BMW 3 Series VS Alpina B5
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
- Cleaning the wheels
- Room and storage space could be better
- Not the most engaging car to drive
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|
The BMW Alpina B5 Bi-Turbo is not actually a BMW. Not according to the German Federal Motor Transport Authority, at least.
Nope, the modifications applied by tuning house Alpina to the 5 Series are deemed so significant that if you open the bonnet and look inside the engine bay, you'll see that the BMW VIN has been struck through twice and an Alpina vehicle number stamped underneath it.
The B5 is not the first model to be recognised in this way, either; the German government has recognised Alpina as a seperate car manufacturer since 1983.
The B5 has other ‘B' siblings, too. There's the B3 S Bi-Turbo, which is based on the BMW 3 Series, the B4 S Bi-Turbo (the BMW 4 Series) and the B7 Bi-Turbo (I don't need to tell you what this is based on, right?) which I've reviewed, too.
So just what has Alpina done to this unsuspecting BMW 5 Series? Is it really worth the extra money? How does the B5 compare to an M5? Could it actually be superior? And did they really take the speed limiter off to let it warp-speed to beyond 300km/h?
|Engine Type||4.4L 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 Alpina B5 is a special car – more special than most people will ever give you credit for if you own one. Those that do know what an Alpina is will let you know; people will cross dangerously busy streets to talk to you about your car. Insanely fast, almost incomprehensibly comfortable and effortlessly powerful to drive.
Does the Alpina B5 make a BMW even better? Or do you think the M5? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
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.
Interesting is the right word for it, because while it might be questionable that Alpina's changes to the exterior are aesthetic pleasing, they are definitely intriguing to those who aren't familiar with the brand.
First, there are those 20-spoke wheels. Alpinas have worn this style of wheel forever and they've become the most famous outward sign that this is not just another BMW. So don't under any circumstances take them off and replace them with anything else. You'd be run out of town by the Alpina mafia.
Yes, they're more painful to clean than a cheese grater (trust me, I know. And if you look closely at these images you can see the dirty bits I've missed), but if you really don't like them then perhaps it's a sign this car isn't for you.
Then there's the boot-lid spoiler. It's square and 1980s'-looking, it also appears a bit like it's been bought online and installed by a teenager, but again, this is another Alpina tradition and it suits the car's character perfectly.
All right, those pinstripes; they're known as the Deco-Set and are a hat-tip to the Alpina racecars of the 1970s and '80s. Again, don't take these off, your Alpina will drop through the centre of the Earth in value. These are also part-and-parcel of owning one of these cars. I'm not a massive fan of them.
But I'm all about that front spoiler, with the floating Alpina lettering that you can option in silver, high-gloss black or gold.
Inside, there are fewer Alpina additions, but they're nonetheless unmissable. There's the Alpina-badged steering wheel, and a new virtual instrument cluster, embossed headrests and illuminated door sills.
There's also the little numbered plaque on the centre console which proves its authenticity, ours was number 49. Out of how many? I don't know. But I do know Alpina produces only about 1700 cars globally a year. Rolls Royce does about 4000. So, you can rest assured your B5 is exclusive.
At almost 5m long, 1.9m wide and 1.5m tall, the B5 is a large saloon, but having recently reviewed the Alpina B7 it feels small in comparison. How does it drive? We're getting there.
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.
Practicality is not really a BMW strong point no matter which model you pick. See, BMW mostly makes the car equivalent of uber-stylish and skin-tight active wear which looks good and performs brilliantly, but sometimes you just want pockets and a bit of room for your… um… bits and pieces.
So while there are two cup holders up front and two in the back, the bottle holders in the doors aren't huge, the centre console bin is on the small side, there's a hidy-hole in front of the shifter, the glove box is just a box for little more than gloves and there's no other great cabin storage options.
Legroom in the rear is good but not great, too - I'm 191cm tall and have about 30mm between my knees and the seat back in my driving position. Middle-seat passengers will also have to straddle the drive shaft hump in the floor. Headroom is restricted in the back, too (you could blame the sunroof) with my hair just skimming the headlining (I do have big hair).
Under that power tailgate, the B5's boot capacity is 530 litres which is 15L more than its big sister, the B7. There are two plastic storage areas either side of the luggage space for wet things. While there is one USB outlet in the front there aren't any in the rear.
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!
The BMW Alpina B5 lists for $210,000, making it only $10K more the BMW M5 which comes with almost identical features apart from the Alpina engineering to the engine and chassis.
Arriving standard is leather upholstery, four-zone climate control, nav, the Alpina embossed-headrests, a 10.25-inch display, digital radio, Alpina door sills, sunroof, proximity key, power front seats, 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo, head-up display, Alpina virtual instrument cluster, heated front and rear seats, and the 20-inch Alpina wheels.
The test car I drove had been optioned with a limited-slip differential ($5923), steering-wheel heating ($449); soft-close function for doors ($1150); sunblinds ($1059); TV function ($2065) ambient air package ($575), and front-seat ventilation ($1454).
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.
The Alpina B5 uses the same 4.4-litre V8 engine found in the BMW M5 (and also the B7). But, and it's a big but, the M5 makes 441kW and 750Nm, while the B5 outdoes it with 447kW and 800Nm. Admittedly, the B5's torque arrives at the 3000rpm mark, while the M5's is all there from 1800rpm.
How does the B5 beat it? Alpina installed its specially developed twin turbochargers and intercoolers, a high-performance cooling system, a reconfigured air intake set up and a different exhaust system.
The B5, though, is a tenth of a second slower to 100km/h compared to the M5 with a time of 3.5 seconds, but it will blast on to a top speed of 330km/h while the M5 is limited to 250km/h in regular form and 305km/h with the optional M Driver's package.
Both uses the same ZF eight-speed automatic transmission with identical gear ratios, and both are all-wheel drive.
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 Alpina B5 needs petrol. By that, I mean it needs quite a lot of it if you want to enjoy it properly. What type of mileage does it get? Officially, it should use 11.1L/100km after a combination of urban and open roads, where as the M5 is set to 10.5L/100km.
That makes sense, the B5 produces more power and torque, and it's 85kg heavier than the M5 at 2015kg.
Our test car's trip computer was reporting 13.2L/100km after flying low over country roads and slow city piloting. The more time spent in the urban warfare that is the daily peak hour commute, the more that figure crept and hovered around the 15L/100km mark.
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.
Ok, stay with me here. For this next bit you'll need a fresh egg, a lounge chair, and it might be a good idea to have some plastic bags and carpet cleaner on hand.
First, in front of the lounge chair flatten out the plastic bag and place the egg on it. Next, sit down on the chair and very carefully rest the ball of your foot on the egg with as little pressure as humanly possible.
This is exactly how little force you need to apply to the go-pedal of the B5 to accelerate from a standstill to 60km/h in about five seconds.
If anything sums up the driving experience of the B5, it's that sense of effortlessness.
Stomp on that accelerator, and you'll be shot to 100km/h in 3.5 seconds, without a hint of broken traction thanks to the all-wheel-drive system.
The ride should have been terrible on 20-inch wheels shod in low-profile rubber (Pirelli P Zero 255/35 front, and 295/30 rear), but the Alpina-tuned air suspension is close to miraculous in the way it cushioned and censored the potholes out of Sydney's worst roads. Yes, it can be a touch floaty, particularly in the Comfort Plus setting, but this is benchmark-setting stuff for a comfortable ride.
Don't expect this beast to roar. Unlike the M5, the B5 gets its work done without deafening everybody around it. Sure, the B5's V8 sounds amazing when you push it, but it's not brash, not loud and not lairy. Buy an M5 or Mercedes-AMG E63s if you want to be heard half a block before you get home, but you won't get that with the B5 and its exhaust system.
The B5 also handles well, but I have to say the engagement factor is low. I piloted it effortlessly through the twists and turns of my country test circuit and roads which normally have me grinning like a maniac behind the wheel had me feeling a bit disconnected in the B5. That air suspension, the numb steering and pedal actions make it difficult to ‘feel' the road.
It's highways where the B5 is a king, but even at 110km/h there's the sense that this car is still fast asleep and won't get out of bed for anything less than 150km/h - making it perfect for Germany's autobahns, but maybe not for here in Australia.
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 Alpina B5 is based on the BMW 5 Series which had a five-star ANCAP rating awarded to it in 2017.
Along with the comprehensive suite of airbags, traction and stability control, there's an impressive array of advanced safety equipment. Coming standard is AEB (front and rear), evasive steering, front and rear cross-traffic warning, blind-spot alert and lane-keep assist. The Alpina B5 also comes with BMW's emergency call function.
For child seats you'll find two ISOFIX mounts and three top tether points across the rear row.
If you're unfortunate enough to get a flat tyre, there's a puncture repair kit in the boot which works provided the hole isn't giant, as I've experience in the past with these systems.
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.