the 330e a car for the modern gearhead, the kind of driver who will be fascinated by the drivetrain’s numbers game, delighted with the smart tech, and really enjoy the car’s driving engagement.