That BMW’s ActiveHybrid3 is a sophisticated engineered solution is without question.
The hybridization of its well-regarded, and now sixth-generation 3 Series compact sports sedan places it at a premium position in the hybrid sphere – a niche among niches. Is “high-performance hybrid” an oxymoron?
No, it’s a reality, and we’ll be seeing even more up to the supercar level, but the concept can deliver mixed messages. Presently, there are a couple other midsized hybrid sedans loosely similar to the Active Hybrid 3 and also shared is their 100 or less monthly sales, a tacit giveaway that many do not see their value but that does not mean there is none to be found.
Indeed, as a car – hybrid or otherwise – BMW’s ActiveHybrid 3 is endowed with an edge out of the gate. How? It utilizes the 335i’s silky but potentially raucous six-cylinder turbo – then it enhances the already stellar power as a full hybrid capable of all-electric, zero-emissions running at various points for short durations.
And, it has that BMW panache prized by those who consume conspicuously, or actual car fans who can appreciate the finely tuned German sport sedan shaded green.
But here’s the mixed message: In creating the ActiveHybrid 3, BMW resisted the prospect of maximizing mileage with the on-board electric power at the expense of performance on par with its stable mates. Instead, the car uses the extra juice like a fuel-free, emissions-free turbo – on top of power from two real turbos – to enable thrust that matches its world-class road manners, upscale creature comforts, and style.
The ActiveHybrid 3 was launched September 2012 into the U.S. to satisfy American predilections for electrification on the heels of the outgoing 2011 335d diesel. Some reviewers have nicked BMW for withdrawing its excellent six-cylinder diesel still offered in Europe alongside other variants besides, but not so fast, says BMW.
“BMW diesels not only are still available in the U.S. after the 335d was discontinued, we now offer more diesel alternatives than ever before,” said BMW Product and Technology Spokesperson, Julian Arguelles, adding that a 328d sedan and 328d xDrive Sport Wagon are just now shipping to dealers.
The AH3 is one of three models in BMW’s ActiveHybrid sub series, the other two being the ActiveHybrid 5 employing the same powertrain, and the ActiveHybrid 7.
This month BMW will also launch its all-electric and range-extended i3 city car – to be followed by an i8 plug-in six-figure sports car. If there were any ambiguity with its ActiveHybrids’ mission in life, the “i-Series” is intended to lay to rest any doubt about BMW’s commitment to truly efficient electrified cars that still can be called “Ultimate Driving Machines.”
For now, the ultimate hybridized 3 Series commands a $6,500 premium over the non-hybrid 335i, and this is essentially for the powertrain differences. The AH3 also gets unique badging and instrumentation and most of the options available on other 3 Series sedans as well as model-specific options.
A BMW At Heart
The ActiveHybrid 3’s propulsion is delivered by its twin-scroll turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six paired with an in-house-built electric motor powered by a 1.3-kwh lithium-ion battery placed low between the rear wheel arches. Said power is directed to the rear wheels via an 8-speed Steptronic automatic transmission which has manual control via the shift lever.
BMW thus bypassed a potentially more efficient but namby-pamby CVT that Toyota or some other hybrid maker would have opted for. A car is not a blender, nor should it sound like one, or so goes the implication. BMW seems loath to spoil the stepped symphonic sound track of its 100-horsepower-per liter hybrid on the boil, or neuter the control that traditional driving aficionados would expect.
With its High Precision Direct Injection and VALVETRONIC fully variable valve timing, the “N55” fuel burner delivers 300 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, and 300 pounds-feet or torque between 1,200 and 5,000 rpm. It has twice won international engine of the year and is the reason why people pay up for the 335 line over the gas-powered 328 which comes with a highly potent, but less scintillating four.
The lithium-ion battery developed for the hybrid is comprised of 96 cells. Its effective energy capacity of 675 Watt-hours and the 317-volt system powers the electric motor and the air conditioning compressor.
Combined with the 55-horsepower, 155 pound-feet torque electric motor, peak system power is rated at 335 horsepower and 332 pounds-feet of torque. This is increase of 13 percent and 11 percent respectively.
Power from the 3,825-pound AH3 exceeds that of the 3,555-pound non-turbo, but much of it merely pulls the 270 extra pounds. The battery also shifts weight distribution from the standard 335i’s 51.5/48.5 percent to 49.7/50.3 – a minor difference, and the AH3 is still quite balanced.
To be sure, it is a satisfying car, but its EPA-rated city and combined mileage is but 2 mpg more. In effect, the extra cost and engineering that delivers more power but packs extra weight almost neutralizes the extra efficiency. Ability to occasionally drive with zero emissions is a qualified plus.
The main recharging energy for the high-voltage system is engine generated and regenerative braking also contributes. The ActiveHybrid 3 further relies on its stop-start system to reduce fuel usage.
Like other hybrids the AH3 can operate like a short-duration electric car. In this case it can go up to 2.5 miles at an average of 20 mph (35 kph), and can drive electrically up to 45 mph (75 kph).
Another function is “coasting” in which the gas engine is shut off and decoupled to eliminate engine braking at speeds up to 100 mph (160 kph). The effect is enhanced also by low rolling resistance tires.
This fuel-saving function is operable in the energy saving ECO Pro driving mode – one of four modes that include Sport, Sport+, and comfort that are activated by the Driving Experience Control switch.
During coasting in ECO Pro, all safety and comfort functions remain fully operational.
In turn, ECO Pro mode optimizes energy consumption from the powertrain including the transmission and tapers juice to electrically powered convenience features, including the HVAC system.
Additional energy savings are provided by BMW’s intelligent energy management which links to the optional navigation system to plot out an energy budget for the given trip, assuming accurate map data.
For example, if a downhill is on the route, the car’s brain will know it can spend its high-voltage juice anticipating a recharge from regenerative braking.
The car also keeps drivers apprised of energy flow data and fuel consumption history along with a host of hybrid-specific data for those who wish to keep track.
An available Technology Package includes Navigation, Head-up Display, Online Information Systems, Smartphone Integration, BMW Assist with enhanced Bluetooth and USB port, BMW Apps and Advanced Real Time Traffic Info (ARTTI).
Styling and Features, Inside and Out
A picture is worth 1,000 words, and we’ve thus given you seventeen thousand. In one word, the car is a 3 Series. And with a few more words, we’ll add the sporty yet luxuriant exterior exudes both masculine and feminine gender-blended styling cues as is typical for many automotive designs these days. It’s like a 260-pound linebacker wearing pressed shorts, a polo shirt and Gucci loafers having just come from the salon – it’s as pretty as it is macho by the sensibility du jour.
Put a bit more flatteringly, BMW has the lines honed to a fine art. The close gaps between the fenders and the 18-inch, 45-series tires on alloy wheels is just the right balance that the aftermarket strives for in making tuner kits for lesser wannabe cars. The front clip looks like a falcon; predatory but sophisticated.
Inside, the car is packed with creature comforts and not confining for normally dimensioned people up to low or maybe mid-six-foot stature.
The cozy heated 8-way power front seats are not heavily bolstered but are all day comfortable. Info centered around 6.5-inch screen is logically arrayed and plentiful as is connectivity.
The optional navigation system features hard disk storage for maps and music. This comes also with an 8.8-inch monitor integrated into the instrument panel. An “iDrive system” operates a host of vehicle, communications and entertainment functions.
A dual-zone automatic climate control comes standard and is controllable for the driver and front and rear passengers.
Interior materials look like the genuine article, but you’ll have to step up a level or two to get a car with real leather, wood and metal on the dash and doors. Nothing looks outright cheap however, although with our car’s sticker at $61,420, one does start to cross-compare how much nicer the materials, fit and finish really are from a 40 mpg, $35,555 Toyota Avalon Hybrid.
Cargo storage is decent; the trunk is spacious enough, although the battery takes 3.2 cubic feet from the volume. The rear seats do conveniently fold nearly flat, or a middle-rear-seat opening reveals an effective tunnel for skis and long objects.
The well-being of occupants in a crash is first attended to by higher-strength multi-phase steels and hot-stamped ultra-high-tensile steel which BMW says it has intelligently incorporated for maximum rigidity with minimal weight.
Beyond that is the usual array of strategically placed airbags including front, side, as well as side curtain head airbags for both seat rows.
BMW’s ConnectedDrive suite also includes a Driver Assistance Package that features Park Distance Control, rear-view camera, Top and Side View, Active Blind Spot Detection. Driver Assistance Plus adds Lane Departure Warning with Forward Collision Warning and Speed Limit Info. Adaptive Headlights and High Beam Assistant.
Driving the ActiveHybrid 3
The artful integration of technologies, creature comforts, 335 horsepower/332 pounds-feet and a chassis capable of dynamic cornering and braking are easy to become spoiled by.
The default startup mode is all-electric and the full hybrid operates as such but this one is on steroids. While the Avalons, Camrys and Sonatas of the world offer much at a comparative bargain price, the extra touches of the BMW add up.
This is a car that can be nursed for potentially higher mpg and reduced emissions around town, but on the back road it reveals a Mr. Hyde alter ego to the Dr. Jekyll face.
It’s electronically limited to 155 mph, and 0-60 mph is equal to the 335i at around 5.2 seconds.
On a 35 mph curvy road, if you want to play Mad Max and hit double that or more between corners, this is one hybrid that lets you do that.
But again, here the message is mixed. Fuel mileage plummets when the twin-turbo spools up and emits a high-rpm snarling rasp as it hurtles you down the road.
Our observed mpg hovered around the 30 mpg mark with a mix of soft and hard driving styles. When we went bonzo, the 335-horsepower does not come for free, and the engine therefore can get particularly thirsty into the low 20s or less.
Like so many high-po cars that claim a high teaser mpg, it’s an either/or proposition. BMW’s advertised economy and earth-hugging zero emissions only happen when you deny yourself most of the pleasure it otherwise holds in store. Of course, you could lose your license driving this car to even 60 percent of its potential, so that too must be considered while we’re all dreaming here.
Or, if you have no trouble exercising self restraint, the BMW is a wonderful car.
Imperfections in the road are handled dynamically. The chassis is tuned to provide the best compromise between comfort and sport, and options packages including an M Sport kit let you tailor the balance further to your liking.
The $50,195 MSRP including destination and handling is just the starting point to further draw on your own creative pallet with checkbook in hand.
While the ActiveHybrid 3 is reasonably capable of chasing after the youngster in his slammed hot hatch, how it is doing in the market race is in question.
BMW sold 104 units in June – up from 100 in May, 125 in April, 78 in March, and no more than 144 in December. The company has set modest sales expectations and also offers the estimated 45 mpg 328 diesel if you want a more sensible variant that otherwise delivers most of the experience.
Consider also: high-strung turbos may not endure as many hard miles as a sturdy turbo diesel. Nor are they likely to hold their resale value as well.
Alternately, one might just as well go for the non-hybrid 335i and save $6,500. It is lighter, just as quick, equipped about the same and you’ll sacrifice only 2 mpg which, given the cost of premium gas required, would take many years to be offset.
Other hybrids that are similar are the mid-sized Infiniti M35h and Lexus GS 450h. There’s also the 45-mpg Lincoln MKZ Hybrid and Mercedes-Benz E400h. Closest in spirit, the mid-sized Infiniti similarly rips off 0-60 times in 5.2 seconds, and sub-14 second quarter miles.
Another choice for those wanting a fast, luxurious, but efficient car could be to forget hybrids and go all-electric. A Tesla Model S with 60-kwh battery starts at around $70,000 but is nicely subsidized – and then there’s all that fuel you’ll never have to buy, although you’ll have to pay a comparatively modest uptick in your electricity bill.
The Model S promises Aston-Martin-league style and a visceral ride with no emissions. It’s even heavier, but the weight rides low.
And with Tesla’s 20-minute Superchargers and battery swapping being rolled out, extended trips may even be possible (with more than the usual planning). A unique purchase plan also guarantees its resale value at the 36-39-month ownership point to exceed that of a Mercedes S-Class.
In the mean time, the ActiveHybrid 3 holds a place for BMW as it also prepares plug-in cars to come.
It does everything its stable mates and other higher performance gas car can do, including serving up finely pureed power from the slick-shifting 8-speed Steptronic.
And really, in European luxury car terms, $6,500 extra is not an excessive premium for an otherwise highly competent car, hybrid or otherwise. One cannot impose a Honda-level buyer’s sensibility in deciding whether BMW’s hybrid is a fair bargain or not.
Let’s keep things in perspective: Do viable alternatives exist? Yes, and the market has said it louder than we have. Is the ActiveHybrid 3 still worth considering? Absolutely.
It really is a very enjoyable car. Now, the decision is yours.