Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: March 30, 2021
BMW’s bread and butter sedan hasn’t been without a tidal wave of criticism as of late, but the 3 Series has persisted through the muddy waters of praise and confusion. From the lack of communicative steering that BMWs used to be known for to chipmunk front grills, it’s safe to say that once you’re at the top and leading the segment, it’s not easy to stay there. The Mercedes C-Class, Genesis G70, Alfa Romeo Giulia, and even the Cadillac CT5 all have their eye on the prize.
But here comes the next generation of 3 Series, aiming to remedy the issues and keep its status as king of the luxury compact sedan hill. Sleeker, sharper, and more grown up, the styling takes a welcome departure but remains more of an evolution than a revolutionary design shift. The rear end is handsome, tapered, and wonderfully balanced with the raised trunk lid and dual-exit exhausts, and its design cues resemble much of the family language kicked off by the 5 Series and 8 Series. Is it the best looking 3 Series to date? Quite possibly, especially when draped in Oxide Grey, a delicate mix of grey and blue hues that shimmers no matter the lighting conditions.
The interior receives a significant upgrade too, though it breathes an air of familiarity to anyone that has been inside a modern BMW. A substantially-sized steering wheel sits in front of the driver, thickly padded like you’re wrestling an anaconda every time you turn the wheel. The fully digital instrument cluster is messy with different sized fonts and nonlinear dials that have us missing the traditional orange analog setup, but we can’t deny this one’s effectiveness at pushing towards the future.
A large widescreen display is neatly mounted on the dashboard and isn’t an eyesore like it is on some other vehicles, and it retains what we believe to be the gold standard of infotainment units with its rotary dial. It is hands down the most impressive, intuitive, and friendly infotainment system on the market, besting the somewhat convoluted Mercedes unit, and the overly touchscreen-dependant Audi system. There’s no guesswork or ambiguity to the rotary dial’s operation, and no taking your eyes off the road to adjust a quick feature either. BMW just does ergonomics better. Furthermore, the seats are great, the sightlights are excellent, and even though rear seat room is somewhat cramped for my six-foot figure, it falls within the segment average.
The 3 Series offers many engine choices from a 2.0L turbo-four to a 3.0L straight-six, but on test is the most fuel efficient of the bunch, the 330e. It’s a plug-in hybrid that dishes out a combined 288 hp and 310 lb-ft through its 2.0-litre four-cylinder mated to an electric motor and battery setup. The 330e uses an 8-speed automatic transmission and comes in both rear- and all-wheel drive variants in Canada, with a $9,000 delta separating the two. Electric-only range is good for about 30 km in optimal, warm conditions without aggressive driving. While not mighty enough to convince a Tesla buyer to jump ship, it should be appealing to buyers with short commutes that might want to shy away from more conventional powertrains and have a more environmentally conscious mind. Our own drives around the city with a considerable amount of regenerative braking in stop and go traffic gave us just over 40 km of zero-emission driving on a full charge. Not bad considering the single-digit weather and with both the heated seats and wheel switched on.
The 330e may not be the most popular type of 3 Series but the PHEV does have its merits. It’s currently the cheapest 3 Series you can buy, is eligible for Canada’s government rebate of $2,500, and is visually indistinguishable with its combustion-only brethren aside from the badges and driver-side plug-in socket. It should be a perfect candidate for those unsure about living with an EV, and who only want to keep one foot forward while also resting back on the combustion engines they have grown accustomed to. With many automakers taking emissions seriously now, the 330e actually has a fair amount of competition from the Volvo V60 Recharge to more mainstream offerings like the Lexus UX 250h.
The 330e produces slightly more power than the 330i but it is heavier and accelerates slower from 0-100 km/h, which BMW pegs at around six seconds. There’s still enough thrust to get the 330e up and away without much hesitation, and should be more than enough for the average driver. Though, those without the patience for RPM buildup and are used to the instant kick of 300+ lb-ft will find the 330e lethargic.
The ability to sneak home late at night or whizz past pedestrians with nothing but unicorn dust coming out of the tailpipes does carry with it a satisfying feeling. The smooth four-cylinder engine that barely whispers under light acceleration adds to the tranquil driving experience, and the transitions between combustion and electricity are so seamless you would be hard pressed to know what mode of propulsion you are using without looking at the driver’s gauges.
Equally impressive is the ride quality, and while it errs on the stiffer side of the spectrum, it effectively absorbs unwanted bumps and potholes with grace and ease. There’s a great sense of body control with the 3 Series chassis, and not only does it feel athletic and light on its feet, but its front-end is very responsive as a result, making it one hell of a dancing partner when the road begins to snake.
The 330e won’t be the volume seller despite its entry-point pricing, and neither should it. The electric-only range is suboptimal for the majority of drivers, and those truly serious about zero-emission driving would be looking at an equivalent Tesla Model 3 or Audi e-tron instead. The 330e is for those making the hesitant first step into an EV future, unsure if they will enjoy the meager though cleaner performance figures, and are simply testing the waters. For that, the 330e is a perfect candidate.
Model: 2021 BMW 330e xDrive
Paint Type: Oxide Grey II Metallic
Base Price: $54,000
Price as Tested: $62,600
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,717 / 1,827 / 1,444
Curb weight (kg): 1,877
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder + 12kWh lithium ion battery + electric motor
Horsepower: 288 combined hp
Torque: 310 combined lb-ft
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 10.7 / 7.9 / 9.4
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 8.6