2021 BMW 3 Series
- Starting at $45,545
- Spring 2020
What to expect
- New 330e version with improved performance and efficiency
- EPA-estimated 22 miles of all-electric range
- Appropriately refined for a luxury sedan
- The 330e is an addition to the seventh-generation 3 Series introduced for 2019
What is it?
The 2021 BMW 330e is a plug-in hybrid variant of the latest 3 Series sedan generation that BMW introduced for the 2019 model year. Its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and electric motor, which is integrated into the eight-speed automatic transmission, create a maximum combined output of 248 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. (A 12-kWh lithium-ion battery pack located beneath the rear seats powers the electric motor.) Also, a special boost mode provides even more power for brief acceleration bursts.
The 330e's electric-only range of 22 miles (20 miles if you opt for the xDrive all-wheel-drive model) should serve for most commutes. Even short stints on the freeway don't require activating the engine since the 330e can travel at speeds up to 87 mph in EV mode.
Why does it matter?
Demand for diesel-fueled sedans in the United States has waned in recent years, but shoppers continue to seek more efficient alternatives to conventional gasoline-powered cars. This plug-in hybrid replaces the last-generation 330e and fills the void left by the last diesel 3 Series. It combines the eco-friendly aspects of an electric vehicle with the convenience and range of a hybrid.
What does it compete with?
One key plug-in hybrid rival to the new BMW 330e is the Volvo S60 T8. With 400 hp, it's considerably more powerful than the 3 Series, but its range-topping status in the S60 lineup means it starts at about $10,000 more than a base 330e.
The Lexus ES 300h is a standard hybrid luxury sedan that is comfortable, efficient and roomy, but it's not as refined as the BMW and trails in terms of performance. On the other side of the spectrum, you might consider the electric Tesla Model 3. It has impressive acceleration and loads of tech, but you'll have to contend with typical EV range and charge restrictions.
How does it drive?
In a lot of ways, the 2021 BMW 330e lets you choose your own driving adventure. You can select from Electric, Hybrid, Sport and Adaptive drive modes, and each provides a distinct behavior. In the 330e's default Hybrid mode, you get a balanced blend of gasoline and electric propulsion. The transition between gas and electric power is subtle but not entirely seamless.
Electric mode will mostly keep the gasoline engine out of the mix. But if you happen to signal the need for extra power by pushing down hard on the gas pedal, the four-cylinder will still spring to life.
Sport mode places heavier emphasis on the gas engine and uses electricity for power boosts. The transmission will maintain lower gears and higher revs. Throttle response is also sharper. Adaptive mode analyzes driver behavior and chooses one or a mix of the above mentioned selections to best suit conditions.
In all but Sport mode, power output is limited to 248 hp. Switching to Sport (either with the mode button or moving the gear selector to the left into its own Sport setting) enables the XtraBoost function, which delivers a max of 288 hp for 10 seconds if you floor the pedal past a kickdown detent. Under these conditions, you feel a distinct shove of electric power in conjunction with the pull of the gas engine. BMW estimates the rear-wheel-drive model will reach 60 miles per hour in a respectable 5.6 seconds, or 5.7 seconds with all-wheel drive. Overall, acceleration is strong and satisfying.
Whichever drive mode you select, the brakes ably slow down the 330e. The pedal is easy to modulate, and there's no artificial feeling or odd response between battery regeneration and when the mechanical brakes take hold. Unfortunately, just as you roll to a halt, there is a noticeably abrupt stop. It may be due to some unnecessarily grabby brakes, the fuel-saving auto stop-start system switching off the engine, or a combination of the two. Also, the regenerative braking effect isn't as strong as what you'd find in a typical EV. For instance, you won't be able to do one-pedal driving as you would in a Tesla.
Handling is trustworthy but not particularly sporty for a BMW. The extra 600 pounds from the hybrid system — most of which is the battery pack under the rear seats — make themselves known when cornering. That additional weight makes the 330e feel dimensionally larger sedan than it is, discouraging livelier driving.
The steering response also takes some getting used to. The on-center feel is vague, making it seem as though there's a delay on initial input. The all-season tires also exhibit more squirming and squealing over the pavement than we're accustomed to. Fortunately, for most economy-minded shoppers, performance customarily comes second to efficiency.
When driven with less sporting intent, the 330e is stable and reassuring. The ride quality is comfortably smooth, and the cabin remains pleasantly quiet.
What's the interior like?
As we've come to expect from the BMW 3 Series, the 330e's interior is elegantly modern. Aside from the different drive mode buttons and corresponding digital instrument panel screens, there's nothing to distinguish it from the conventionally powered 330i.
The front seats have ample padding for long-distance comfort, yet they also have enough sporty lateral support to keep you in place when cornering hard. The rear seats are spacious enough to hold average-size adults, too. The roof pillars don't impede outward visibility, so you can get a good sense of the sedan's physical boundaries.
This most recent iteration of BMW's iDrive infotainment system is packed with features, yet it remains easy to use. You can also customize some menus and placement of the on-screen buttons, much like you would on your smartphone. The inclusion of additional and more natural voice commands keeps it competitive with Mercedes' praiseworthy MBUX system.
A new dashcam-like recorder feature makes use of the 3 Series' existing cameras and has the potential for a variety of applications. It can automatically start recording in the event of a serious collision, giving you the option to use the footage in your defense. Or you can simply record your epic scenic drive to share with friends. You also have the ability to set a rolling buffer to capture moments that may have just occurred.
How practical is it?
The 330e's hybrid components reduce the trunk capacity to 13.2 cubic feet compared to the non-hybrid 330i's 17 cubic feet. Despite the smaller space, there's still a decent amount of room for cargo. Plus, the 40/20/40-split rear seatback folds to accommodate larger items. The passenger compartment has enough moderately sized pockets and bins to keep your items secure.
Our initial impressions of the 2021 BMW 330e are predominantly favorable. With an all-electric range of about 41 miles and improved overall fuel economy, the new 330e delivers useful local EV-style driving along with the ability to go long distances. On top of that, it's pleasant to drive and has the refinement expected of a luxury sedan.