Living With The BMW Hybrid: Long term review

bmw activehybrid

BMW and hybrid are two words that appear to be oxymoronic.  Since its early days BMW has been synonymous with engines and balance and yet, in 2009, BMW introduced its first hybrid, the X6 ActiveHybrid.  While the X6 never was a great seller to begin with and many consumers snickered at how silly the “Sport Activity Coupe” (as the German’s dubbed it) really was – and the Hybrid version sold even less – the proof of concept seemed to work and in 2010 they introduced the ActiveHybrid 7.  Slowly but surely we’ve seen the introduction of the ActiveHybrid 3 and ActiveHybrid 5 in 2012 and who knows if we will see more.

Currently BMW offers the 3, 5, and 7 series in Hybrid and they removed the X6 in 2011, much to everyone’s delight.  With the introduction of the new Hybrid models, BMW went from mild-hybrid to full-hybrid in the 3, 5, and 7 thanks to the Full Hybrid 2.0 power system which allows the cars to be driven in all-electric mode.  While it is important to note that the X6 was always a full-hybrid system, up until this past year, the 7 was a mild-hybrid.  For those of you who are unsure what that means, there was not an all-electric mode.  All that being said, a BMW hybrid was the furthest thing from my mind.  Until…

In December of 2012 my poor 2007 MINI Cooper S was totaled and I was looking for another car to replace it with.  And I ended up with an ActiveHybrid 3.  Originally I was looking for another RWD, 6 speed, BMW Coupe but as luck would have it.  That didn’t happen.  Suffice to say that the lease deal that BMW offered on the AH3 at the time was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

There’s has been a lot of talk about the i3 that BMW recently revealed but, the BMW hybrids are a horse of a different color.  The i3 features a fully electric model and a model much like the Chevy Volt with a range extender.  The ActiveHybrid on the other hand might as well be a 335i.  Well, it kind of is when you ignore all of the interesting technical components that they added.  The base motor is what is referred to internally as the N55 3.0 liter inline six cylinders with Twin-Power Turbocharger that outputs 300 HP and 300 lb/ft of torque.  In the AH3, BMW integrated an electric motor capable of 55 HP with a Lithium-Ion battery that is located in the trunk.  The battery capacity isn’t fantastic but it does allow you to drive 2 miles up to 47 miles an hour in all electric mode.  Around the city it provides some pretty cool all electric driving to save on fuel economy, which I will discuss in depth below.  But the real fun comes when you kick the car into sports mode, which gives the AH3 a full 335 HP and 330 lb/ft of torque, capable of 0 – 60 times in the low 5 seconds.  The added power is certainly welcome when you consider the fact that the battery adds an additional 300 lbs to the weight of the vehicle when compared to it’s RWD brother.

BMW packed in all sorts of cool technological advances into the car that really wow me when I think about it.  Like all new F30 (2012 and newer 3 series sedans) models the car comes standard with Driving Dynamic Control.  This tech comes with 3  – 4 different modes depending on which trim you choose.  All of the cars have Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport modes which affect the steering feedback and throttle response of the vehicle.   In a Sport Line or M Sport equipped F30, they add Sport + mode which is the enthusiasts best friend.  Sport + mimics the Sport mode while also removing those pesky nanny controls known as Dynamic Stability Control and allowing you to drive the BMW as it is meant to be driven, sideways.  DSC is turned off and the Dynamic Traction Control is turned on while maintaining the Sport shift modes.  DSC is designed to eliminate fish-tailing when there is reduced or no traction at the rear wheels.  This detracts from drifting and getting sideways which as we all know, is a big downer for those who like to drive a bit manic (in controlled conditions, obviously).  Interestingly enough, even in a non-Sport or M Sport car you can achieve this but, there is an additional button press involved.  I guess BMW is just trying to make it easier for us all.  While the Sport buttons are awesome, in the AH3 the Eco Pro is arguably where it shines for those Eco enthusiasts.  Eco Pro allows the car to spend most of its time in all-electric mode while you are driving.  In fact, the 47 MPH in all-electric mode can only be achieved in Eco Pro.  The Comfort mode typically switches to gas power once you hit 30 MPH and the Sport mode drops right out of electric mode as soon as you blip the throttle.   In conjunction with the Navigation system the AH3 is capable of “looking ahead” at the topography of the map an adjust it’s electric driving based on optimal use.  While for now this only happens at low speeds in the urban environments, BMW will be expanding this technology in the future.  Couple this with being able to coast up to 100 MPH, it’s a pretty interesting system that gets my tech nerd self excited.

All of this technology is really cool but what’s it like to drive the car on a regular basis?  Well I’ve had the AH3 since December 2012 and fortunately (or unfortunately as the case maybe sometimes) I’ve put 18k miles on the car thus far.  It hurts my lease mileage but it’s good for my enthusiast’s soul.  I spend a lot of my time driving in stop and go traffic in our lovely DC metro area.  Luckily, this has been balanced out with a lot of highway driving.  While driving in the city I spend most of my time in the Comfort or Eco Pro settings.  I did not opt for the Sport of the M Sport line in my car for a number of reasons but suffice to say, I have the standard suspension as opposed to the Sport Suspension that comes with either of those two.  The standard suspension is far more forgiving then the last two iterations of the 3 series (the e46 and the e90).  While some may bemoan the loss of the sportiness of the car, if you really want a ride comparable to the last two, you are better off with the one of the two Sport lines.  However, for those folks who want a daily driver that won’t beat you up but still can be fun to drive the regular suspension is just fine.  In fact, it’s 1000 times more comfortable.  Just as people have been continuing to talk about the loss of BMW-ness the cars have had, BMW switched from the Hydraulically assisted steering to the Servotronic, or electronic assisted steering, that was debuted in the current generation Z4.  I for one actually like the new steering more.  It allows you to make it as light or as heavy as you want by way of the DDC.  For my money, I prefer a car that can be adaptable to the type of driving I am currently doing.  The Sport mode is a good comparison to the old steering and again, the Sportier lines will give you more of what it may lack.  All this adds up to a car that can be both fun and relaxing to drive.

While in the city, the car has enough power to do what’s necessary while absorbing those nasty pot holes and bumps most urban areas are plagued with.  And when I get the opportunity to drive it on a more fun and windy road, I drop the DDC to Sport and put my shifter into the sportiest setting and I just go.  It handles the curves like you imagine a BMW would.  I’ve held the car through tight turns at 45, 50+ MPH without even breaking a sweat.  The 50 – 50 weight distribution coupled with the RWD system makes for an exhilarating drive.  Since the foundation of the vehicle is the 335i at heart, the exhaust note is intoxicating.  It sounds a bit sedate or completely silent while in all electric power in both the Comfort and Eco Pro modes.  However, as soon as the car is in Sport…  I often find myself driving without music and the windows down just to hear that straight six start to sing.  Sadly, the AH3 is only offered in an automatic transmission since the new 8 speed is infinitely more efficient than we will ever be in a manual transmission.  But it still drives well and in the sportiest setting it does all the things you would imagine the transmission doing.  Aggressive upshifts, down shift braking, and going like a bat out of hell.

The driving aside though, the AH3 benefits from some of the newest technology available on a BMW.  It features the upgraded iDrive/Navigation system that includes things like 3-d map technology while you are driving in a major city.  This gives you true perspective on scalable distances.  The Navigation system is connected to Real Time traffic conditions courtesy of BMW for the life of the vehicle (at least for 2012 and 2013 models, more on that another day).  And it is a pretty fast system that is normally updated within minutes of an incident happening.  I opted to get BMWs Heads-up Display (HUD) which displays my speed, Navigation directions, it allows me to change stations or songs, and I can even call my most recently dialed calls with the HUD and steering wheel controls.  My wife thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever when we first got the car, and not three days later I got a text message with a picture of the Nav directions on the HUD with the test, “this is the greatest thing ever.”  And still she doubts my car knowledge…  The car allows you to sync up to 4 phones at a time and with the new software you can even use two at the same time.  Previously you could only use one of those 4 phones at a time.  Additionally, the car supports iPod/USB input along with Bluetooth streaming of audio but, the USB input allows you a greater degree of control over the music you listen to.  Personally, I find the iDrive easy to use and rather intuitive.  Once you figure out how it works, and how to use short-cuts and voice command, you can spend your time enjoying the road instead of playing with buttons.

And while we are on the subject of driving, I’m sure many of you want to know that fuel economy you might expect from the hybrid 3 series.  It’s ok…  If you want good fuel economy, get the 328i or the 320i.  They are going to offer you better fuel economy while not being quite as fun to drive in my opinion.  That being said, the hybrid 3 will give you roughly 5 MPG better than the normal 335i.  With all of the driving that I do in the DC metro area, plus some highways usage with a heavy foot, I average 25 MPG on any given week.  Now if I were to drive the car in Eco Pro mode all of the time and took my time, I could likely achieve somewhere in the ballpark of 28 – 30 in my daily driving.  But, where is the fun in that?

Overall, I really enjoy the hybrid 3 series.  Whether I want to drive an Eco-conscious fuel sipper or a German bat straight out of hell, the ActiveHybrid 3 series does both quite well.  Add in the latest technology that will attract even the nerdiest of tech nerds and you have a great all-around car.  I really love driving my AH3.  It’s probably why I have 18k miles on it in just 9 months.  My advice to you is go take one out for a test-drive if you are considering a new luxury sedan and see what it’s all about.

Steven Mueller
Steven's passion for cars started with a model of a 1986 Porsche Carrera Cabriolet that his uncle brought back from Germany. Since then he has been a gearhead and car nut. Steven works as a Porsche Specialist and former BMW Client Advisor and M specialist in the DC area and in his free time he runs, Six Speed and Caffeine. He considers himself an automotive guru and answer man. Feel free to ask him anything