A Sporting 3 Series Hybrid for Those With a (Small) Eco-Conscience
Hybrids are about protecting the planet and eking more miles from a gallon of gas, right?
Well, how about a hybrid that can bolt from zero to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, hit 155 mph and frequently deploy its electric motor like a turbocharger?
That's what you get with the 2013 BMW 3 Series Hybrid, or ActiveHybrid 3 in BMW-speak. It's powered by the same 3.0-liter turbocharged six found in the standard 335i, but adds a 40kW electric motor to the mix. The result is a combined rating of 335 horsepower in a car that weighs 3,860 pounds.
Yes, that's 305 pounds heavier than the standard car and just plain heavy for a car of its size. Yet despite the extra heft, BMW says it's still a couple tenths quicker to 60 mph than the standard BMW 335i. That's our kind of hybrid.
A Faster, More Economical 335i
One way to consider the 2013 BMW 3 Series Hybrid, then, is as a faster, more economical version of the high-performance 335i. BMW is even pitching this car as something that "looks, drives and acts like a sport sedan." That may seem odd when the hybrid label usually triggers thoughts of a Prius, but if you find yourself on an open road at 50 mph with a full five blue bars of battery power confirmed in the infotainment display, nail the throttle and prepare to be surprised.
Not only do you get the full thrust of the 3.0-liter turbo-6 but also the benefit of the electric motor's 155 pound-feet of torque. Together, the pair punches a decisive hole in the horizon as the BMW surges forward with near-startling zeal. It's like having a Formula 1 KERS system kick in as you power past interstate drifters, and it will certainly have you recalibrating your view on hybrids.
Driving like this will also punch a hole in your average fuel consumption, however, which you can observe minute-by-minute on one of the hybrid display screens provided by the iDrive infotainment system. Besides recording your gas mileage, this bar graph display also reveals how much or little the six-cylinder engine has been used, although with so much performance on offer it's tempting simply to sink your right boot and create your own graph of shame. Besides, there are no official EPA mileage estimates yet, so we don't even know what to shoot for.
Choose Dynamic Handling
The BMW's willingness to perform is further heightened by an eight-speed automatic that spends remarkably little time hunting for the right ratio, while making creamy smooth shifts. Their exchanges can be quickened via the Driving Dynamics switch on the center console, which toggles among Eco Pro — we'll come to that shortly — Comfort, Sport and Sport+ settings.
The throttle mapping, the transmission's shift strategy and its gearchange times are altered with each switching, and if you order the $1,000 Dynamic Handling package, the stiffness of the shocks changes, too.
We'd strongly recommend this option, not only because it reduces body roll through bends but also because the Comfort setting provides an impressively pillowy ride over broken tarmac. You also get variable-ratio steering with this package, whose weighting is also adjusted by the Driving Dynamics switch, turning meatier in the Sport and Sport+ modes.
It's a pity you can't select the steering effort independently of the shocks, as you can in some Audis, our preference being to combine the lighter steering effort provided in Comfort mode with the firmer suspension setting. Sport+, incidentally, is for the more dynamically ambitious, as it disengages much of the stability control system to allow the rear wheels a small slide before the system intervenes. Such indulgences may sound irrelevant in a hybrid, but believe us, they're not when your dual-motor machine goes this hard.
Collecting Kinetic Energy
Of course, the main reason for providing a pair of power plants is to enable the car to harvest its kinetic energy, store it in the battery that lives in a well beneath the trunk floor and deploy it to reduce the internal combustion engine's efforts.
If you're diligent enough you will save gas, which is what BMW provides the previously mentioned Eco Pro setting for. Apart from dampening the throttle response and encouraging the transmission to shift earlier into its longer-striding gears, this setting also prompts hints and tips to appear on the infotainment screen.
Some may find this over-intrusive, while others will find its suggestions a bit obvious, but its reminders can be useful. Braking too hard because you don't anticipate traffic is one tip that appears often, although sometimes it happens because you're spending too much time looking at all the pretty displays.
Other entertainment can be had by seeing how far and fast you can go on electric power alone. BMW says the maximum range is 2.5 miles, with a maximum speed of 37 mph. Trying to feather the brakes without jerking your occupants' heads is made slightly more difficult by the not-always seamless transition from regenerative braking to the hydraulic sort.
This fault apart, the 2013 BMW ActiveHybrid 3 is an impressively well-integrated and satisfying machine to conduct. Switching between the EV mode and gasoline power is often noticeable only via the rev counter, as the system allows for coasting with the engine shut down at high speeds when you lay off the gas. When the six-cylinder cuts in again the noise level barely rises, and you certainly don't feel a mechanical kick. On the other hand, creeping around on electric power alone is a satisfyingly tranquil experience at urban speeds.
Mapping an Eco Future
BMW ultimately plans to optimize the deployment of the car's EV, coasting and gasoline modes by using topographical mapping of the navigation system to determine which mode is most efficient. This 3-D mapping has yet to be completed for the U.S. — it's reckoned to be a year or two away — but when it is, the next step will be to combine it with real-time traffic information to gain further efficiencies. Of course, you'll be able to override the brain's chosen propulsion mode if you choose. And BMW says it will be possible to retrofit these facilities to the ActiveHybrid 3 if you really want that level of efficiency.
It's intriguing features like this, as well as the variety of driving styles this car provides, that make the 2013 BMW 3 Series Hybrid an appealing prospect. You'd probably have to go some distance to recoup the extra $6,500 that it costs over the stock 335i sedan, but that's not such a huge sum for a car that provides more performance, better economy and the diversion of multiple driving modes. Looks a lot better than a Prius, too.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.