Johannesburg - Are plug-in hybrids all they’re cracked up to be? We spend a week with
 BMW’s 330e.

Thursday: BMW’s new 330e iPerformance, to give you its full name, sits charging in our office parking basement and I’m quite pleased that it’s mine for the next week. I’ve driven a few plug-in hybrids on launches but this is the first time I’ll actually get to live with one on a day-to-day basis, tripping over extension cords and all that comes with it.

Plug-in hybrids have taken some flak lately for the football-field-sized discrepancy between their extremely frugal-sounding ‘combined cycle’ consumption claims, 2.1 l/100km in the 330e’s case, and their rather high real-world consumption once the battery power has been depleted, particularly on longer journeys.

Now I do get why the car companies would exploit these totally pointless ‘official’ numbers to keep the legislative nannies at bay, but to actually advertise those figures is unscrupulous to say the least.

With that in mind, I head home in the 330e, wafting along with a fully charged battery, but failing at my mission to drive normally as the urge to see how far I could get on a single charge became almost uncontrollable. I manage 28km before the two-litre turbopetrol engine  kicks in, versus BMW’s claim of 40.

Friday: I manage to conquer my hypermiling urges and drive like a normal person again. I get 24.5km on battery power. Far off the claim, but still more than enough to cover the average commute.

Saturday: I had various errands to run all at intervals inconvenient to charge the battery. Ignore your charger for long enough and average consumption can easily creep past the 10 litres per 100km mark. I did manage to charge it later that evening though. It takes around three hours with a standard wall socket, but BMW says its optional iWallbox will bring that down to two.

Sunday: I had to meet someone at the airport, and so a 100km round-trip on the highway. My aforementioned runs were purely on urban avenues so it was going to be interesting to see how the battery range would hold up to a highway run. Running at the electric motor’s 120km/h max, I managed 28.4km before the petrol engine sprang into action.

Monday: It’s time for that trek to Gerotek for the performance runs. The battery’s charged but my destination is an hour away and I realise the car’s going to need that electrical boost during the acceleration runs, so I set the ‘Eco Drive’ system to a mode that saves the lithium ion battery’s charge. This usually comes in handy if the last part of your journey is through city traffic, where the petrol engine is at its least efficient, but incidentally it’s also a boon for performance tests at remote locations.

You can also select ‘Max eDrive’ if you want to drive electric only or auto if you want the car to work things out for you, and if you set a navigation route it can even use that info to work out the most efficient drivetrain strategy.

I arrive at Gerotek and it’s time to see how fast it is. With system outputs of 185kW and 420Nm, the 330e is really punchy, both off the mark and while overtaking at cruising velocity, with our car sprinting from 0-100km/h in 6.46 seconds and from 80 to 120 in 4.25 secs.

The engine is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, which is perfectly in tune with the drivetrain and a far better all-round experience than the CVT boxes that most hybrids are paired with.

Road Trip

The trip back gave me a chance to see how much petrol the 330e would consume on a long extra-urban journey, using petrol power only. After taking a longer highway route for this purpose, the onboard readout eventually settled around the seven litres per 100km mark. That’s not too tragic for a car of this size, especially considering that it’s lugging some heavy batteries around.

On that note, BMW has strategically positioned everything to ensure that the car still has a perfect 50:50 weight distribution over the front and back axles and as a result it still handles rather nicely. Sure, it’s not as agile as a normal 3 Series thanks to the extra weight, although the latter factor does ensure a slightly cosier ride.

But is it really worth getting one of these? If you do a lot of long-distance driving, then certainly not. But if you have a regular city commute of less than 24km as well as the means and discipline to charge it regularly then you can possibly start making a case for it.

And are you really going to mind that it’s not so economical on your annual holiday drive when you’re getting around town each day on battery power alone? I certainly wouldn’t.

Then again, if you plug in to the normal power supply you’re essentially driving a coal-powered car, unless you’re a real seasoned eco warrior, in which case your roof is probably already collapsing under the weight of solar panels.

VERDICT

The 330e is priced at R767 400 in base form, making it a good R58 000 dearer than the equivalent 330d, and the latter is ultimately going to make more sense to the majority. But if you want to be an early adopter in the so-called electric revolution, then the 330e is certainly a fine way to do it.

FACTS

BMW 330e Plug-in Hybrid

Engine: 2-litre, 4-cyl turbopetrol
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
Power: 135kW @ 5000-6500rpm
Torque: 290Nm @ 1350-4250rpm
Electric motor power:55kW @ 2500rpm
Electric motor torque 250Nm @ 0-2500rpm
System power: 185kW
System torque:420Nm
0-100km/h (tested at Gerotek):6.46 seconds
Top speed (claimed):224km/h
Boot space:368 litres
Price: R767 400
Warranty: 2-year/unlimited km
Maintenance plan: 5-year/100 000km

Drive360

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