BMW’s petrol-electric hybrid 3-Series sedan answers a question that few BMW owners or aspirants have asked: Is it possible to have an “ultimate driving machine” that is reasonably fuel-efficient and inoffensive to environmental concerns?
Yes, it is possible. But you’ll have to drive it a very long time to recoup the Active Hybrid 3’s price premium compared with the cost of a less expensive 3-Series model such as a 335i, which starts at R567 000.
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By comparison, the Active Hybrid 3 begins at an eye-popping R626,000. Yes, you can get better fuel economy in a high-performance entry-level luxury car with no diminution of legendary BMW prowess. But if its fuel economy you mostly want, you don’t want a BMW.
The Active Hybrid 3 is a marvel of engineering and design — a stunningly beautiful car to drive and in which to arrive. It is equipped with a 3.0L six-cylinder engine and a lithium-ion-powered electric motor. BMW claims a combined output of 250kW and 450Nm, with the rear-wheel-drive car sprinting from 0-100kph in 5.3 seconds.
That’s fast by the standards of most drivers. It certainly falls within the realm of BMW owners’ expectations. But “fuel economy”?
The BMW Active Hybrid 3 is “fuel-efficient,” especially for a BMW. That means it does a surprising amount of work — delivers a commendable amount of power — per unit of energy consumed. It gets 5.9L per 100km as a combined fuel cycle and has 30g/km lower CO2 emissions than the standard 335i. That’s something for a BMW. But there is nothing economical about it. The Active Hybrid 3, for best performance, you should use the higher and more costly 95 octane. BMW’s marketers boast that the Active Hybrid 3 is “the world’s first full hybrid among compact sedans in the premium segment.” But when marketers use that many adjectives, they really are trying to avoid saying something else.
To wit: The world’s first full petrol-electric hybrid, the Toyota Prius, runs rings around the BMW Active Hybrid 3 in the arena of fuel economy. It gets nearly 3.9L per 100km in a combined cycle, and it will sip on normal 93 fuel. Numerous other affordable petrol-electric hybrids and extended-range electric vehicles, such as the Honda Jazz and Lexus 450h, also beat the Active Hybrid 3 in fuel economy. But they have one big problem: None of them is a BMW.
Scoff if you must, but that BMW badge has an intrinsic value that few rivals can match. That means something. Lesser-prestige manufacturers can innovate, improve and decidedly advance alternative propulsion technologies, such as electrification.
But BMW’s now wholehearted entry into that business probably means that electrified vehicles, of one sort or another, are here to stay. And BMW did not plug into the petrol-electric-hybrid segment as a matter of corporate hubris, a kind of technical showing off.
As is the case with all of its competitors, BMW is under government pressure, here and abroad, to produce cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars. The company has enthusiastically taken up the challenge, as evidenced by its Active Hybrid 3. Think about the possibility: BMW, maker of petrol- and diesel-powered “ultimate driving machines,” producing an array of alternative-propulsion cars that run equally well under the same marketing rubric.
It’s smooth and quiet in town. You run on silent e-power alone for some of the crawliest urban crawl, and even when the petrol engine does start it’s far quieter than a diesel. When you do get moving, the transmission lets the engine work its best. In Sport, it reads your mind far more effectively than the hesitation-prone Lexus IS 450h, but when I was enjoying the car I got 8-litres per 100km.
In Eco-Pro, it makes the accelerator pedal so flaccid that you don’t notice any hesitation because the world’s ambling along so gently anyway. It also has Start-stop technology which enhances the fuel efficiency.
Below 70kph, the ActiveHybrid 3 can steady-state cruise on pure electric power for approximately 4km. The car is heavier by around 120kg over standard 335i but that shouldn’t matter.
Tossing it around the narrow and bumpy back roads of Magaliesberg in the North West was a blast, thanks to its near-perfect weight distribution and superb steering. In no way does this feel like driving a hybrid, especially in its Sport and Sport Plus modes, which optimise the engine, transmission and other systems for spirited driving.
The question is, will buyers interested in a 3 Series be willing to pay the extra R63 000 for the hybrid model? BMW’s ability to convert buyers to a hybrid—a challenge in which it has so far proved disappointing—will be key. Few Toyota Prius shoppers would give this car a second glance.
Thegandra Naidoo? A motoring journalist. He has a decade’s experience in the automotive industry and is best known for his technical knowledge of cars. He has worked on various local television productions and co-presented a motoring feature on Kaya FM a few years back. He currently holds the position as Features & Online Editor for Automotive Business Review. He is currently completing a mid-career Honours in Journalism and Media Studies degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. Thegandra is a FULL member of the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists.