Improved efficiency, lower emissions. Most marketing material would have you believe that these come as a result of a company’s commitment to fight global warming and produce cleaner cars – but the more realistic rationale is that these come as a result of tightening government regulations. Each generation of product has to be more environmentally friendly than the last, and no manufacturer is exempt from this. Perhaps the only company that is massively dedicated to the cause is Toyota, with their poster-child Prius, but the level of specialisation to produce a car like that is far beyond what most companies are willing to attempt.
As a result, we’ve seen all kinds of different approaches to the issue. Close to a decade ago, BMW was pushing their EfficientDynamics branding across the range – more specifically, for their diesel models. These were aimed at changing the public’s perception of diesel luxury cars, and it has had an appreciable effect. Unfortunately, the diesel emissions scandal that wracked Volkswagen (and other manufacturers) once again made the public sceptical of diesel vehicles – at least from the pollution perspective.
This raised the question of why these European manufacturers were so enamoured by diesel engines when the Japanese were surging ahead with hybrid products. Part of the reasoning lies with the emissions measured: Japanese regulations and European regulations looked at different pollutants, and while diesel engines were not quite as clean as a hybrid system, they could meet those specific regulations without sacrificing the power and performance that consumers expected.
Hybrid vehicles, while efficient, were also far less exciting and enjoyable to drive. A combination of petrol engine and electric motor, their engines had to be re-tuned for a leaner burn in order to save fuel, while electric motors provided the brunt of the performance in day-to-day driving. Unfortunately, if the battery for those electric motors got depleted while you were on the move and couldn’t recharge fast enough, you were left with a relatively anaemic engine to pull you along. It was a good solution for a daily commute, but hardly appropriate for those travelling greater distances or a stretch of spirited driving.
But in the last half decade or so, we’ve seen a change. Starting with the Porsche 911 GT3 Hybrid race car, the world was shown that hybrid systems could be used in a performance context as well. At the World Endurance Challenge race series, all of the top performing models were running a hybrid system in some form or another. For the road, this has resulted in cars like the Ferrari LaFerrari, Porsche 918 Spyder and McLaren P1. Performance hybrids have even been made available at more affordable price points; cars such as the Infiniti Q50 Hybrid and the BMW ActiveHybrid 3 are examples of this.
The only problem was that there was a cost involved, and the cost was usually great. Being environmentally friendly meant paying the extra price for these expensive motors and battery packs, which usually pushed prices well out of the affordable range. If you wanted a hybrid and you weren’t willing to fork out big money, you were limited to a narrow range of products that weren’t very fun to drive. It didn’t help that the government removed hybrid tax incentives in Malaysia, making even the cheaper hybrid vehicles expensive. But while the hybrid tax incentive is well and truly dead, the introduction of the Energy Efficient Vehicle taxation scheme allowed manufacturers to sell hybrid models at much lower prices with one caveat: they had to be locally produced.
With their extensive local production operations and assembly facilities, BMW is one of the few manufacturers that can take advantage of this. The introduction of the BMW 330e could not have been better timed or better priced. There are a lot of things to love about the 330e, not least among them is that it maintains the same exemplary driving dynamics that made the 3 Series so popular as a sporty luxury sedan. Total system output is 252hp and 420Nm, which matches the 330i on power and bests it on torque by a good 70Nm.
The 330e achieves this by pairing a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine with an electric motor, which is how all hybrid systems operate. What is nice is that BMW did not default to a continuously variable transmission like most hybrid systems do, instead opting to make the system work with the 8-speed automatic transmission – a definite benefit in the area of driving pleasure. The engine produces 184hp and 290Nm on its own, while the electric motor supplies up to 88hp from zero rpm. More impressively, the 330e can be driven on just electric motors alone at speeds of up to 120 km/h with a range of up to 37 kilometres. Those are impressive figures in the context of a daily commute and help to justify the hybrid system’s implementation.
From an economy and efficiency standpoint, the 330e delivers. If you are frugal with the throttle and disciplined with keeping the battery charged (the 330e is a plug-in hybrid, so you can leave the battery charging overnight from a wall socket), it only consumes 2.1 litres of fuel for every 100 kilometres travelled. You don’t sacrifice anything in the way of kit either as the 330e comes packed with all the features of the conventional 330i, along with a reverse camera, heads up display and electric glass roof.
With all of this in mind, it’s difficult to justify choosing a purely conventional powertrain over the hybrid 330e. Some of the benefits of a hybrid are more felt than explained – things such as instantaneous torque from idle and whisper-quiet operation until you really need the engine running may hardly seem like things to get excited over, but you begin to appreciate them when you return to a car with a conventional powertrain. The BMW 330e is priced at RM248,888 – even cheaper than the lower-spec 320i. If the 330e is representative of the direction that BMW’s hybrid products will head towards, then there is plenty more to look forward to in the future.