BMW hybrid 3 neither fish nor fowl

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By Denis Droppa

A lot of people assume a hybrid should be the most fuel-efficient model in any car range, but in most instances this isn’t true – and a case in point is BMW’s new petrol-electric ActiveHybrid 3.

Rather, see it as an enhanced 335i with an extra shot of performance, along with reduced fuel consumption and emissions to satisfy those with planet-saving aspirations. Expanding BMW South Africa’s hybrid-car offering to three (alongside petrol-electric versions of the Five and Seven Series) the recently-launched ActiveHybrid 3 employs BMW’s well-loved three-litre TwinPower turbo petrol engine – the same inline six-cylinder that powers the 335i – but gets some extra juice from an electric motor, fed by a lithium-ion battery stashed under the luggage area.

Compared to the 335i, this boosts power from 225kW to 250kW and torque from 400 to 450Nm, while fuel consumption drops from 7.2 to 5.9 litres per 100km, according to BMW’s figures.

Hybrid technology’s not cheap though.

The ActiveHybrid3 retails for R626 625, which is 80 grand more than a 335i.

Power from the two drive systems is transferred to the rear wheels by an eight-speed automatic transmission, and the car’s able to run on purely electric power for limited periods. The shifts between petrol and electric modes occur with imperceptible smoothness.

During coasting or braking the electric motor acts as a generator feeding energy to the battery, while under acceleration the electric motor takes on a performance-boost function. It makes for a very brisk car, and the ActiveHybrid3 posted a 0-100km/h time of just 5.7 seconds in our Gauteng altitude tests, while top speed’s a governed 250km/h – making this a true sports sedan. We haven’t tested the standard 335i yet but BMW rates it at 0.2 secs slower.

FOUR DRIVING MODES

Moreover, unlike most hybrids we’ve driven, the battery charge doesn’t drop drastically as soon as you drive a high-performance BMW the way it was intended to be. Even after some hard driving, it holds its charge to give you full power in case you need to teach some cheeky hot hatch driver a lesson at the robots.

Like in all 3 Series models there are four driving modes. Flick a switch and the responses of the steering, throttle, automatic gearshift and dynamic stability control are changed from mild to wild.

In Sport or Sport Plus the steering loads up, the throttle’s more sensitive, and the car revs higher between gearshifts, losing all pretense of planet-friendliness.

ECO PRO

In fuel-sipping Eco Pro mode however, the steering feels Korean-light, the throttle more vague, and there’s a readout in the dash telling you how much extra mileage you’re getting to a tank by driving so responsibly. An additional fuel saving measure is a stop-start function which cuts the engine when you come to a halt, and restarts it as soon as you touch the throttle.

All of this doesn’t result in super-low, take-your-breath-away fuel consumption. Our ActiveHybrid3 test car averaged 8.8 litres per 100km, which is a very decent figure for a high-performance car but a long way off BMW’s optimistic 5.9 litre claim.

Also, there are other models in the 3 Series range that fare better in the bang-for-buck department. An obvious example is the diesel-powered 330d which costs 130 grand less than the ActiveHybrid3, uses around one litre per 100km less fuel, and has similar performance.

NOTABLY IMPROVED RIDE QUALITY

And if low fuel bills are really your first priority the diesel 320d still wins hands-down as the least thirsty 3 Series, with a claimed consumption of 4.5 litres per 100km (realistically around 6.5 litres in normal driving).

Leaving powertrains aside for a moment, the sixth-generation 3 Series (internally dubbed the F30) has a notably improved ride quality over its E90 predecessor. Even wearing runflat tyres with their stiffened sidewalls, the car cruises more comfortably over rough roads, and does so without losing any of the fleet-footed agility Beemers are renowned for.

The car’s moved up a notch in refinement and sophistication too, and it basically feels like you’re driving a slightly shrunken 5 Series.

Rear legroom’s increased over the E90 and so has boot space, although the battery under the ActiveHybrid3’s load bay limits you to 390 litres of luggage, compared to 480 in other 3 Series models.

A cool new option allows you to pop open the boot by simply waving your foot under the rear bumper, if for instance you have both hands full of shopping.

Some of the newly-available options in the F30 include a full-colour Head-Up Display, along with driver aids such as Active Cruise control, and Lane Change and Lane Departure warning systems. Special apps such as “BMW Connected” – for using social networks – are also available.

VERDICT

As with most other hybrid cars we’ve tested, BMW’s ActiveHybrid3 doesn’t necessarily fare too well in the value-for-money department. Hybrid technology’s expensive and unless you have some aversion to diesel cars, the 330d is still a better car that offers a superior combination of power, price and fuel economy in the 3 Series range.

But if you see this as a “335i-plus” with enhanced performance and fuel economy, you may be able to overlook the price factor. -Drive Times

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