A MAN walks in to a BMW showroom ready to buy a 330i. Ah, a fine choice Sir. For your $69,990 you will enjoy a cabin dripping with luxury features, a beautifully honed chassis for driving thrills and a sweet-sounding 185kW four-cylinder helping you hit 100kmh in 5.8 seconds while supping a mere 5.8-litres/100km.
But what's that in the corner of the showroom? A 330e you say. The devil is that?
Sticker price indicates $71,990 - just $2000 more than the 330i - the spec looks the same, it still takes me to 100kmh in a swift enough 6.1-seconds yet the economy figure is a compelling 2.1-litres/100km. Tell me more.
This is the new plug-in hybrid model of BMW's 3 Series range, utilising technology developed by BMW i for the dazzling i8 sports car.
It combines the 135kW four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine from BMW's 320i with an electric motor powered by a 7.6kWh lithium-ion battery, giving a combined power of 185kW and peak torque of 420Nm. Same kW as the 330i, and a chunky 70Nm extra torque.
No need to be scared then. Your combustion engine will give you your standard range, while 37km can apparently be travelled purely on electric power. This is the European testing figure, but BMW Australia suggests 30km is fairer in its real world testing.
Doesn't sound much, does it? Well, the average Australian commute is 15.6km (50% of us commute less than 10km), meaning the majority of us could probably get to work and back by electric power only. If you can't make it, the petrol motor does its thing.
When your journey's complete, plug the 330e in to a domestic power socket and it goes from empty to full charge in three hours and 15 minutes, or two hours and 15 minutes if you fit a $1750 16amp BMW i Wallbox at home. You can also recharge at a public charging station - there are currently 262 in Australia (256 are free) - and this is estimated to grow to 950 by 2020.
Some thoughts then. The ideal buyer will be a city dweller often stuck in peak hour traffic, and have a commute of under 15km. To this guy the 330e makes excellent sense. Live in rural regions, have a long commute and cruise at 110kmh on the highway? It's not for you. Most of us are somewhere between these extremes, so there's a sliding scale of relevance.
Then there's the charging issue. Using your domestic socket (and a coal fired power station) you'll be charged about $2 to fully charge the batteries, giving you that 30-odd km.
Not a great return for your dollar or the environment, so as the argument does (and should) go, you really need solar generating the electricity when you recharge to be able to wave your zero emissions sustainability card.
Another negative is Australia not offering incentives or subsidies for buying and running a hybrid or electric vehicle, unlike many Western countries. Credit then to companies like BMW for offering us such cars and for tirelessly lobbying government to champion alternative fuel sources.
On the road
Our road test was a short one, and most relevant to this car, involved negotiating stop start city traffic through the fashionable parts of Melbourne. This helped ensure we could operate on electric only (the 330e can do so up to 120kmh in Max eDrive mode).
First positive is the incredible "normalness" of the 330e. It's typical BMW inside, featuring leathery luxury, functional layout and the same goodies found on the high spec 330i. You get an eDrive specific dash, driver info and eDrive button, but the rest is as you were. A very good thing.
A squeeze of the throttle and there's instant, stunning torque delivered in utter silence. Ride around town is typically 3 Series comfortable, not least due to the 330e being set up on the soft side, relevant to its city pot hole and speed hump-filled lifestyle.
And with its raft of driver assistance inclusions such as lane departure warning, collision warning and Light City Braking function, it is an effortless (almost autonomous if you let it) city drive. The only real hint, apart from the silent travel, that you're in a hybrid is a tougher and slightly less natural feeling brake pedal.
An eDrive button gives you three modes: Auto for what the car thinks is the best balance of electric/petrol driving; Max to maximise electric driving; and Save Battery to run it on petrol only - ideal for the highway journey before hitting the traffic-snarled city.
So how did we do? Our 330e wasn't fully charged so we only managed 20km on electric only, meaning a rather nice 0-litre/100km showing. Once the four-cylinder fired up (impressively smoothly so you barely notice) the fuel use crept up of course, but after 40km of city travel we were still showing only 3.4-litres/100km.
We didn't get a chance to discover if the 330e still has the dynamic charms of its non-hybrid stable mates (we hope to find out on an extended test), but while weight is up 165kg over a 330i to 1660kg, BMW has managed to keep near perfect 48/52 weight distribution.
Depends on usage of course. If you live in or close to the city, make short journeys and have solar at home or work, look forward to smugly tiny bills. Your warranty and servicing costs are the same as any other BMW 3 Series, while reassuringly, your electric motor's battery comes with a six-year warranty.
As with all 3 Series BMWs they're reasonably practical offerings. Your boot luggage space is down to 370 litres (from a normal 480 litres) due to batteries under the boot, but the rear seats split fold 40:20:40 if you need extra space.
What do you get?
The same as a 330i except its adaptive M dampers and you get a non-Sport automatic eight-speed gearbox. Highlights include LED lights, head-up display, 360-degree view camera, 19-inch alloys, dual-zone climate, keyless access, cruise control, electric seats, Dakota leather, rear camera and Professional navigation system.
Chief rival is BMW's own 330i ($69,990) for the more traditional small exec rear-drive experience. On the plug-in front, Audi's new A3 e-tron ($62,490) is a tad smaller but betters the 330e for range by a few km, while premium hybrids (non plug-ins) include Mercedes-Benz's C300 Hybrid ($74,900), Infiniti's Q50 Hybrid S ($67,900) and Lexus's IS300h ($60,000).
Until the government starts incentivising plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles with rebates, cars such as the 330e make less sense in Australia than they do overseas.
Many of us are switched on to sustainability however, and if you can use solar energy (and not a coal-burning power station) to charge your car at home or work, and have a daily commute under 30km, this BMW 330e is a superb option, and a no-brainer choice over a conventional 330i. Really.
In the main it looks, feels, behaves and performs like a standard 3 Series - a very good thing - and in my experience at least the 330e is the best plug-in hybrid I've tested thus far.
What matters most
What we liked: Priced only $2000 more than a 330i makes it an accessible and excellent option for those making predominantly city journeys and can charge by solar; whisper quiet and truly comfortable in town; behaves much like a normal 3 Series and with instant torque at the squeeze of the pedal.
What we'd like to see: Could argue for greater full electric range and for faster charge times but for many journeys it's simply not necessary; more fast charge points in Australia; the Australian government to incentivise purchasing electric vehicles and plug in hybrids (as seen in Europe, USA and beyond).
Warranty and servicing: Same as every other BMW 3 Series: 3 year/100,000km warranty with condition based servicing. BMW Service Inclusive available for $1350 for 5 years/80,000km.
Model: BMW 330e.
Details: Four-door rear-wheel drive premium plug-in electric hybrid.
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol with 135kW 290Nm paired with 65kW 250Nm synchronous electric motor.
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.
Performance 0-100kmh: 6.1-seconds.
Bottom line plus on-roads: $71,900.
Driving experience 18/20
Features and equipment 17/20
Functionality and comfort 18/20
Value for money 17/20
Style and design 17/20