Cast your minds back to five years ago. Back then, the word “corona” referred to Mexican beers and BMW headlights and the concept of a government change was nothing more than an abstract thought. It was also the period in which the BMW 330e made its appearance on the Malaysian market, ushering a new era of electrification both for Munich and the country at large.

Taking advantage of the then-new tax incentives for hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles, the 330e arrived as a range-topping compact executive sedan at mid-range prices. Those who bought it enjoyed a powerful petrol-electric powertrain hidden underneath the attractive F30 skin, helping boost its popularity – for a while, Malaysia was BMW’s fifth biggest market for PHEVs worldwide.

How times have changed. Pandemic aside, BMW’s biggest competitor in the plug-in hybrid stakes, Mercedes-Benz, has also pulled its PHEVs from the market. After years of lagging behind other ASEAN countries, Malaysia is also finally making a concerted effort in attracting carmakers to launch full electric vehicles, with BMW duly following suit by announcing plans to introduce a range of new EVs.

In this environment, the new 330e finds itself increasingly outdated, as buyers are expected to transition towards fully electric vehicles over the coming years. But with more power, a bigger battery and a more accomplished G20 3 Series as its base, can the car snap itself back into public consciousness? We take one out for a spin to find out if it has what it takes.

Great value, zero competition

At RM249,849 (you can spend around RM12,000 extra for the full five-year warranty and service package, and you really should), the 330e represents serious value for money. For around RM20,000 more than the 320i, you get a better-looking car with a lot more power, all while being another RM20,000 cheaper than still-less-powerful 330i. Of course, not everyone who buys a 3 Series would want a plug-in hybrid, and there are some trade-offs to consider, but it’s something to bear in mind regardless.

And if you are looking for an electrified vehicle in this price range, the 330e is really your only option, now that the Mercedes-Benz C 350 e has exited stage left and BMW’s own fully-electric i3s is no longer with us. Sure, the latter’s place will soon be supplanted by the much more conventional iX3 SUV, but we still don’t have any pricing details or specs for that car. The 330e also has the security of a petrol engine to fall back on, which should never be underestimated – despite plans to build new fast charging stations across the country.

Handsome good looks, enhanced with M Sport kit

Time has been kind to the G20 3 Series. In the two years since it was launched, the fussy, slightly inelegant styling has morphed into something that’s nicely handsome, now that its classier F30 predecessor is fading from memory. The heavily-creased bodywork has become less contentious with familiarity, while the classic sports sedan proportions are just as pleasing as they’ve ever been.

The 330e doesn’t change this one bit. There’s no unique bodywork, no aero wheels, no special blue highlights – in fact, to the untrained eye, it looks just like the 330i. That’s a good thing, because both cars are fitted with the M Sport bodykit.

Our opinion on whether the appearance package improves the look of the 3 Series is split clean down the middle, with Hafriz in particular saying he prefers the cleaner aesthetic of the 320i. But he also wears Lewis Hamilton caps to the office, so he’s not exactly the arbiter of taste (I kid, I kid). Me? I think the M Sport pack adds just the right amount of aggression to the design.

I’m not so fond of the 18-inch alloy wheels, however. It’s not the size that’s the problem (although they do look a little small for something this big), but rather their design – the multiple spokes look rather dated and detract from the 3 Series’ sporty design. Happily, there are a few options to choose from in the M Performance parts catalogue, although they do cost a pretty penny (like, RM27,000 pretty).

The car you see here is in 2020 spec – for 2021, the 330e gains some blue rings around the BMW roundels, along with naff “electrified by i” badges on the front fenders – including on the charging port door. The latter is especially unfortunate, but it’s nothing a trim removal tool and some elbow grease wouldn’t fix.

Angular interior design, solid build quality, peerless ergonomics and space

While BMW still can’t seem to make up its mind on its interior design direction, the G20’s cabin remains a high watermark for the brand. The angular hexagonal look is pleasing to the eye, embellished with plenty of silver metal-look trim.

Build quality has also risen several notches from the nadir that was the F30, and despite the odd scratchy plastic here and there, the 3 Series now feels just as polished and as solidly screwed together as its peers from Stuttgart and Ingolstadt. The sports seats also provide plenty of support and adjustment and feel like they would be great to live with, day in, day out.

Better yet, BMW seems to be pulling ahead in terms of ergonomics with each successive generation. While other companies seem hell-bent on removing buttons and cramming every single function into ever-larger touchscreens, Munich has not only retained the physical controls but also clustered them in a manner that makes sense – climate controls underneath the air vents, drive settings around the gearlever, etc.

The 10.25-inch centre touchscreen and iDrive rotary controller also run on the BMW Operating System 7.0, which remains a paragon of ease-of-use, despite some complexity creeping in through its sheer customisability. We’ll be sad to see it go – the next eighth-generation system will incorporate the climate controls into the infotainment system, which will almost certainly be less intuitive to use as a result.

One major gripe is that for all the tech on board, the 330e doesn’t come with Apple CarPlay as standard. That functionality costs RM1,299 to activate, which in 2021 is tantamount to daylight robbery. As for cabin space, the 3 Series excels in accommodating four adults (five at a pinch) with sublime ease. There’s plenty of headroom and legroom for those at the back, who sit on a comfortable if rather flat bench.

Where the 330e version is left wanting is in the boot, where the lithium-ion battery has robbed it of more than 100 litres of useable luggage room (375 litres versus the standard car’s 480 litres). Still, the adjustable boot floor means that you won’t have to deal with a stepped load bay, and unlike the previous model, you can now fold the rear seats in a 40:20:40 split.

Familiar powertrain, added power

The basic building blocks of the 330e remain the same as before. Under the bonnet lies the ubiquitous B48 2.0 litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, producing 184 PS and 300 Nm of torque. Situated between it and the ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox is an electric motor that contributes another 50 kW (68 PS), bringing the total up to 252 PS and 420 Nm of torque. So far, so 2016.

And for the uninitiated, the driving experience is mostly identical. On a full charge, the 330e is essentially an electric vehicle with some petrol assistance, rarely waking up the engine unless more power is called upon. Performance is brisk enough for the cut and thrust of local traffic, and if you flex your right foot, the four-pot cuts in seamlessly to provide a helping hand.

What is new is the terribly-named XtraBoost function that basically gives the motor a second wind, temporarily adding another 31 kW (41 PS) to bring the power output up to a Honda Civic Type R-baiting 292 PS. Accessing this extra power is easy – outside of the dedicated XtraBoost drive mode, you can also simply stomp the throttle past the kickdown switch or use the gearbox’s sport or manual modes.

Do that and the 330e jolts forward, feeling every bit as fast as those horses suggest. With such a powerful electric motor at your disposal, there’s barely any lag between you flooring it and getting a forceful shove in the back. Sure, with a zero-to-100 km/h sprint time of 5.9 seconds, the car isn’t actually all that fast – the circa-300 kg weight disadvantage means that the 330i is still quicker by a tenth – but the immediacy of the powertrain is something even its fleeter-of-foot sibling can’t match.

Too many drive modes spoil the experience

But that’s with the car in Sport mode, during which the petrol mill is left on all the time. In any other drive mode there’s an agonising seconds-long wait for the engine to spool up when you mash the throttle. It’s in this instance, more than anywhere else, that you really feel the disparity between the two power sources.

Playing around with the drive modes also exposes one of the few flaws of the 330e – there’s too many of them to keep track. The three buttons that used to correspond to the Sport, Comfort and Eco Pro modes now control a bewildering amount of settings, all siloed into those three buttons.

The returning Sport button is self-explanatory, although you have to press it twice to get to the aforementioned XtraBoost mode. Comfort and Eco Pro have been swapped for Hybrid and Electric, but confusingly, there’s an Eco Pro setting for each with a double press of the respective buttons. There are also Individual modes buried into each of the three buttons if you want to tweak the chassis settings as well, along with an Adaptive button if you just want the car to make its mind up for you instead.

Then there’s the Save Battery mode, which prioritises the petrol engine to maintain the battery at a set charge level, now moved into a separate button. The upshot is that there are now just too many buttons to operate on the move, making for quite a distracting driving experience if you want to make the most of the powertrain. For me, the previous Sport/Comfort/Eco rocker and eDrive mode switch was a much more intuitive system.

Larger battery, even more useful electric range

Thankfully, the rest of the package is as effective as ever, especially now that the battery has more than doubled in capacity to 12 kWh (useable net capacity has also nearly doubled to 10.3 kWh). This has resulted in a commensurate increase in the quoted all-electric range – from 35 km to 56 km – as well as an electric mode top speed some 20 km/h higher at 140 km/h.

As usual, the range figure is optimistic to say the least – you’d struggle to hit 40 km in everyday driving. Still, that’s a damn sight higher than the outgoing model’s typical 20 to 25 km, which was already enough to cover most drives; the new one is even better in this regard, allowing you to make return trips with ease. Just don’t expect to drive from KL to Seremban on a single charge, OK?

Speaking of charging, the 330e takes around six hours to fill the battery with the standard three-pin domestic charger. The optional wallbox charger is limited to just 3.7 kW, which is still enough to juice the battery to full in 3.6 hours. There’s no way to charge faster than this – even with a high-powered charger – so you’re not going to be able to regain all your lost range while having lunch.

It’s vital that you charge your car at home every day. Doing so will allow you to maximise the benefits of the petrol-electric synergy, making it entirely possible to hit the claimed 2.2 litres per 100 km fuel consumption figure. If you don’t, you’ll get all but a sliver of electric assistance and you’ll be lugging around 300 kg in dead weight for no reason – and we all know how bad that is for both your fuel bills and the environment.

Far better refinement compared to F30; handling dulled by extra weight

Refinement was one of the biggest weak points of the previous F30, with significant road and wind noise exacerbated by the 330e running in silent electric mode. Thankfully, an acoustic glass windscreen and some additional sound-deadening measures have gone a long way to fix this, with only some slight tyre roar creeping in at higher speeds. In one generational leap, the 3 Series has gone from being the most uncouth in its class to being one of the very best in this regard.

Ride comfort is also a step in the right direction, at least compared to the Malaysian-spec G20 330i. That car’s passive dampers are much stiffer than the F30’s, leading to a tense, nuggety ride that has lost much of the fluency of the previous generation.

The 330e, on the other hand, is fitted with adaptive dampers that in Comfort mode provides a much more relaxed ride, even though a layer of firmness remains. The net result is a car that is much more liveable day-to-day, all the while offering slightly better body control than the occasionally loose-feeling F30.

It’s a good job that body movements are better kept in check, because the extra weight really tests the limits of the G20’s chassis. Next to the 330i, the 330e is missing some delicacy in the way it responds to your inputs; it also has a tendency to wash wide when driving quickly.

Keep it well within its boundaries, however, and the 330e does a reasonable impression of a sporty BMW, thanks to the sharp (if rather numb) steering and minimal body roll. Even with the additional mass, the car is still one of the standout cars in the segment as far as handling is concerned.

Verdict: Great PHEV made even better, but will customers bite?

When it came to the previous generation of plug-in hybrids, BMW arguably had an edge over Mercedes – despite the latter’s power advantage, Munich was able to counter with a far more polished powertrain package and cheaper prices (at the cost of some equipment). The company is now the only player in the PHEV market and the latest models, as proved by this 330e, have pushed the boat out even further.

But there’s a nagging feeling that the market has moved on from the PHEV stopgap measure, especially given the numerous reliability issues that have plagued owners. Even with the extended eight-year battery warranty (which is included whether or not you opt for the five-year warranty package), local buyers appear to be wary of unforeseen repair costs – as illustrated by the falling resale values of hybrids.

Then there’s the fact that BMW itself is forging down the path of full electrification, given that it has recently launched the iX and confirmed it would also be bringing in the i4 and the aforementioned iX3. With longer range figures and plans to build fast charging stations across the country, range anxiety is becoming less and less of a hurdle in owning a proper electric vehicle, further stacking the order against PHEVs.

But despite those issues (and regardless of whether BMW can prove it can make a dependable everyday PHEV), there’s no denying that the 330e is the best of the breed, combining excellent performance with a genuinely useable electric range and a decently sporty drive – wrapped in a refined and comfortable package. If you’re looking for a gateway into electrification, the 330e remains a compelling proposition.

The G20 BMW 330e is priced at RM249,849 on-the-road without insurance, inclusive of the sales and service tax (SST) exemption for CKD vehicles. Included in the price is a two-year, unlimited-mileage warranty and an eight-year/160,000 km battery warranty; five-year warranty and service packages cost extra. Browse full specifications and equipment on CarBase.my.