When manufacturers produce hybrids, they often do so with the intention of lowering consumption and appearing to help heal the world. But not BMW. The Bavarian automaker has created its first hybrid car, the ActiveHybrid 3, to be more frugal but also to be offer performance worthy of the blue and white propeller badge. We took to some German roads to put this eco-oriented yet high performance 3 Series through its paces and discover whether it really could offer the best of both worlds.
The ActiveHybrid 3 is visually identical to the new 3 Series but sports a few additional badges on the C-pillar and decklid as well as on the door sills, gearshift lever surround and engine cover to highlight its eco credentials. Aficionados will also notice the black chrome finish adorning the dual exhaust outlets, which is unique to the hybrid model.
The car is available in four different lines -- SE, Modern, Luxury and M Sport – with each specification having unique exterior and interior design elements to help customers individualise their purchases. The ActiveHybrid also features exclusive aerodynamically optimised 18-inch wheels shod with low rolling resistance rubber to further boost efficiency.
The conventional 3 Series has grown slightly larger than its predecessor, enhancing comfort levels in the interior. As such, the hybrid benefits from a longer wheelbase -- increasing leg and knee room -- and a slightly wider cabin. But the real difference is in the boot.
Engineers have cleverly packaged the electric motor into the transmission housing and the battery is situated just aft of the rear axle, which benefits weight distribution. This sacrifices only 90 litres of boot space, dropping space from 480 litres to 390 litres. You'll hardly notice the difference – at its highest point, the load floor is barely 50mm higher than in a conventionally powered 3 Series and the floor still matches up when the rear seat backs are folded, allowing for a flat load space.
Performance & Handling
Propelled by BMW’s TwinPower turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine paired with a 55hp electric motor, the ActiveHybrid 3 develops 340hp and 450Nm of torque, which enables 62mph stints from a standstill in just 5.3 seconds. Try that in your Prius. It's two-tenths faster than a BMW 335i, even with the 135kg weight detriment of its compact battery pack.
And to prove that this hybrid can hold its own in the BMW range, there’s even a ‘boost’ function that sources power from the petrol engine and battery pack simultaneously to deliver the most performance. As with most electric drivetrains, torque is available right off the line, so get ready to be knocked back into those contoured seat backs.
Thankfully BMW’s trademark driving dynamics haven’t been compromised in the 3’s hybrid transformation. The ActiveHybrid's suspension settings are well tuned to deliver the best compromise between comfort and agility and its 50/50 weight distribution inspires confidence when throwing shapes around corners. There are also four different settings – EcoPro, Comfort, Sport and Sport + – to tailor the throttle response, transmission gearing, steering weight and, when fitted with BMW’s Adaptive Drive option, the firmness of the dampers.
Bucking the trend, BMW has also opted to fit an eight speed automatic gearbox rather than an arguably more economy-oriented CVT unit, and we’re glad it has. It’s a smooth shifting unit that seems well paired to extract maximum efficiency from the hybrid powertrain, while the paddle shift functions on the steering wheel enable a more involved driving experience. Even in EcoPro mode – which is tuned to provide the best economy – the transmission will hold gears to redline to deliver power when called upon.
Economy & Environment
BMW claims combined fuel consumption of 47.9mpg but we managed slightly over 26mpg in our time behind the wheel. You really have to coax it if you want to extract better figures. Still, the ActiveHybrid 3’s 139g/km CO2 emissions figure fits in VED band E, attracting only an 18 per cent benefit-in-kind company car taxation rate.
If you're really eco-conscious, you'll be pleased to learn the ActiveHybrid 3 can run on electric power alone, although not for long. If you’re prepared to feather the throttle and keep your speed below 37mph, it can travel up to 2.4 miles on power generated from its lithium-ion battery. Beyond that, the turbocharged six cylinder kicks in.
There are various systems at work to improve economy and capture lost energy as well, including a start/stop feature, brake energy regeneration and coasting regeneration – akin to those in BMW’s EfficientDynamics models. The engine also switches off seamlessly whilst coasting on the motorway up to speeds of 100mph in EcoPro mode and between 37 and 50mph in the Comfort setting.
An ‘intelligent engine management’ feature in the optional Professional grade navigation system displays information on the hybrid powertrain in EcoPro to clue you in on what’s happening. Though this could be seen as a bit of a gimmick, it is useful if you’re trying to tailor your driving style to improve economy.
Equipment & Value
SE models feature 17-inch wheels and the aforementioned design enhancements, along with a multi-function leather steering wheel, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, and a 6.5-inch colour screen for the iDrive infotainment system. That’s about it.
In typical BMW form, nearly everything else is an optional extra, including BMW’s Professional navigation (with an 8.8-inch screen) and the intuitive ConnectedDrive system, which includes park distance control as well as rear view and surround cameras. A large head-up display, parking assistant feature, real time traffic updates and Internet capability are also optional, as is a feature that enables iPhone owners to receive web radio stations and view Facebook and Twitter posts on the monitor.
If you’re worried that the social media updates might be a bit distracting, you’ll be pleased to know that the conventional 3 Series has just garnered a five star Euro NCAP rating, so it’s fair to assume the hybrid will achieve the same result. If that’s not reassuring enough, the ActiveHybrid 3 also has the passive and active safety features you’d expect of a BMW – including front, side and side curtain airbags, active head restraints and Isofix child seat anchors at the rear.
There is also a fair amount of safety gadgetry on offer; such as a blind spot indicator, a lane departure warning system, and a red car icon that appears in the instrument panel and head-up display should you be following the car ahead too closely. They're a useful feature, but we’re willing to bet most BMW drivers will opt to turn off these nannying devices should their vehicle come so equipped.
Though it's an eco-oriented car, the ActiveHybrid 3 is powerful, comfortable and, most importantly, retains the driving characteristics expected of a BMW. Viewed in isolation, it's excellent, extracting more out of a litre of fuel than its conventionally-powered 335i counterpart whilst besting the torque figure of BMW's own M3.
Sadly, viewed in context it's less impressive. It’s not as frugal as other hybrid models, nor does it better the fuel economy or CO2 figure of its 320d diesel sibling, the biggest seller in the UK market. As a result, it probably won't appeal much to the European crowd, but it should go down a treat in Japan and the USA, where diesels haven't yet taken off.
Model tested: BMW ActiveHybrid 3 Sport
Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder / 40kW electric motor
Acceleration: 0-62 in 5.3 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Emissions: 139g/km CO2