Saturday 22 October 2016

Cars: Plug-in or petrol in BMW head-to-head?

It's a tough call on 330e or 320i

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30


I have set myself an awkward task. I'm comparing one BMW with another. I posed a simplistic, possibly unfair, question of two cars on test. Which would I buy: a BMW 3-series with a 2-litre petrol engine; or a 3-series with a 2-litre petrol, battery pack and electric motor (yes, it's another PHEV plug-in hybrid electric vehicle)?

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On the face of it, the politically correct one to go for is the plug-in 330e, right? The evidence seems overwhelming. Claimed emissions are only 44-49g/km. That's €170 road tax compared with upwards of €270 for the petrol-only.

A €2,500 VRT rebate and Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) grant of €5,000 bring the price down to €41,030 for the entry-level (SE). That's around five grand less than a diesel 320d SE while the entry-level 320i petrol auto costs €42,878, on the road.

I had specced-up versions of both on test, which add thousands. Individual equipment levels blur comparison so I'll stick with SE grade, or nearest to it, to be as fair as possible.

With the 330e (pictured), you shouldn't need the petrol engine for up to 30km at the start of your journey because if you charge the battery, you'll get that distance on cheaper electric power. The batteries/motor work in hybrid fashion when on the go, too.

That is why they claim - I stress 'claim' because the figures are mad - it can do 134.5mpg to 148.7mpg (depending on version). Compare that with the claimed 48.7/51.4mpg for the 320i petrol and you'd think there's no contest. But my real-life 330e figures were closer to 60mpg. It depends on how you drive, charge frequency, etc, but running costs should still be well down.

And if power is your fancy, the 330e develops 252bhp - compared with 181bhp for the 320i. That's because the electric motor boosts overall output. The 330e had enormous torque - that combination of petrol and electric. I was blown away with it on test. We often overlook how electric power gives you such phenomenal torque.

I can anticipate people saying a 2-litre petrol is prehistoric these days (I don't agree). A 2-litre diesel is a different matter entirely.

Open-and-shut case, then? Not quite. For practical and (ahem) moral reasons there are other considerations.

Practical (golf bags/luggage): You have less room in your 330e boot (100 litres down on the 320i because the battery pack is underneath). And with the flexes for charging restrained by a net in the boot in my test car, I felt quite restricted. That, for me, was a big drawback. It would deter me.

Moral: I'm blue in the face saying this, but it is wrong to buy a PHEV and not regularly plug it in to benefit from the electric element. Your taxes and mine are making cars like the 330e affordable (€7,500 in grants/rebates) for those who want to cut running costs and, consequently, reduce emissions. By not doing so you are robbing us, yourself (on mpg) and wasting wonderful technology.

Maybe I was being unfair in even picking the 320i petrol (the 330i is a more powerful, direct comparison) but I thought it worth a go under the circumstances that prevailed.

I feel vindicated, to a degree, after one of the sweetest drives I've had in a 3-series for years. Down and back through Wicklow over a mixture of roads, surfaces and weather conditions, I thoroughly enjoyed the 320i. What a pliant/sporty chassis. I drove the 330e over less demanding routes and more commuting distances. The batteries and electric motor add 165kg or so and that may account for the stiffer-feeling of the suspension (my 320i had larger wheels too).

Horses for courses, perhaps, but I really enjoyed my 320i M Sport. The 330e could be fun, too, but the 320i drive was, somehow, special.

I thought Jaguar's XE would emulate the 3-series. It hasn't. Nor has the Mercedes C-Class or Audi A4. I'm talking driving verve here; it trails them on cabin/comfort/design/layout. But what a car after all these years. So it's the petrol then? Lord, I'm suffering here. My big dilemma is: would I use the PHEV the way it is intended. Probably not. Would I buy a straight petrol? No, I wouldn't. I'd buy a diesel.

But push me hard and I'd have to go with the 330e. I wouldn't be happy with the smaller boot but PHEVs are going to be an important part of our future and I might as well join up now and shake my lazy adversity to plugging in and charging up.

But I still have a real soft spot for that 320i.

Facts & figures

BMW 330e sport saloon plug-in: 1,998cc, 181bhp (electric motor pushes power to 252bhp), 8spd auto, 0/100kmh 6.1 secs, 148.7mpg, 45g/km, €170 road tax. From €41,030. Heated steering wheel, media package, concierge service, 17ins alloys, etc. Tested car: €49,611.

BMW 320i M Sport: 1,997cc, 181bhp, 0-100kmh 7.3 secs, 44.8mpg, 134g/km, €280 road tax. From €42,878. M Sport Plus, 19ins alloys, Harman/Kardon surround sound, Sport auto transmission: Tested car: €54,671.24.

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