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2020 BMW 330e first drive: A plug-in 3 Series without compromise

Roadshow logo Roadshow 3 days ago Rory Reid

a car driving down a dirt road

© BMW

Meet the BMW 330e. This plug-in hybrid has all the advantages of a combustion-engined BMW sedan, along with the benefits of electric power in a package that, on paper, gives you the best of both worlds. If you use it correctly.

The BMW 330e is, in a nutshell, an electrified version of the 330i. It uses a version of that car's four-cylinder engine (detuned to 184 horsepower) and a 113-horsepower electric motor, mounted into the eight-speed Steptronic transmission. Both power the rear wheels and can work simultaneously to provide a maximum of 292 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, or split the load for increased fuel efficiency.

2020 BMW 330e is a plug-in with poise

BMW has equipped the 330e with a wealth of driving modes -- multiple hybrid modes, multiple sport modes and multiple electric modes -- and the choice can be slightly confusing. This can make things seem complicated at first glance, but we found the 330e works best when used in one of three ways: either as a pure electric vehicle for short journeys totaling no more than 41 miles, driven like a maniac in the XtraBoost sport mode where everything is deployed as aggressively as possible or left to its own devices in the intelligent Predictive hybrid mode where the car decides the best course of action based on the route in your navigation system.

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That last mode is especially impressive. On a journey consisting of highway and local roads, the 330e will default to using the combustion engine on faster highway stretches and a mixture of both power sources in medium speed areas, before calling on the electric motor to do the lion's share when it enters a city center.

The 330e is certainly no Tesla , but it works fairly well as an EV for short hops. Its range is, on paper, sufficient to cover the 16 miles the average American drives to work each way, each day, even if the 12-kilowatt-hour battery pack depletes more rapidly the longer you maintain the car's 87-mile-per-hour electric-only top speed. There's even enough grunt in this mode to overtake, and the combustion engine will only kick in to help if you floor the throttle completely. Recharging to 80 percent capacity takes a little under 2.5 hours at 16 amps and 230 volts.

a car parked in front of a house: BMW© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. BMW

Those with a short enough commute and charging facilities at home and at work could find themselves using virtually no gas at all, though the lure of the 330e's most aggressive XtraBoost sport mode may be too much to resist. Here, the throttle response switches from somewhat lazy to razor-sharp, the steering weight increases, the speaker system tries to fool you into thinking the engine and exhaust are making interesting noises and the 3 Series chassis shines. It handles as well as we've come to expect from a 3 Series, though the additional weight of the batteries and electric motor can be felt (and heard via the squealy low-rolling-resistance tires) when pushed enthusiastically through corners.

Fuel economy in the 330e is impressive, provided the car is driven appropriately. Official US figures aren't available yet, but BMW estimates it'll return between 124 and 147 miles per gallon equivalent on the European cycle. This, of course, is only possible if you start your journey with a full battery charge and allow the electric motor to take some of the strain away from the gasoline engine. Be aware that fuel economy in the 330e can actually be worse than in the 330i if you set off with an empty battery pack, which essentially asks the combustion engine to drag around a heavy motor and batteries for no good reason. Charge it before every journey, and it's fantastic. Don't, and you're pouring money down the toilet.

The 330e isn't quite as practical as its gasoline-powered brothers. The battery pack, mounted in the rear, impinges on the trunk space slightly, dropping storage by a few cubic feet. There's a good amount of space for passengers, though. Those in the front will find it a roomy, comfortable way to travel, and there's space for two in the rear, though things get very cosy when traveling with a middle-seat passenger.

The 330e is available in Sport Line, Luxury Line or M Sport forms, the major differences being tweaks to the way the interior and exterior are styled. M Sport adds sportier suspension and steering, LED fog lights and sportier body trim.

a motorcycle parked on the side of a car: BMW© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. BMW

A variety of options packs are available. The convenience pack, which comes included, features lane-departure warning, auto braking to stop you accidentally running into objects and pedestrians and traffic jam assist to help drive and brake the car automatically in traffic. The premium pack ($2,350) adds a head-up display (HUD), LED headlights, one year of Apple CarPlay, keyless entry and a heated steering wheel. The executive pack introduces front and rear heated seats, gesture control (for changing the volume, skipping tracks and answering the phone) and automatic high beams.

The 330e also comes with some pretty smart tech that can't be found on the standard 330i. Out of the box, it features a preconditioning system that heats or air conditions the cabin using energy from the battery. The navigation system can be used to check the availability of public charging points at the time of arrival and, in some places, it's even possible to reserve a charging point for a limited time -- though you'll need to check with the charge point operators as to whether they provide this feature.

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In all, the BMW 330e is as you'd expect. It's a well-executed plug-in hybrid version of an already excellent car. It might not be quite as fast as the 330i, or as practical, but it offers more flexibility in the way it can be driven and is cheaper to run if you're able to charge it regularly. All things considered, it represents an enticing proposition for anyone who wants to dip one foot into the world of electrification, without forsaking the combustion engine.

a car parked on the side of a road: BMW© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. BMW

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

This was originally published on Roadshow.

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