BMW 3 Series VS Audi S8
BMW 3 Series
- A PHEV keen drivers can embrace at last
- Useable real-world pure-EV commuting ability
- Quality BMW cabin design and presentation
- Lofty pricing, and that's before expensive options
- Reduced boot capacity compared to regular 3 Series
- 2.0-litre turbo four lacks BMW six-cylinder refinement at higher revs
- Technical extravaganza
- Elegant looks
- Punchy V8
- Tricky to find a space big enough
- Short warranty
BMW 3 Series
Is the 330e the best of both worlds?
A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), it’s a part-time electric car for the city and a full-time sports sedan for everywhere else.
Both were based on the previous F30 3 Series shape. However, this year’s all-new G20 iteration improves the breed with a bigger boot, up to 50 per cent better range and brawnier performance.
The thing is, it shares showrooms with the 330i and M340i xDrive, which represent a powerful return-to-form for the 3 Series.
So, the question isn’t so much ‘Is the 330e a good enough PHEV?’ more so than ‘Is the PHEV worthy of the BMW badge?’ Let’s find out.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Hybrid with Premium Unleaded|
Big sedans are not in vogue at the moment and huge luxury sedans were on the way down before the humble Commodore and Falcon departed the upper end of the sales charts. The Germans, who have always done a spectacular job of these flagship sedans, cheerfully persist with these cars.
|Engine Type||4.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
BMW 3 Series9/10
You know about Goldilocks and the Three Bears, right?
Well, its themes of too little or too much apply for buyers of an eco-focused luxury sports sedan. If a hybrid like the Lexus IS 300h isn’t electrified enough, and a pure EV such as the Tesla Model 3 is going too far, then a PHEV like the 330e plugs the gap just about perfectly.
Yes, prices are high (and especially so with a few choice options), boot capacity is on the low side for a 4.7-metre long sedan and that lusty four-pot turbo is sonically no match for a turbine-smooth BMW inline six as per the M340i, but the 330e does most of the expected things well and some of the ones you might not exceptionally.
Pay the price and you can have your cake and eat it too.
The S8's existence is a source of joy for me because it's not a huge SUV. Yes, it's a huge sedan but it's a reminder that the technological flagship is alive and well, at least in Germany. And the important thing about these cars is the way the toys filter down through the rest of the range. That used to take years but we're seeing this cool stuff a lot more quickly, right down to the A1.
The S8 punches, and punches hard in this rarefied part of an already shrunken section of the market - the twin-turbo V8 matches its German rivals, it's lighter and it's as well-stacked as any of the three. What it doesn't do, however, is shout about itself the way the other two do. It's the incognito choice.
BMW 3 Series
Remember when BMW 3 Series were compact three-box sedans that looked like nothing else? Today’s version seems so close in size to a 5 Series that only an anorak can instantly tell them apart. In fact, at a glance, differentiating the current G20 from the old F30 generation isn’t so easy, either.
It’s no surprise, then, to learn that both the 3- and 5 Series share the company’s scalable, light but super-strong ‘Cluster Architecture’. Imbued with a large-car feel, the 330e is elegant in silhouette and handsomely detailed, its imposing stance highlighted by the M Sport lowered suspension (by 10mm) and bi-colour five-prong double-spoke 19-inch alloys and (optional) Laser-light LEDs.
Flying under the radar for an eco-warrior, there is nothing other than two ‘filler’ flaps to give the PHEV game away externally. It’s all business as usual.
The same cool insouciance permeates our 3 Series’ leather-laden and metallic-accented cabin, that is now properly spacious for four adults. It still retains the signature-BMW driver-centric dashboard angle, but the style certainly isn’t retro, with twin large digital displays and a myriad of personalisation and vehicle configuration choices underlining the 330e’s modernity.
Aided by plenty of eco incentives to go PHEV, in Europe, BMW expects the 330e to be the best selling version; that said, given the inherent conservatism of premium medium sedan buyers globally, there is virtually nothing about this model’s overall execution that is too futuristic, intimidating or oddball.
The sheetmetal is obviously very restrained given it's an Audi first, and secondly, it's just not done to go wild in this part of the market.
It's an A6 that's joined a gym, but didn't join that weird gym with men that can't run after you when you insult them (don't ask how I know this). Rolling on 21-inch wheels as standard, you can go up to massive 22s if you so choose.
The A8 created a subtle redirection of Audi's passenger car look, with the updated A4 and A6 both picking up on the horizontal bar between the rear lights and the huge grille framed by family lights with signature DRL patterns. The S8 builds on that with subtle S cues but nothing even vaguely shouty.
The interior acreage - or 'cabin', if you will - is very comfortable, but you already knew that. The multi-screen layout was first seen in the A8 and has now found its way into A7, Q8 and Q7 and is, as ever, brilliant to look at and use.
The MMI updates that have found their way into other cars are present and correct. Like the exterior, it's very restrained but not to the point of sparse minimalism, despite the lack of switches and buttons.
I really don't like the steering wheel, though, and I can't put my finger on why. It certainly isn't especially sporty-looking but I wonder if the standard flat-bottomed S wheel just looked stupid.
The materials are beautiful and everything fits together perfectly.
BMW 3 Series
For a swoopy sports sedan, the 330e’s interior is pleasingly practical and – after a little familiarisation – user-friendly. As the biggest-ever 3 Series, four average-sized adults can fit in easily, while a smaller fifth person can crowd in on the rear-centre cushion. For short periods, anyway.
One surprise is the lightness of the doors due to them being partly aluminium, which means while they close with a reassuring thud, they’re might feel flimsy at first.
No such misconceptions await once inside the cocoon-quiet cabin, thanks to solid and lush materials everywhere the eye lands and hands touch. Even the plastics seem expensive.
As the 3 Series is famous for, the 330e’s dash is driver-centric, with ample adjustability of the fat-rimmed wheel and unimpeded reach for most of the important switchgear. Sat low and cosily ensconced between door and bisecting centre console, the mood is definitely grand-touring sports sedan.
For this generation, BMW has honed the once-controversial 'iDrive' controller into an artful yet logical example of on-the-move multimedia interface and data retrieval, with a concerted effort to simplify what is a mountain of available information.
Of course, familiarisation is essential, but even a short tuition will open up a world of configuration and customisation of every single facet of the car – chassis, powertrain, climate control, audio, communication and media being the main platforms. Sounds intimidating but isn’t.
To help relax (or energise), there’s even a ‘Caring Car’ feature in the sub menus with appropriately chilled ambient lighting, audio and climate control.
Indeed, the Germans have made strides in improving the perceived quality and functionality in other areas of the latest 3 Series, such as the gear lever operation, thoughtful storage and effortlessly effective ventilation.
However, the digital instrumentation has ignored decades of classy analogue style for a messy computerised multi-view layout that is just too Space Invaders.
Sure, it’s multi-configurable and includes a less-cluttered basic screen, but where’s the sophistication and beauty here? Notice to carmakers: would you wear a watch this ugly?
Moving to the back seat, the optional sunroof might eat into rear headroom, and really long-legged travellers need to ensure the front-seat occupants are as far forward as comfortably possible, but otherwise it’s the same story of well-sculptured cushions and backrests, set within a business-class style environment.
Twin USB-C ports, a 12V outlet and temperature controls are a bonus, hungry door pockets can take a large drink bottle and the essential cupholders are set within the centre armrest.
The only giveaway that this 3 Series is hauling extra electrification is inside the boot. Somewhat shallower than the regular 480-litre item, a higher floor than usual cuts that by 105L to 375L.
But at least the battery doesn’t intrude to the point where you can’t use the cabin load-through with the tri-sected backrests folded down (via a handy lever if you’re standing behind the vehicle). A through-loading system is part of the standard 40/20/40 split-fold backrest.
The floor itself is stepped half way, but if you require a flat surface, it can be lifted to even out the area. And remember, there is no spare wheel – just tyres that can be driven ‘flat’ as required to drive you to the nearest garage.
The cabin is clearly built with rear seat passengers in mind, with rear leg and headroom configured for those continent-crossing drives.
The S8 has plenty of comfort for two rear seat passengers and a few amusing options to while away the hours in traffic or on the autobahn.
That doesn't mean the front seat passengers are in purgatory, with huge but supportive seats adjustable in all conceivable directions.
Front and rear rows score a pair of cupholders and bottle holders while the boot is a handy, if not awe-inspiring, 505 litres.
Price and features
BMW 3 Series
It’s clear that electrification will become the norm in the not-too-distant future, from hybrids combining internal combustion engines (ICE) with electric motors and batteries, to the full battery electric vehicle (EV) and eventually hydrogen EV experience.
Somewhere along that spectrum, and nestled between the 320i (from $68,900) and 330i (from $74,900), is the 330e.
Arriving from Germany in either racy M Sport or dreary Luxury grades from $81,900 (before on-road costs), it features an electric motor and battery pack for up to 60km of pure EV propulsion, before a four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine kicks in for in excess of 1800km between refills, officially. Range anxiety be damned.
Mind you, the similarly-engined 320i but minus the electrification is almost 300kg lighter. Blame all that extra electrification swag like an 83kW synchronous motor, 10.3kWh lithium ion battery and a five-metre 1.8kW charging cable.
Being a PHEV means it needs up to six hours to recharge from a regular 10-amp household plug, down to a minimum of around 3.5 hours from a larger power source.
In contrast, a non-plug-in, series-parallel hybrid like the Lexus IS 300h barely manages 2.0km of sub-40km/h-only EV range, before its ICE takes over to replenish a much-smaller battery pack, and relegate the electric motor to mere performance and/or economy boosters only. That’s why the Lexus is some $20,000 cheaper.
Though both promise slightly less EV range than the 330e, the former is comfort-biased while the latter is a bit of a Swedish hot-rod, blitzing all for sheer oomph while scoring all-wheel drive into the bargain.
Note, however, that from $75,425 (before tax and on-road costs) will buy you the mouthful Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus RWD (rear-wheel drive). As a pure EV, the Yank has kicked the ICE habit with a silent and furious need for speed.
Not that our 330e M Sport Package isn’t hot to trot, with its M Sport-enhanced suspension, brakes, aero body kit, 19-inch alloys shod with run-flat tyres (so no spare wheel), steering wheel, Alcantara/Sensonic vinyl upholstery and ‘Shadow Line’ gloss-grey trimmings. Menacing.
The BMW’s list of goodies is barely good enough for a sedan that’s over $90K drive-away. You’ll find adaptive dampers that switch seamlessly from firm to soft depending on how stiff/supple you want the ride to be, auto entry/start, stop/start, heated/folding/dipping mirrors, two USB and a single 12V ports, tri-zone climate control, electrically adjustable front seats with driver’s-side memory, three-year subscription-based in-car emergency and concierge services, Apple CarPlay (but still not Android Auto at the time of publishing), 12.3-inch digital instrumentation with head-up display, a 10.25-inch central screen, satellite navigation, extended Bluetooth connectivity, an unreliable ‘Hey, BMW’ voice-activation system, digital radio, 205W amplifier audio, a 32GB hard drive, wireless smartphone charger and a personalisation function in the key saving all your preferred settings.
On the safety and security front there’s also autonomous emergency braking (AEB), warnings and active assistance/intervention for steering, lane-change, lane-departure and front/rear cross-traffic (with braking) situations, full-auto parking with surround-view 3D cameras and sensors, adaptive cruise control with full stop/go, auto high-beam LED headlights with delay/off, rain-sensing wipers, low-speed EV-mode acoustic warnings for pedestrians and localised recharging info including range radius. Handy.
Still, a sunroof is optional, as are our car’s trick 'Laser-light' active/adaptive LEDs, ambient cabin lighting, motion-sensor electric bootlid, seat and steering wheel heaters, galvanised trim, and other goodies, amounting to over $10,000. All blow out pricing towards $100K. Ouch.
At least you can pre-set the climate control in your 330e via a BMW app. Cool!
For $260,000 there is a lot to get through, as there is on the less sporty A8. Start with huge 21-inch alloys, 17-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo, panoramic sunroof, matrix LED headlights with laser lights, soft-close doors, acoustic glazing, leather trim, S front seats, extra leather over the A8, Alcantara headlining, carbon inlays, four-zone climate control, heated and cooled front seats, 'Virtual Cockpit' with S mode, and a tyre repair kit.
You also get active suspension, a sport version of the 'quattro' all-wheel drive system (with a sport differential), and a walloping great twin-turbo V8 to get you moving.
A massive touchscreen on the centre stack (familiar in Q8, A7 and Q7) hosts Audi's 'MMI plus' system, which is very good and does away with the console-mounted rotary controller. It also has wireless Apple CarPlay to go with the console-bin wireless charging pad. Android Auto is still USB. 'Audi Connect plus', now in full-featured glory, is also along for the ride.
Another technical highlight is the active noise cancelling which is meant to reduce the noise in the cabin the same way noise cancelling headphones do.
There's a clever rear seat remote control, which is a little detachable tablet to allow those who are being chauffered to faff around with various settings.
Our car had the $13,900 'Sensory Package', which adds a 1820-watt B&O 3D sound system with 23 speakers, electrically adjustable outer rear seats along with heating, cooling and massage function, and full leather.
Engine & trans
BMW 3 Series
BMW’s modular (B48) 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine delivers 135kW of power and 300Nm of torque, and drives the rear wheels via a ZF eight-speed automatic. The latter is regarded as one of the best transmissions of its type in production today.
That transmission also houses the 83kW/105Nm synchronous motor, while the 10.3kWh battery pack is located underneath the back seat. Total outputs are 185kW/420Nm.
Each power source works together to create a smooth and quiet EV experience up to a published 60km, before the 2.0-litre takes over the main driving function, but powering down again when coasting or under very light throttle, to help eke out maximum mileage between refills.
There are three modes to choose from – 'Sport', 'Hybrid' and 'Electric' – with the latter allowing for pure EV driving as long as the batteries are juiced up enough; otherwise the default Hybrid setting kicks in, where both propulsion options are used to maximum efficiency.
Back in Electric mode, in Battery Control mode, the driver can pre-select a minimum battery charge level for use later on where conditions are better-suited to EV driving – such as in downtown.
There’s also a so-called ‘XtraBoost’ function, providing up to 30kW of extra power (topping out at 215kW) for short periods, and is accompanied by a fake/enhanced exhaust note. It’s a bit of a scorcher, actually, revving hungrily to the redline and reeling in the horizon like a proper BMW should.
Don't go searching for an evocative in-line six-cylinder soundtrack, however. Instead, there's simply a zingy metallic snarl as the tacho swings swiftly upwards. S mode loves holding on to each gear ratio, aided by a thoughtfully placed set of paddle shifters.
Overall, the 3 Series PHEV is surprisingly rapid – clearing the 100km/h marker needs just 5.9 seconds – but subjectively actually feels even faster. BMW limits the 330e's EV top speed to 140km/h, or 230km/h in dinosaur-fuel mode.
That's a lot, even for this big bruiser. Obviously, being an Audi S-car, it has quattro all-wheel drive, which is fed by an eight-speed ZF automatic. Which is in everything now. Well, just about.
That huge torque figure is available between 2000rpm and 4500rpm while peak power arrives at 6000rpm. The 0-100km/h sprint is despatched in - gulp - 3.8 seconds.
As it's riding on the MLB platform, the mild hybrid system is a 48-volt set-up. A lithium-ion battery in the boot takes charge from the belt alternator/starter, which means the S8 can coast at higher speeds with the engine off and also cut out at 22km/h and under in traffic.
The system can also add up to 60Nm of torque in the right conditions for up to six seconds, and if it happened for me, I didn't notice it.
BMW 3 Series
On the flipside, BMW reckons over 1800km is possible, thanks to the official combined figure of only 2.2 litres per 100km. That’s outstanding range, especially considering the fuel tank is a teeny 40 litres.
Maybe it was the addictive allure of all that XtraBoost oomph, or perhaps it’s the porky 1740kg throwing its weight around, but we could not better 6.3L/100km during our week with the Bavarian wunderkind.
BMW recommends either premium unleaded (95 RON plus) or E10 ethanol, so no standard stuff, please.
Meanwhile, in EV mode, less than 40km is the real-world range, and that can drop dramatically with amenities running like the AC. The EU electricity consumption figure is 15.4kW/h/100km, which is reasonable for the 330e’s size and weight.
The 10.5L/100km official figure is, shall we say, optimistic. The launch drive was mostly highway so there's no real information to be gleaned from that, so we'll have to wait for real world fuel figures.
I'd say 12-13L/100km is achievable if you don't like having fun, in which case, the lesser A8 is probably for you.
Audi says the MHEV system saves 0.8L/100km with an early cut-out for the stop-start and the ability to coast on the highway for over half a minute at a time.
BMW 3 Series
The good news is that the 330e is designed for built-up and urban environments, since it benefits from a quiet electric motor to whoosh you along almost silently and always serenely for up to that 60km official range. Acceleration is instant, punchy and remains strong as speeds quickly rise, making the BMW ideal for darting in and out of traffic gaps.
In the real world, with the climate-control switched on and other drains on the car, that drops to under 40km, though that can often be more than enough for most commutes. If there’s access to a normal 10a socket, the BMW will be fully charged to get you back home in fewer than six hours.
Of course, the beauty of a PHEV is that the main form of motivation is a brilliantly muscular and responsive BMW 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, which really gives the 330e wings as a fast and fluent open-road grand tourer. It just laps the miles up.
Still, running on petrol, the Bavarian is as impressive around town, too, since there’s a hefty lump of low-down torque on tap for prompt throttle responses. The superb eight-speed torque-converter auto provides an almost supernatural ability to select the right ratio at the right time, and in a most harmonious manner too.
Perhaps this is a one-off blip in our test car, but a concerning powertrain jolt was discernible from somewhere in the transmission at step-off, as if the 330e is struggling to reconcile electric and petrol power seamlessly.
Every aspect of the BMW PHEV’s powertrain and chassis – engine, transmission, steering and suspension – can be altered from a cushy softness to a muscular firmness, according to the mood of the driver (or passengers).
Although never heavy, there is substance to the steering even at slower speeds, and the upshot is an engaging and involving experience. Switching to Sport intensifies everything, for an edgier, more athletic experience.
Great for keener folk seeking the 3 Series’ enthusiast’s machine reputation. That said, the turning circle is tight for easy manoeuvrability, while the auto parking feature helps getting the sedan into tighter spots, and generally works reliably.
Adaptive dampers do a great job in helping to smother out most of the bumps and ruts of suburbia’s roads, though larger speed humps can expose the limits of available suspension travel as well as ground clearance (147mm).
Out on the open road, the steering is a boon, working with the taut chassis for sharp handling and balanced roadholding. Displaying towering levels of roadholding, the 330e simply remains glued to the road, even at speed.
One small observation is that the 330e lacks a mechanical limited slip differential, so there isn’t quite the surgical handling crispness that elevates the latest 330i into the dynamic stratosphere.
That, plus the extra mass of the PHEV, do dull the steering’s sharpness and BMW’s overall agility slightly. Never stodgy, just not supernaturally athletic. That’s the price you pay for parsimony.
Finally, in the sportier settings, with the stability and traction controls’ hold loosened, the tail can be made to swing out, meaning the driver must remain alert and ready to reel it all back into place.
This isn’t as much a flaw as a playful aspect of the 330e’s very broad dynamic bandwidth. There’s something for everyone.
Driving any of the cars in this segment is a rare treat, whether it's the 'entry level' diesel or this top of the heap sports sedan. My day with the S8 was filled with the usual surprise and delight that only these tech-packed cars can deliver.
Heading out of the Sydney CBD in 'Comfort' mode, the car scans the road ahead and adjusts the active suspension accordingly. You already know it has active suspension because when you pull the door handle, the car lifts by 50mm to make it a bit easier to get in.
The suspension's party trick is flat-topped speed bumps - drive at one, brake a little and sense the way the body feels like it stays exactly where it is in the air but the suspension almost completely flattens the speed hump.
It's uncanny and almost unnatural, with just the tiniest change in altitude and no noise from the suspension.
It also manages the terrible narrow lanes of CBD thoroughfares with ease, the lane keep system letting you know if you're straying.
On to the motorway and you get a feel for its crushing performance. You won't hear much, though - the stereo's noise-cancelling system shuts out almost all tyre noise and consistent wind noise is largely banished, too.
I'm going to admit I gasped when I found some corners. Active suspension bodes well for the tricky stuff, as does the all-wheel steering. Both are exceptionally clever systems for making the car feel a lot smaller in town and in car parks but they're also really good if you want some fun.
But the way the rear-wheel steer adds agility to such a big car is hilarious and clever. While you can't quite chuck it around - and really, you're not buying an A8-sized car for that kind of nonsense - brisk progress is far from intimidating.
Now, obviously, a Ford Fiesta would drive away from the S8 in the really tight stuff but it would take some time to properly shake it. The colossal torque from the V8 hurls even this two-tonne-plus limo out of the corners in a most satisfactory manner.
It's surprisingly agile for a machine more than five metres long and two metres wide. If your passengers are corner enthusiasts, you'll all be having fun in near silence. It's oddly engaging to be moving at pace in such a hushed cabin.
BMW 3 Series
As part of the G20 3 Series line-up, the 330e achieved a five-star ANCAP crash-test rating in October, 2019.
There basically isn’t an active or passive safety item left unticked in this grade, meaning AEB (operational from 5km/h to 210km/h), stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, cornering brake control and brake-assist, active lane-change and lane-departure warnings and intervention, front and rear cross-traffic alert with braking and blind-spot monitoring.
Eight airbags are fitted – front and side airbags for driver and front passenger and head airbags for all outboard seat occupants.
There’s also adaptive cruise control with full stop/go functionality, as well as a low-speed EV-mode acoustic warning for pedestrians and cyclists to get out of the way. That’s set to about 20km/h.
The S8's considerable safety equipment list includes nine airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, forward AEB (up to 250km/h), reverse cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, various collision mitigation and protection systems, exit warning, lane keep assist, active cruise control and on, and on, and on.
The rear seat's centre airbag is terribly clever, popping up between passengers to stop you knocking heads. Another clever trick is the way the car detects a side impact is about to happen, boosting the height of the side about to cop it to try and get the sills to take more of the impact, rather than the door.
Given the relatively niche status of the A8, let alone the S8, there is no ANCAP crash test or safety rating. One imagines given the ton of safety gear a five star rating is all but assured. Even the US IIHS gave the A8 a miss.
BMW 3 Series
The 330e’s servicing is condition-based, depending on how it’s driven and other factors, with a dash warning appearing to let the driver/owner know when it’s time. In the UK, a two-year/30,000km interval is advised, if that helps.
No capped-price servicing regime is offered, but the 'BMW Service Inclusive Basic' packages cover scheduled servicing from three years/40,000km to five years/80,000km, and start from $1350.
Audi continues to fail to match Mercedes move to a five year warranty, sticking with three year/unlimited kilometre cover. BMW is still doing it too, so maybe Ingolstadt and Munich are playing chicken.
You can get a five-year service plan for the S8, coming out at $3990 for the duration.