BMW applies its supercar hybrid drive technology to its best-selling family car with impressive results
Don’t be put off by the garish exterior – this BMW 3 Series means business. That’s because the world’s best-selling executive family four-door saloon will soon combine BMW’s i8 supercar electric drive technology with the sort of everyday usability that’ll make other drivers green with envy.
It’s called the 3 Series plug-in hybrid and it’s an experimental prototype that shows just how efficient BMW models can and will be by 2016. Like its sleeker i8 sibling, the 3 Series plug-in combines a petrol engine and an electric motor that can drive the eight-speed automatic gearbox, either individually or together.
The benefits of this dual drive layout are far greater than you might imagine. Two engines mean the total output is similar to a BMW 328i model at 245hp, but projected efficiency is 60 per cent better. Provisional figures put it at 134.5mpg combined, with just 50g/km CO2.
Choose “Max eDrive” mode and you won’t emit a single gram of flora-choking carbon, as the plug-in 3 Series can be driven at up to 75mph or for a maximum of 22 miles on electric power alone.
That’s significant, because according to BMW’s research, its customers travel less than 18 miles per day on average, allowing most drivers enough electric range to complete their journeys with a clean conscience.
But if you do deplete the battery on a longer journey, you can plug the 3 Series in to recharge, as the name suggests. It takes around two hours for a full top-up on a standard three-pin home socket. If that’s not convenient the petrol engine will take over, driving the wheels and charging the battery, too.
The clever integration of all this software and hardware is marvellous, but the 3 Series plug-in’s real trick is its everyday usability; it feels like a normal car. In fact, it’s remarkably unremarkable to drive – in a good way.
Compared with its petrol equivalent, it’s only a couple of medium-sized passengers heavier, which means it accelerates and stops like a normal BMW. It’s grippy, agile, steers nicely and tackles bumps with all the composure you’d expect from a car in this class.
The clever electronics combine with the mechanicals underneath to select the most economical route, optimising the engine and electric motor to conserve as much energy as possible. This means all you have to do is programme your destination into the sat nav, slot it into D and drive. If the last part of your trip is in a city, it’ll even conserve battery so you can run on just electric power from the city limits to improve urban air quality. Cars like the plug-in could turn the big smoke into a distant memory.
All of this tech is present in the development car, which proves the concept works. Usually, when car companies invite journalists to drive a pre-production prototype, more often than not it has all the refinement of a tractor and chunks are missing out of the dash.
Apart from the BMW engineer sat in the passenger seat next to me – staring at a laptop hooked up to the car to monitor its vital signs – the 3 Series looks like a car you could buy today.
BMW hasn’t settled on an official price yet, but it let slip that, with similar performance to its 328i or 325d models, it’s likely to be around £30,000, making this model a bit of a future bargain.
Sean Carson works for motoringresearch.com.
THE FACTS: BMW 3 SERIES PLUG-IN HYBRID PROTOTPYE
0-62MPH: 6.0 secs
TOP SPEED: 155mph
CO2 G/KM: 50g/km
MPG COMBINED: 134.5mpg
VALUE FOR MONEY: ★★★★☆
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BMW 325D SE
0-62MPH: 6.8 secs
TOP SPEED: 152mph
CO2 G/KM: 129g/km
MPG COMBINED: 57.6mpg
VALUE FOR MONEY: ★★★☆☆
INFINITI Q50 HYBRID
0-62MPH: 5.1 secs
TOP SPEED: 155mph
CO2 G/KM: 144g/km
MPG COMBINED: 45.6mpg
VALUE FOR MONEY: ★★☆☆☆
VAUXHALL AMPERA ELECTRON
0-62MPH: 9.0 secs
TOP SPEED: 100mph
CO2 G/KM: 27g/km
MPG COMBINED: 235.4mpg
VALUE FOR MONEY: ★★☆☆☆