You’ve probably thought about it in the past few years. Probably wondered, maybe even fretted about the possibility. Could you go electric when it comes to driving? Could you forsake the pump for the plug and whizz silently about on a wave of exchanged electronics, rather than ahead of a cloud of burned hydrocarbons?
And by and large, the answer has so far been no. The national network of charging points has been improving, and electric car and battery technology has been doing likewise, but it’s really only now that we’re on the cusp of electric cars with decent, 200km+ one-charge range. Hitherto, the existing lineups which have mostly been limited to a notional 160km one charge (and much less than that in real-world use) have just been too short-legged for those of us who make regular long journeys.
Now though, there is a middle-ground. An expanding range of plugin-hybrids which do the electric car stuff for short journeys but which retain a petrol (occasionally a diesel) engine and a fuel tank for longer hauls.
BMW, which has already shown itself an innovator in pure-electrics with the quirky i3, has decided to go down this route in a serious way, even coining a new badge for a fast-expanding offering of plugins – iPerformance. This 330e may not be the grandest model of that range (a title surely jointly held by plugin versions of the X5 and 7 Series) but it may just be the most significant.
Why? Because it’s a 3 Series and that makes it a car we want. A car you want, a car we all, if the dominance by the 3 Series of Internet second hand car searches is anything to go by. The fact is that while the 3 Series may not be, in sheer numbers, the best-selling car in the Irish market, nor anywhere near so, it’s one of the most aspirational, and one that many of us will be able to afford in new or used form at some point in our lives.
And now you can buy one with an electric motor doing the driving. Not exclusively of course – the electric motor in the 330e has but 88hp and on a full charge of its lithium-ion battery pack, it will only power the 330e on its lonesome for around 40km or so. Then, the 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine chimes in and the 330e turns from pure electric to hybrid and off you go with a combined system output of 252hp – equivalent to the power of a regular 330i six-cylinder model – at the behest of your right foot. Already then, you’ll be getting some of the whole ‘more for less’ vibe.
And it’s a lot less. On the official figures front, BMW claims you can squeeze 148mpg out of the 330e. Which is, basically, rubbish – a free pen to anyone who actually achieves that figure in normal driving conditions. But, starting with a full charge of the battery, and driving like a normal human being (well, as close as I can approximate….) I managed to squeeze 65mpg (4.5-litres per 100km) out of the 330e over a roughly 80km test route. That’s not too shabby, and if you do mostly short, around-town hops during the week, the chances of you being able to get from Monday morning to Friday evening without ever troubling the petrol tank are pretty decent. The bottom-run €170-per-annum more tax demand just adds to the pleasantly smug feeling.
And wait till you get to the price list. Because the 330e qualifies for both a Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) rebate and a grant from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) it is surprisingly affordable. How much so? Well, like-for-like, it costs as much as €5k less than an equivalent 320d. Yes, that’s €5,000 less than the mainstream diesel model. It’s only about the same price, in fact, as an entry level 318d.
Is there a catch? One or two, but to be honest, they’re pretty minor. Our test car was in the desirable M-Sport spec, which brings (welcome) sportier wheels and chunkier body kit but (unwelcome) extra stiffness in the ride. Many hybrids, having to control the extra mass of electric motors and batteries, default to too-harsh springs for that control and the 330e is no different. A slightly less stiffly-sprung SE model would probably have a better balance. Likewise the steering isn’t quite right, losing some of the standard 3’s weight and precision. It’s fine, and the 330e still far more rewarding to drive than most rivals, but if you’ve driven a conventional version, you’ll both notice and lament the faint shaving of feel. Oh and the boot is a lot smaller, losing around 100-litres to a standard 3 Series, clocking in at a Ford-Focus-like 370-litres. That’s about it though. Here then is the answer to the question of ‘can I make the switch to electric motoring?’ As long as you’re in the market for the BMW 3 Series or similar, yes you can. And you can save yourself a pile of money into the bargain.