There’s a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar about the BMW Active Hybrid 3. It’s a 3 Series in largely the same style as any other, making it at a glance one of the most familiar cars on the road today.
It has four wheels, a saloon boot and a six-cylinder petrol engine under the bonnet too, plus either a manual or an automatic gearbox. Nothing out of the ordinary here, then, until your eyes fall on the not-so-subtle Active Hybrid 3 lettering on both C-pillars and the boot lid.
That means you’re looking at BMW’s first compact hybrid car, which uses a fully enclosed hybrid system to increase the fuel economy and performance of what amounts to the king of the 3 Series swingers, sitting above the already
potent 335i (look out for our local road test next week).
A lithium-ion battery under the boot floor provides both extra shove and the ability to cruise at low speeds — up to 75kph or so — on electric power alone, for up to 4.0 kilometres on a good day.
It offers silent(ish) running around town, potentially much-improved fuel economy over the 335i and a certain air of prestige that only hybrid cars possess. In total the system puts out 340bhp; comfortably more than the 335i does.
The hybrid recorded 4.9 litres-per-100km on the official EU test cycle; again handsomely more than the 335i. Carbon dioxide emissions are much lower, at 139g/km. The 335i must be feeling pretty sorry for itself right about now.
On the road the system works where it can to minimise the distance travelled at low speed using the engine. It’s a reasonably powerful electric motor but BMW has chosen to make it run mainly once the car is moving. Generally, unless you’re very gentle, the Active Hybrid 3 pulls away using engine power to reduce strain on the motor and prolong its life.
Cruising through towns the engine cuts out and the motor takes over, maintaining a speed or placidly following the pace of traffic. Uphill stretches tend to call upon the engine again, while downhills allow you to accelerate more quickly and for longer without using any fuel.
Apart from a very minor shudder when the engine starts and stops, the system is as refined as you could expect. And boy does it have some grunt when the occasion — read ‘right boot’ — calls. Through an eight-speed automatic gearbox that’s set up beautifully, with shifts that while not lightning fast are smooth and rapid enough, the hybrid drivetrain delivers a mighty hit of performance. There’s low-end and mid-range torque from the electric gubbins and a full 7,500rpm kidney punch from the superb turbocharged six-pot between the front wheels.
Power from both sources goes to the rear wheels, though, promising balance, poise and a delicacy of handling that isn’t normally associated with hybrids. The extra weight of the battery isn’t noticeable, and in truth a lot of the playfulness is dialed out with the large, sticky performance tyres that need to be pushed hard before allowing any movement. Getting the back end really working and dictating the handling balance isn’t something you should try with your mind on the tennis scores.
But BMW expects that most of the handful of Active Hybrid 3 buyers will use the car more as a prestige cruiser, enjoying the SE trim’s impressive ride quality and its seemingly limitless capacity for mile-eating.
It’s fair to say that in highway cruising the motor almost never gets used, making the whole fuel economy-boosting side of the hybrid system redundant.
Setting the ins and outs of the system aside, the rest of the car is much like any other high-spec 3 series.
The centre console is simple and efficient, the seats are very comfortable, there are one or two useful storage spaces and of course the general materials’ quality is very good. At this price point there are nicer interiors to be had, but the Active Hybrid 3 is good enough to tempt people into plumbing the depths of the options list should they find the standard cabin a bit uninspiring.
This car manages to feel much more alive and responsive than many of the roughly comparable alternatives you could name.
It’s hugely capable and balances environmental consciousness with good old fashioned brute force.
The lucky few are likely to have envious eyes following their every mile.