By adding its electric drive technology from the i8 supercar BMW has created something quite brilliant with the 3 Series plug-in hybrid, driven here in prototype form. Read on to find out why.
Sean Carson | December 2014
How do you make the world’s best-selling executive saloon even more appealing? How about improving fuel economy by 60% and keeping the price the same as the equivalent existing model? That should do it.
With the BMW 3 Series plug-in hybrid, that’s exactly what BMW intends to do. This one might look like a sales rep special with interesting bumpers, but it’s actually a plug-in hybrid prototype.
This means it mixes a regular 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine with BMW’s clever electric motor technology derived from its i8 supercar.
For a conventional looking car, the results are fairly spectacular: power is the same as a 328i with fuel economy that would put a 320d EfficientDynamics to shame.
What’s the BMW 3 Series plug-in hybrid prototype like to drive?
The plug-in prototype feels very similar to drive to a 328i – except it’s noticeably quicker. The system delivers a total of 245hp, but the electric motor can provide up to 95hp and instant torque, which means it’s rapid off the line.
In fact, it’s faster than a 328. 0-62mph takes around 6.0 seconds, while top speed stands at 155mph.
Both motors can drive the same eight-speed automatic transmission you’d get in any other 3er, either individually or together, delivering smooth, swift and nicely refined shifts.
On the subject of refinement, it’s excellent. You can silently clip along at up to 75mph in Max eDrive mode with little wind or road noise, and only a tiny whine from the e-motor. Or you can opt for Auto eDrive and the control software will cleverly manage the switch between electric and petrol power for you.
There are the usual Sport, Comfort and Eco Pro modes that optimise the chassis and powertrain for faster, sportier driving or high efficiency motoring – as well as a clever battery saving setting that we’ll come to in a minute.
But the beauty of BMW’s 3 Series plug-in is that, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to play around with these settings. You can just get in and drive it.
And it feels completely normal when you do. The steering has that lovely weight and directness common to all current 3 Series bee-ems, while the chassis is taut and composed.
Pushing the plug-in around BMW’s test track it rode bumpy kerbs well and smoothed out gradual hollows, yet it’s firm enough to resist roll and control the masses involved with plenty of composure.
There’s considerable grip and, at only 165kg heavier than a 328i (effectively a few normal sized passengers), it’s agile.
It’s comfortable, too. The 3 Series rides with poise – in fact, it feels like a standard petrol-powered 3er to drive, except with more poke off the line and an extra dollop of mid-range torque that sees the car catapulted down the road with a venomous extra kick.
How efficient is the BMW 3 Series plug-in hybrid prototype?
We won’t see the 3 Series plug-in in showrooms until 2016 (even though it feels pretty much production ready), so the efficiency numbers are still yet to be officially confirmed. However, BMW is predicting the car will return 134.5mpg combined with 50g/km CO2 emissions.
For 22 miles you can cruise along without kicking out any planet-killing carbon, too. Which is significant, as according to BMW’s research, its customers travel less than 18 miles per day on average.
It takes around two hours to charge on a standard three-pin home socket, but with a full tank of fuel to compliment the battery pack, total range at around 400 miles.
It’s longer journeys where the battery-saving settings come into their own, too. In Save mode, if the remaining charge is above 50% the control electronics will just use the petrol engine to power the car; below 50% it’ll charge the battery until its at half capacity, at which point it’ll then conserve that level of charge.
This is for when you get to a city so you can run on electric power alone and not hurt urban air quality anymore than it’s already being polluted.
Even better than that, if you enter a city destination into the sat nav, the car will automatically conserve battery energy and switch to zero emissions running at the urban boundary. Like we said, if you don’t want to play with the different driving modes, you don’t have to: the car will do it for you.
MR verdict: 2014 BMW 3 Series plug-in hybrid prototype
We haven’t even got to the best bit yet – for this blend of performance and efficiency wrapped up a familiar, practical shape (the battery pack doesn’t impinge on usable boot space) the 3er plug-in will cost around £30,000 after the £5,000 government plug-in car grant.
At that price it would make the BMW’s hybrid family saloon something of a bargain and give the Bavarian carmaker a more than credible rival to Audi’s e-tron hybrid range that’s set to expand further still.
It’s a credible car already, so in production form we’re sure it will be better still. It’s a vehicle that could be so appealing it might render the 328 a dusty relic of a model left in the corner of the showroom.
Rivals: BMW 3 Series plug-in hybrid prototype
- Audi A3 Sportback e-tron
- BMW 328i/330d
- Chevrolet Volt/Vauxhall Ampera
- Infiniti Q50 Hybrid
- Mercedes-Benz C300 Bluetec Hybrid
Audi’s A3 e-tron Sportback might be an estate, but with similar levels of practicality and efficiency, it’s the BMW’s closest potential rival. Or maybe that’s the 328i and 330d – both offer similar performance and practicality at a similar price, only why would you buy either given the plug-in is considerably more efficient with no more drawbacks in terms of range and usability. The Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall Ampera offer a similar solution, albeit in range extender form. However, at £35,495 for the slower, less premium Vauxhall, you’d really have to like the tech and value the extra all-electric mileage to buy one. The Infiniti Q50 Hybrid is almost there, but like the regular Q50 versus the normal 3 Series, price and badge image will surely hinder sales. The Mercedes – like the Infiniti – isn’t a plug-in so therefore doesn’t offer similar gains from its petrol-electric combination.
Specification: BMW 3 Series plug-in hybrid prototype
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol, electric motor
Gearbox: eight-speed automatic with paddleshifters
Price from: £30,000*
Torque: 295lb ft
0-62mph: 6.0 seconds*
Top speed: 155mph*