A couple of years ago I had the chance to drive the 2018 BMW 530e through the Colorado Rocky Mountains on a beautiful summer afternoon. I loved it. The energy efficiency of the plug-in hybrid coupled with the zippy driving experience and luxurious design that’s a BMW trademark definitely kicked up my vehicle envy more than a little bit. Three years later I was offered the chance to get behind the wheel of a brand new 2021 BMW 330e Sedan and drive it around Colorado for a week. I, of course, said yes! The 330e is also a plug-in hybrid, but these few years should have given BMW time to improve the overall eDrive experience. Did they? Read on…
First off, like all BMW vehicles, the 330e has a lovely line and that classic Beemer front grill. Coupled with its Alpine White exterior color, it might look like a lot of other BMW vehicles on the road, but it’s a good look!
The fuel door you can see just above the front wheel is the EV charging plug, not to be confused with an identical door over the rear wheel on the passenger’s side that is where you add gasoline. Two fuels. It’s almost like the human’s doing the mixing of the hybrid, not the vehicle, but, of course, the charge is actually for full EV mode, which is one of the key features of the 330e. Skip that and you still have a surprisingly fuel efficient luxury sedan with a range that far outstrips EV-only competitors like the Tesla Model S.
The wrinkle is that when you do fully charge the vehicle, the EV range is weirdly short: 21 miles with optimal driving conditions. You aren’t stuck, of course, it just switches to hybrid mode, but I kept wondering why bother with the EV mode at all if it’s going to run out of juice in 15-18 miles (at least in my experience). You can see the range and battery level on the front dash:
Cool display, and the weird looking red grids at the top are really quite interesting, but for now, just notice on the lower right the battery charge indicator that goes from 100 – 0 and below it (adjacent to the temperature) it shows —mi. That’s because I’ve already used up my overnight 120V charge by not going particularly far at all. According to Statista, the average vehicle commute in the United States is 11.6 miles, meaning that if you drive straight to work and straight back, you still don’t quite have enough EV juice to avoid firing up the hybrid engine.
Even the Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivan had better EV-only range than this BMW 330e: The Pacifica can go 32 miles on a charge, basically the perfect distance for that 23.2 mi round trip to work and back via Starbucks or the local supermarket.
But let’s step back and I’ll give you a tour of this beautiful car. Then we can go back and talk more about EV and how it’s tied into the BMW hybrid system. And what better place to begin than in the driver’s seat:
Worth noting is that the interior is Cognac Vernasca leather and it’s soft and supple, super comfortable.
There are a lot of controls on the shifter area that are worth noting too, especially if you bounce through drive modes:
The four drive modes are Sport, Hybrid, Electric and Adaptive. I found that I just left the vehicle in Adaptive and let the built-in smarts figure out how to optimize my drive experience and fuel efficiency both. You can’t look at the above image, however, without noticing the iDrive infotainment control knob system. It’s quite similar to the control system on my Mazda and it’s really easy to control most of the key aspects of the display without taking your eyes off the road. Missing from this control, however, is audio volume. There’s a volume knob on the dash, along with a row of old-school preset buttons, but there’s another way to control the audio too: gestures.
Remember that odd red area above the main gauge area? That’s a camera and your car is actually watching you while you’re driving. Twirl your hand clockwise and it’ll increase volume, while a counter-clockwise gesture lowers volume. Gesture Control is definitely an unexpected and futuristic interface that I surmise most people won’t even know is included with their vehicle. I found I didn’t use it very often, personally.
Meanwhile, in the back seat, rear passengers have a lot of controls and features, perhaps the most I’ve ever seen:
Because a good driving experience is about safety as much as performance, the 330e also features a very nicely done heads up display, as you can see in this photo (which, I will note, was not easy to capture with my camera):
It’s strange to me when I drive a car without a heads-up display of this nature, to be honest. Why should I have to take my eyes off the road for this information, most especially current speed and whether I’m exceeding the posted limit or not?
And speaking of the posted limit, I might never encounter this situation but I got a good chuckle out of this sticker on the driver’s door:
Remember, if you’re going to exceed 100mph you might need to change your tire inflation pressure. Oh, and know where the speed traps are too, so you don’t really regret heading towards the top speed of this sleek sedan.
The charging system I received with the vehicle was a standard 120V 3-prong unit, offering up to 15 amps (adjustable from the car’s infotainment and control system, the default is a measly but home power friendly 7 amps). it doesn’t support fast charging, but it only sports a slim 12KWh battery. Then again, that’s why its EV range is so paltry: A Tesla Model S has 100KWh capacity by comparison, though it’s also an all-electric. What surprised me when doing my research was that the previous generation of the 300 series eDrive vehicles from BMW had barely half this battery capacity and an EV range of barely 14 miles from a full charge.
Which leads to the question: Why bother? I’m enthused about the rise in greener vehicles and love driving EVs, but why bother adding the weight, the circuitry and the overall vehicular complexity for an EV subsystem that offers such a small range? Worse, reports I’ve read suggest that the hybrid engine system for the 2021 300 series are less fuel efficient than their standard internal combustion engines. InsideEVs says “The 2020 internal combustion engine was rated at 30 MPG, while the plug-in hybrids at 28 and 25 MPG respectively (outside of the EV mode).” Curious, eh?
On the bright side, I did inadvertently learn that you can charge the BMW EV even if there’s a snowstorm at the time:
That, my friends, is good engineering. It worked and the car was fully charged, even as it was a chilly 9F that morning.
But the experience of owning a BMW is about the drive, and hybrids generally make a vehicle more sprightly. The 2021 BMW 330e was indeed zippy and wonderfully responsive, hugging the road on fast turns and generally offering up a very tactile drive experience. Of course, as a rear wheel drive vehicle, it was an adventure to drive it in icy snow. No accidents, but some fun spins and drifting. Winter tires would have made a big difference but having a rear wheel drive vehicle still seems a bit retro, at best.
I also found it a bit awkward to get in and out of the driver’s seat due to the placement of the post: For a taller driver you’re going to need to push the seat way back and since the steering wheel doesn’t auto-retract on power off (a feature I missed) it was a matter of either being a contortionist to get in or remember to adjust the seat and steering wheel before you got out and then again when you returned to drive. A fixable problem, but with the seat back so I was comfortable as a 6’3″ driver, there was zero rear legroom too.
Ah, but the styling…
In the end, the 330e shows the challenge of balancing modern tech and a traditional driving experience, a sedan that’s luxurious, with a beautiful sound system and a thoughtful interior design and a very modern drive system, hobbled by the current state of the art with EV batteries and tech. Now when there’s a version of this that’s better for tall drivers and offers a 40 mile range on EV, well, then we might need to talk again, BMW. Meanwhile, if you’re a 300-series owner I’d love to hear your thoughts about your vehicle, BMW’s approach to hybrid and EV systems, and your own drive experience with this non-ICE car!
SPECS: 2021 BMW 2021 330e Sedan with 2.0L TwinPower inline 4-cylinder with integrated electric motor and 8-speed automatic sport transmission, Dynamic Handling Package, Drivers Assistance Pro Package, M Sport Package, Parking Assistance Package, Executive Package, ambient lighting and wireless charging. MSRP: $44,550.00 AS DRIVEN: $59,645.00.
Disclaimer: BMW loaned me the 330e sedan for a week in return for this write up. Thanks, BMW!