2021 BMW 330e First Test Review: We Don’t Get This PHEV

Pretend for just a moment you didn’t read the title of this story. Imagine we told you we ran a car through our timed acceleration run, and it lit up its rear tires and spun them like crazy. What kind of car would you imagine we were talking about? A Dodge Challenger Hellcat, perhaps, or a Chevrolet Corvette? But you did read the title, and you know we’re talking about the BMW 330e. Not what you expect from an eco-friendly plug-in hybrid, is it?

Yet, that’s exactly what the 2021 BMW 330e did on our dragstrip. And while tire-spinning hooliganism is not something we expect from a plug-in hybrid, we do expect usable range and well-above-average fuel economy when running in hybrid mode. Unfortunately, the 330e didn’t do what we anticipated in that arena, either.

But let’s cast our mind back to a bright sunny day at the test track when MotorTrend road test analyst Alan Lau tried to get a good 0-60-mph run out of the rear-drive 330e.

“This car is difficult to launch but also lots of fun,” he noted. “The electric motor’s instant low-end torque can easily overpower the rear wheels, making them spin nonstop.” We found the XtraBoost setting (which unleashes the full 288 horses) didn’t make a difference in the 0-60 runs, but using the Individual drive mode to select a softer suspension setting did.

Once we had this methodology down pat—hold the revs at 1,700, release the brake, and gradually apply the accelerator while feeling for traction—we got our best launch. With the numbers totted up, the 2021 BMW 330e made it to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds. For those keeping score, that’s 0.4 second quicker than the 330i M Sport we tested last year. It’s also quite a bit better than BMW’s own official claim of 0-62 mph in 5.9 seconds. (Generally speaking, the time difference between accelerating from a stop to 62 mph and 60 mph is only a couple of tenths.)

However, we found braking performance wasn’t quite as good; the 2021 BMW 330e remained stable, but the tires didn’t provide enough grip. Our final figure in the 60-0-mph test was 119 feet, a just-OK performance for a sport sedan.

On our figure-eight course, though … “This car is kind of a mess,” road test editor Chris Walton said. “It wants to do a little entry rotation and oversteer on the brakes, which is good. Then it goes neutral in the middle of the skidpad and then understeers like mad when you apply the throttle on exit. It’s the 48-/52-percent front/rear weight distribution. The power is adequate but nothing I would call surprising, and by the end of seven laps, my maximum speed was down by a huge 4 mph.”

On the positive side, the steering is quite good; it’s precise and nicely weighted. The brakes are easy to modulate with trail braking into the skidpad, but they aren’t very powerful. When we selected Sport mode on the transmission, it insisted on shifting into third, and we had to manually downshift to second.

“Overall, I just don’t get this car,” Walton said. “Maybe in London, where its 22-mile electric-only range will save you the congestion charge. But here? No.”

It’s a fair point. The average American has a 16-mile commute (those who are still commuting, that is), so unless our hypothetical 2021 BMW 330e buyers have access to a charger at home and at the office, they’ll have to burn some gasoline. (Shorter commutes can go all-electric, as the 330e can now cruise as fast as 87 mph without help from the gas engine.)

However, if you don’t take advantage of the 2021 BMW 330e’s plug-in charging and just run it like a normal hybrid, it’s less efficient than a regular gas-powered 330i—at least that’s what the EPA numbers illustrate. The EPA rates the 330i at 30 mpg combined, while the hybrid, once the battery charge is used up and it’s relying primarily on the gas engine, averages 28 mpg. Things get slightly worse for the all-wheel-drive versions, with the 330i xDrive rated at 28 mpg combined and the 330e xDrive PHEV trailing it at 25 mpg.

Worse yet, the BMW 330e has a much smaller fuel tank than the 330i (10.6 gallons versus 15.6), presumably to make room for the electric gear. Even with the battery fully charged, EPA-rated range is just 320 miles for the 330e and a paltry 290 miles for the 330e xDrive, versus 468 and 437 miles for the rear- and all-wheel-drive versions of the 330i. Remember that a plug-in hybrid is supposed to combine the emissions-free city driving of a true electric car with the range of a conventional gasoline car, but the 330e doesn’t seem particularly well suited to either of those jobs.

Based on the EPA’s ratings and our test results, it seems the only real advantage the 2021 BMW 330e holds over the 330i—besides its ability to spin its rear tires like a testosterone-charged muscle car—is quicker acceleration. But is that a reasonable trade-off for squidgy handling and a shorter driving range? Not in our book. If you’re really serious about going green, you’d be better off waiting for the electric BMW i4. Otherwise, the plain ol’ 330i is probably a better bet.

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