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For years, carmakers have seemed to be stuck in the same cycle of producing slightly better iterations of cars that came before. Lighter, bigger, faster and more efficient, but the recipe stays the same – an internal combustion engine burns fuel to propel a crankshaft, spinning a transmission that sends power to the road. Niche hybrids aside, the car as a piece of technology has stayed stagnant for over a century.

We’ve long looked at electric vehicles as the true car of the future, one that you plug into your home just like a smartphone and produces zero emissions. Just like your smartphone, however, an EV’s battery life is unpredictable, and when you do deplete it, it takes ages to charge it back up again. Fine if you’re just browsing Facebook, not so fine if you’re on your way to Penang and the low battery warning just came on.

Indeed, most industry observers now see plug-in hybrids as a perfect solution, at least in the short term. With a more powerful electric motor and a bigger battery compared to a conventional hybrid, it provides all of the benefits of an electric car, but the presence of a regular engine means that it does away with the usual EV issues of range anxiety, long charge time and steep pricing.

Premium carmakers have been the biggest investors in these vehicles, and Malaysians have been a strange beneficiary thanks to Energy Efficient Vehicle (EEV) rebates, with cars like the Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine and BMW X5 xDrive40e. But the new BMW 330e will be the real litmus test for this technology, with its price putting it firmly within the grasp of the entry-level premium car buyer. So, could this car really be a good fit for the typical 3 Series buyer? We take it for a spin on local roads and conditions to find out.

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Malaysians have been able to buy the F30 BMW 330e iPerformance since late August, just five months after it was unveiled to the world, making it a surprisingly short lead time. What’s more, like other plug-in hybrids (and the new Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid) sold in Malaysia, the car is locally-assembled (CKD) to take advantage of the aforementioned incentives.

As such, it comes into the market priced at just RM248,800 on-the-road without insurance, slotting in just above the less powerful, less well-equipped 320i Sport. This puts it pretty much smack in the middle of the local 3 Series range in terms of price, although with the recent discontinuation of the RM297,800 330i M Sport, it now sits at the top of that range.

The 330e is also significantly less expensive than its closest rival, the Mercedes-Benz C 350 e – Stuttgart’s own take on the plug-in hybrid sports sedan recipe is priced between RM288,888 and RM298,888. However, the BMW doesn’t come with quite the level of kit offered on the Mercedes, which we’ll come to later.

Locally, the car is specced in Sport trim, losing out on the 330i’s M Sport package. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on which look you prefer best, although most image-conscious Malaysians would probably view it as the latter. I, however, do like the more subtle look that this car has – with the sharp front end and well-balanced proportions, there’s a reserved athleticism about it, but it’s never too showy.

Attractive full-LED head- and tail lights are standard across the range, but the 18-inch Style 658 V-spoke alloy wheels mark the 330e out as the top-spec model. What it doesn’t get is the iPerformance styling package that adds blue highlights to the grille and wheel badges – for the more conservative Malaysian market, that’s probably a good thing. Also missing is the BMW i front fender badging found on other markets, although the eDrive badges on the C-pillars remain. The charging port is on the left front fender.

Inside, it’s standard F30 3 Series fare, with a no-frills, driver-oriented design that hides some questionable materials and trim choices, especially compared to the outstanding interiors of the C-Class and the recently-launched Audi A4. Still, it feels fairly well built for the most part, and has a clarity and simple logic to its switchgear layout and instrumentation that the others still have yet to master.

As is the case with the regular F30, the 330e exhibits impressive packaging, with plenty of head- and legroom to spare despite being smaller than the C-Class and A4. What has been compromised by the new-age powertrain is boot space, which has dropped from 480 litres to 370 litres.

Mind you, that’s still more than the C 350 e’s boot, which can house just 335 litres. More importantly, the boot floor is completely flat, whereas the Mercedes has a stepped load bay which can hamper the loading of items. Disappointingly, however, the rear bench is fixed, rather than split-folding like the C 350 e.

As befits a range-topping model, the 330e comes with such niceties as Comfort Access keyless entry (complete with handsfree bootlid opening), the full BMW Professional navigation system with an 8.8-inch widescreen display and handwriting recognition and a colour head-up display.

There’s also a sunroof and an electric rear windscreen blind – both of which are new to the local 3 Series range – and the reverse camera is finally standard and factory-fitted, instead of being a dealer-fitted option. However, the C 350 e goes one better with items like a 13-speaker Burmester surround sound system, triple-zone climate control and air suspension, along with autonomous emergency braking.

Connectivity features include the ConnectedDrive Services and Apps, including the cool Concierge Service that will even send directions directly to the navigation system. Owners can also be connected to the car through the BMW Connected app for Android and iOS, which can be used to monitor vehicle information and battery charge level, as well as to remotely activate the locks, lights, horn and climate control system.

Like most F30 3 Series models sold in Malaysia, the 330e is powered by a 2.0 litre B48 TwinPower Turbo four-cylinder petrol engine. Here, it’s in the same tune as the 320i, and produces 184 hp from 5,000 to 6,500 rpm, as well as 290 Nm of torque between 1,350 and 4,250 rpm.

Sandwiched between it and the eight-speed ZF automatic transmission is an 87 hp/250 Nm electric motor, boosting total system output to 252 hp and 420 Nm; a 5.7 kWh lithium-ion battery juices the motor. With all systems go, the 330e sprints from zero to 100 km/h in 6.1 seconds, half a second slower than the 330i. The top speed is also a slightly more modest 225 km/h rather than the 330i’s electronically-limited 250 km/h.

At the other end of the spectrum, the 330e is capable of achieving a claimed combined fuel consumption figure of just 2.1 litres per 100 km, produces carbon dioxide emissions of just 49 grams per kilometre and has an all-electric range of 35 km, with a maximum speed of 120 km/h in this mode.

Drivers can choose between three dedicated eDrive powertrain settings in addition to BMW’s usual Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus driving modes. The first is the default Auto eDrive mode, which – as the name suggests – automatically manages the two power sources depending on driving conditions and the battery level, and optimises the use of both.

Put it in Max eDrive and the 330e effectively becomes a full electric vehicle, only engaging the petrol engine once the throttle’s kickdown switch is activated, at which point it switches back to Auto eDrive to provide maximum thrust. Save Battery keeps the car solely on petrol power to conserve range – except at very low revs, as the electric motor replaces the gearbox’s torque converter – and will also charge the battery up.

The car starts up in Auto eDrive and in Comfort mode, and it’s in this setup that the 330e feels the most futuristic, leaning heavily on the electric motor in most situations. Even under moderate acceleration, the car will go all the way up to 80 km/h on electric power alone – above which the petrol engine, being more efficient at these speeds, takes over propulsion duties.

It takes a determined stab on the throttle to force the four-pot into play, but it’s not the cleanest of transitions. Although the engine spins into life smoothly and instantly, the extra power doesn’t actually kick in until one or two seconds later, signalled by a sudden shove in the back as the 330e develops a second wind.

It’s much more seamless in Sport mode, in which the engine is up and running nearly all of the time, only remaining in EV mode at very low speeds. Floor it and the electric motor provides an instant surge, augmenting the already muscular petrol mill. In the right conditions, the 330e will fling itself towards the horizon at a considerable clip, and it doesn’t feel too far off the more powerful 330i in terms of outright pace.

This impressive performance is readily felt even in Max eDrive – assuming, of course, you keep the battery charged. In full EV mode, the car will happily keep up with the cut and thrust of everyday traffic, and will ably hum along at highway speeds, although the battery will be drained surprisingly quickly at triple-figure speeds.

Of course, no one will be able to match the claimed NEDC electric range of 35 km – even the trip computer shows around 32 km when fully charged, and that itself is optimistic. Take that into consideration, however, and what’s left is still a pretty decent all-electric range.

For example, en route to returning the car to BMW Malaysia’s headquarters in Cyberjaya, I managed around 25 km, which was just about enough to take me to the nearby ChargEV point at the Malaysia Automotive Institute (MAI) – all the way from my house in Bukit Jalil – on electric power alone. This, all the while driving at a pace that admittedly veered on the side of cautious, but never unrealistic or unsafe.

Save Battery lets the side down a little, particularly if you start off with a nearly flat battery. Having to both propel the car on its own and charge the battery means that the petrol engine feels a little languid, and fuel consumption easily jumps into double figures, even at a cruise.

Charging is capped at 50% here, which is controversial – and whether that’s a good thing comes down to personal preference. Fellow colleague Anthony Lim, who drove the car in Munich, didn’t like the limit – preferring it to go all the way to 100%, as the C 350 e does. His reasoning is that long journeys are perfect for charging up the battery, and once you get off the highway you have full electric charge at your disposal.

But I can understand the move on the part of BMW – letting it charge all the way means that fuel economy takes a big hit, and the halfway mark on battery charge still results in a range of more than 10 km, which should be more than enough for last-mile zero-emission jaunts. Besides, isn’t the whole point of a plug-in hybrid to charge it not on the road, but at home?

Either way, we both agree that Save Battery is where the 330e feels the least impressive. And that’s not counting the fact that in this mode you’ll have to bear with engine’s automatic start/stop system in stop-and-go traffic. While it’s much, much improved over the usual – and infamously rattly – system on other BMWs, it still gives the car a slight shake upon start-up, at odds with the car’s future-forward feel elsewhere.

In any mode, the eight-speed auto does the thankless behind-the-scenes job of putting power from two different sources to the road, all the while doing it in a smooth and responsive manner. Whether you’re mooching around in town or getting up on it on a mountain road in Sport, you’re almost always in the right gear, and for those rare instances that you’re not there are paddles for you to shift up or down as you please.

The smoothness is repeated in the powertrain, especially in full electric mode. Virtually everyone who sits in the car raves about the lack of vibration and the instant manner in which the 330e picks up pace from standstill, and even with the engine on there’s little harshness to be felt. Yes, you can hear it – augmented to sound a bit like a boxer, as with the 330i – but it’s still very much muted, even under hard acceleration.

Of course, with little noise coming from under the bonnet, the lack of refinement that is apparent on every F30 3 Series is made even more stark here. Even at moderate highway speeds there’s more than a rustle of wind noise, but all that gets drowned out by the sheer amount of tyre noise. It’s so loud, in fact, that it’s borderline uncomfortable even at a cruise, and is simply unforgivable for a premium car.

But there’s just something about the way every F30 drives that feels just right. The light steering, being electrically assisted, provides little in the way of feel and has a slightly lazy response on-centre, but flick the thick wheel more than a few millimetres and the car swings around faithfully, pivoting tightly around an invisible axis like the outer arm of a compass.

Perched low – thanks to the massive amount of seat adjustment available – and far behind the front wheels, you feel like you’re at the heart of the action, the car seemingly yawing around the seat of your pants. The instinctive, agile way the car changes direction is immensely satisfying, and makes the C-Class – which drives cleanly if unremarkably – feel like a boat in comparison.

Engaging Sport mode makes the steering heavier, but otherwise does nothing to make it less inert, although you do appreciate the extra weight when stringing together a series of corners. The brakes, however, are impressive, with a firm pedal and immense stopping power that inspires confidence – despite featuring regenerative braking, it doesn’t feel unnatural or imprecise.

Grip levels are high, to the extent that in the dry it’s nigh-on impossible to unstick it. Provoke it with enough intent and effort and the rear will step out, but the 330e doesn’t feel anywhere near as willing to slide around as the 330i, likely due to the extra weight it is carrying.

It’s much happier when you drive it cleanly and with a more judicious use of throttle. It isn’t infallible, however – in wet conditions it can be tricky to put the power down mid-corner, the stability control light blinking furiously if you so much as breathe on the right pedal.

The suspension may not feature the 330i’s adaptive dampers, but the passive setup still provides a good balance between ride and body control. Indeed, there’s a latent firmness to the ride, and you can definitely feel it over larger, sharper bumps.

The trade off, however, is that the 330e shrugs off minor surface imperfections with such ease that you wonder if they were there in the first place. It’s a level of compliance that the C-Class, for all its merits, again isn’t quite able to match, particularly on the larger alloy wheels.

The long and short of it is that the 330e is a deeply impressive machine, mostly delivering on its promise on reducing the motor car’s effect on the environment and your wallet, without sacrificing the intrinsic driving allure that characterises the propeller badge. Drive it the way you’re meant to and it can redefine what you think is possible in a car, in a way that is indeed very refreshing.

Sure, there are flaws – it’s not quite the best-driving bread-and-butter 3 Series on sale today (that would be the 330i) and the F30’s characteristic poor refinement and sub-par cabin ambience continue to rear their ugly head here. But those that can look past these issues will find a genuinely likeable sports sedan with a powertrain that delivers a charm all on its own.

But there’s a flip side to all of this all-fun-no-guilt goodness, and it’s that to really get the most out of the 330e, you will have to live in the ideal utopia that BMW envisions you to. This, we’ll admit, does include a fair few people, but also excludes plenty others.

You see, the 330e only really makes sense if there’s a regular supply of electricity to feed it. Yes, you can drive it perfectly fine without ever having to plug it in, but on a limited charge its functionality reduces to that of a standard hybrid. Run it in Auto eDrive mode with next to nothing left and the car offers all but a sliver of electric assistance, and relies on regenerative braking to charge the battery just enough to do so.

For the car to work as intended (i.e. on electric power most of the time), you will have to charge it fully at least every night, and that’s bad news for the increasing number of people residing in apartments or condominiums, almost all of which have no available sockets in the parking lot that can be used for charging.

Those living on landed property will still require a socket outside their house, limiting the car’s appeal to a small subset of people who conveniently live within these parameters. It would be better still if they have a charging station at the office – like we do here in Jaya One – to usefully double the daily real-world all-electric range to around 50 km, but even fewer people have access to that.

Even if you do fulfil all the criteria, there will still be a couple of hoops for you to jump through. For one, you have to make doubly sure that you actually charge it each and every night. Forget to fill up your regular fossil fuel-powered car and you can simply pop by the nearest petrol station; forget to charge the 330e and your only recourse is to let the petrol engine carry a whole lot of dead weight the next day.

And no, in case you were wondering, you can’t use an extension lead to charge it – I plugged the car into one the night I brought it home (I was later told this was a complete no-no) and it promptly blew a fuse on the lead. Imagine my dismay when I found out the next day that the EV range was all of three kilometres…

Mennekes Type 2 charging cable costs RM1,442

You might think that the i Wallbox is a must-have for this car, which is not only plenty pricey on its own at around RM6,000 a pop, but also requires a potentially expensive home installation that could cost up to RM5,000 (average around RM3,000) depending on the complexity of the install.

However, even using the standard three-pin charger that comes with the car, the charging time is a still-reasonable five hours, easily within the usual overnight charge cycle. What is a worthwhile investment is the blue Mennekes Type 2 charging cable (yes, it’s sold separately) that you see in these pictures, which comes with its own bag – it’s available at all BMW service centres at RM1,442 inclusive of GST.

This cable will allow you to use most charging stations on the ChargEV network – with a membership card bundled into the purchase of the vehicle – so you can charge your car while, say, doing the usual grocery run. Even then, it’s a flawed system; the one at the popular Suria KLCC, for example, was built to support the Nissan Leaf that was briefly sold here, and uses the incompatible CHAdeMO Type 4 connector standard.

Take all this into consideration and you’ll realise that at the end of the day, the 330e’s real-world fuel consumption varies greatly depending on how you use it. By the time I returned the car to BMW, I averaged 8.4 litres per 100 km which, while still impressive for the sort of performance the car provides, is quite a big jump from the quoted figure.

BMW Connected app lets you monitor vehicle information and battery
charge, as well as remotely control certain functions

It should be noted, however, that the final number included a particularly spirited drive up to Genting Highlands, as well as long stretches of driving in Save Battery mode. The latter was really the fault of this writer, as I did not adequately plan out when to charge the car, so I often ended up with a less-than-ideal level of battery charge. Those who regularly charge their cars should get considerably better mileage.

There are other unexpected benefits to frequent charging – for example, the battery essentially becomes a reserve fuel source if you run out of petrol. That’s a very real possibility with this car as the actual fuel tank measures just 41 litres, easily drained if you really make use of all the available performance from the petrol engine, particularly in Sport mode.

Case in point – during the aforementioned blast to Genting, the fuel tank ran completely dry halfway up the road to Gohtong, forcing the car into EV mode to get to the nearest petrol station. It was a unsettling experience to say the least, so it was a good job I still had 11 km of electric range to go…

Also reliant on usage is the total range – BMW quotes a figure of 595 km with both the petrol engine and the electric motor at play, but typical everyday driving would see the car return closer to 400 km, a result of the tiny fuel tank. Do bear in mind, however, that because the 330e is so reliant on the electric motor, charging it regularly could greatly extend the mileage.

So, to the original question – is the new BMW 330e really the right car for you? That really depends on several variables, perhaps more than the average buyer is willing to put up. While the car makes you make arguably the least compromise amongst the eco-friendly vehicles out there, it’s by no means hassle-free.

Buyers will have to think long and hard before they get swayed by the attractive price tag, as they will have to put up with a lot of changes to their daily routine if they really want to get the new-age driving experience it heralds. But if you are able to charge your car at home and can live with planning every route to get the most out of it, then the 330e could provide just the kind of electrifying driving experience the future promises.

The BMW 330e iPerformance Sport is priced at RM248,800 on-the-road without insurance. It comes with a five-year unlimited mileage warranty, five years’ free scheduled maintenance based on the onboard Condition Based Service (CBS), as well as a two-year tyre warranty. Browse full specifications and equipment of all BMW 3 Series models on CarBase.my.