The plug-in-hybrid 3 Series is so good we’re questioning the point of the 330i.
The 2021 BMW 330e is an aberration. It doesn't fit into the traditional performance hierarchy of its 3 Series siblings, which are split into a variety of mainstream (330i) and M-branded (M340i, M3, M3 Competition, etc) offerings, each more powerful than the last.
Instead, it could be the best 3 Series for most people, using a plug-in-hybrid powertrain to amplify refinement, comfort, and luxury over the standard 330i. And with a modest price premium and usable all-electric range, it could make better financial sense too.
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Automakers tend to either go wild styling their hybrid vehicles or stick as close to the gas-powered variant's design as possible. BMW took the latter approach, making few changes to distinguish the 330e from the 330i.
That means you'll score the same conservative styling (at least compared to other modern BMWs), with a modest pair of kidney grilles flanked by an attractive set of headlights. We actually prefer the expressive lamps of the new 4 Series to the scalloped shapes of the 3er, but this treatment is attractive enough. In back, you'll find the same slim taillights and a subtle duck-bill decklid as other sedan models. The profile is mostly free of overzealous design, aside from the aggressive kickup of the lower character line as it extends rearward from the front fender.
Adding a dose of sportiness to our tester's exterior is the M Sport package, which introduces standard 19-inch wheels (shod in meaty winter rubber in our tester's case) and adds some menace to the benign front and rear fascia designs. The price is a tall order at $3,800, but the improvements to the exterior design are substantial. This is the stance all 3ers should have.
The cabin is a nice enough place, but as we complained about during our first drive several years ago, it lags behind the Mercedes-Benz C-Class in terms of overall attractiveness. Still, our specific tester deserves credit for its handsome Cognac Vernasca leather upholstery and Ash Gray wood trim. Subtle touches of aluminum add brightness, while the switchgear features the same premium look and feel we expect of a German luxury sedan.
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Softening the blow of the M Sport pack's price tag are its standard sport seats, which are ample and supportive in the way all good sport seats are. We'd happily spend hours and hours, be it on a twisting road or on a highway slog, in these well-bolstered, 14-way, heated and cooled chairs.
We're less keen on the second-row bench, of course, but this isn't a BMW-specific problem. The measurements for the 330e match those of the 330i, with 35.2 inches of legroom – that ties the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and bests the Acura TLX (34.9), though it is slightly down on the Audi A4 (35.7). But put another way, nothing in this class is roomy.
Where the 330e excels beyond its gas-only rivals is in regard to refinement. This car is exceptionally quiet under electric power, and the boost from the 107-horsepower electric motor is so substantial that we rarely had to rely on the gas powerplant. It'd be on – we watched the power distribution screen intently during testing – but the 2.0-liter mill just didn't need many revs to keep us moving. This is bar none the quietest compact luxury sedan around, and it's thanks to the plug-in-hybrid powertrain.
Despite the 19-inch wheels and the winter rubber, the 330e is a comfortable thing on the road, too. The standard adaptive dampers mitigate the harshest surfaces and the overall suspension tuning is such that crossing rough sections of road rarely flummox this BMW. In addition to the limited engine noise, there's little wind noise or tire roar either. Really, the 330e is just a very good place to spend some time.
You will lose some cargo space with the 330e, but that's hardly unusual with plug-in hybrids. Cargo space is down 3.8 cubic feet, to 13.2 cubes. That's a sacrifice to be sure, but one we’d be okay with. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind if trunk space is high on your list of priorities.
The heart of any BMW's tech suite is the iDrive system, and so it is on the 330e. A 8.8-inch touchscreen sits atop the center stack and is home for the navigation, audio info, and all the other usual suspects. BMW continues to offer a redundant dial and physical buttons to manage iDrive, although we found ourselves reaching for the touchscreen itself on a regular basis. It's quick to respond and has a pleasant level of haptic feedback.
The layout of the operating system lacks the logic and clarity found in older iDrive systems, with the current setup blurring the lines of what lives where in the OS. We kept forgetting that access to Apple CarPlay sits at the very top of the screen, rather than in, say, the Communications tab. Speaking of wireless CarPlay, while we've had our issues, the technology was mostly on point here. Only once – when we shut off the car, ran into a store, and then came back out a few minutes later to start driving – did it freak out.
Because information is so important to getting the most out of the 330e, it comes standard with BMW's Live Cockpit Professional system, a 12.3-inch all-digital instrument cluster that is light on reconfigurability but big on data. BMW isolated this particular item to the $2,300 Premium pack on the 330i.
While we have a love-hate relationship with Live Cockpit in gas-only BMWs, it feels more versatile with the hybrid, doing an excellent job of showing how much electric power we can apply before the gas engine kicks on for example. We still wish BMW would give users a bit more freedom to reconfigure the display. You can tab through a small selection of screens in the center of the right gauge, and you can tweak the center portion of the display itself, but in terms of transforming the layout like you can with Audi's Virtual Cockpit or MBUX, you're out of luck.
If you want a sporty BMW 3 Series, look elsewhere. The 330e has enough power to hang with its gas-only counterpart, but it struggles elsewhere.
Under hood sits a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, shared with the last-generation 320i. There's still 181 ponies, although the 330e packs 258 pound-feet of torque. The electric motor sits ahead of the eight-speed automatic transmission and produces 107 hp and 77 lb-ft while drawing power from a 12.0-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. Total system output sits at 288 hp and 310 lb-ft.
That's an advantage of 33 hp and 15 lb-ft over the 330i, although the plug-in hybrid is what we'll refer to as “a chonky boy,” tipping the scales at 4,039 pounds in rear-drive form (all-wheel drive adds 99 pounds). A total of 457 pounds separates the 330e from its gas-only sibling and perfectly saps any performance advantage – both cars take 5.6 seconds to hit 60, while also sharing 130-mile-per-hour limited top speeds.
But in terms of everyday drivability, the 330e is a revelation. The electric motor is always there to give a boost of low-end torque, and helps the car get off the line with far more urgency in light-throttle applications. Bury the gas pedal and the disparate power sources play well, making the 330e feel like a pleasant mix of 330i and M340i. The novel XtraBoost feature is imperceptible.
The weight of the electric motors and battery packs limits the 330e's handling verve, though. Even with all the weight down low, you feel its influence while trying to manage the heavy steering. This BMW requires thoughtful behavior while cornering, because even with a healthy weight distribution – 48.4/51.6 – it feels prone to understeering. Surely our tester's Pirelli Winter Sottozero rubber had something to do with it too, but based on our time at the helm, the 330e is the least entertaining member of an otherwise enjoyable sedan line.
Still, the 330e does some things well on the handling front. As we said, the steering has that lovely BMW heft, and the sedan exhibits ample composure when asked to change directions suddenly. But as a thing to hustle down your favorite road, a 330i is a better companion.
For some reason, adding the M Sport package automatically attaches the $1,450 Convenience package, which includes the Active Driving Assistant (high-speed automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist). What an aesthetic package has to do with active safety we can't say, but our tester added the optional $1,400 Active Driving Assistant Pro to this, which brings full-speed adaptive cruise control, full-speed AEB, lane centering with steering assistance, traffic-jam assist, and evasion aid.
Basically, the 330e with this setup is as smart as a BMW can get. All the technology works beautifully together, reducing the strain on the driver at highway speeds. The steering assistance is light and unobtrusive, so it rarely feels like you're fighting with the car. Adaptive cruise, meanwhile, has somehow gotten even better since our last BMW test. It reacts to vehicles in front with almost preternatural composure, reducing speed gently and predictably.
The EPA rates the 330e's all-electric range at 23 miles. That's a disappointing number, but we easily matched it in real-world testing, despite some frosty temperatures. With a full charge, this plug-in returns a combined figure of 75 mpge, while running with a depleted lithium-ion battery will yield 28 mpg. But it's easy to beat that latter figure if you charge regularly.
We were able to plug the 330e into our Grizzl-E Classic charger each night, and despite the car's 16-amp max recharge rate, charge times were in the 2.5-to-3-hour range. With this simple tactic, we managed to cover over 120 of our 300 miles of testing on battery power alone.
That ratio would have been even higher if we hadn't gone on a couple of longer, 50-plus-mile drives. Still, our computer-indicated average sat at a healthy 46.8 miles per gallon. If all you're doing is commuting in your 330e and you have regular access to even a 110-volt outlet (it'll do the job in about five hours), besting our real-world figure should be easy.
Charging regularly is a key part of seeing a return on your investment. If you matched our real-world fuel economy over 12,000 miles, you'd consume 256 gallons of premium fuel in a year, which amounts to $849 at today's $3.32 national average. If you covered the same distance in a 330i at the EPA combined rating of 31 mpg, you'd consume 387 gallons of fuel costing $1,284 dollars.
With just $435 in fuel savings separating the two, it'd take 7.5 years to see a return on the 330e's premium. That's very simple math that doesn’t take into account what we spent on electricity, but it does illustrate that charging can have a huge impact on whether the 330e makes sense.
The 2021 BMW 330e starts at $44,550, not counting a $995 destination charge or the $5,836 federal income-tax credit. Even without the tax credit, though, the price premium over the standard 330i is just $3,300. Beyond that, the color palettes are the same, the wheel options are the same, and the leather options are basically the same (the 330e actually has two extra upholstery variations).
The PHEV asks a bit more for its three main option packages, but we're talking about $350 increases for the ritzier Premium and Executive packages and $850 for the Convenience package. What’s more, in each case, the 330e adds some worthwhile equipment to the mix. Beyond those big additions, smaller items like the Dynamic Handling package actually cost less on the 330e ($1,400 versus $2,450).
For that reason, we consider the 330e an excellent value. BMW is offering a far better luxury car and by and large, isn't asking much more for the vehicle or its options. That doesn't save the 330e from being a pricey proposition, though. Our tester, loaded up as it was, came in at just under $60,000. That's a substantial increase in price and the reason the score here is so disappointing. A little more standard equipment would go a long way to improving the 330e's Pricing rating.
Gallery: 2021 BMW 330e: Review
2021 BMW 330e M Sport