The BMW ActiveHybrid3 is almost as fast as a BMW M3, but with less than half of the M3’s emissions, and more than double its fuel economy – find out more about why we think this is one of the best hybrids you can buy.
If you’re looking for a car that combines an excellent driving experience with impressive efficiency then the current BMW 3 Series is quite simply one of the best cars that you can buy. You can choose between petrol or diesel models, or now you can have a petrol-electric hybrid. Most buyers in the UK will go for a diesel 3 Series and even BMW acknowledges that the ActiveHybrid3 will be a niche product, but does it deserve more recognition?
The 3 Series architecture of front engine, rear-wheel drive is the basic blueprint for a driver’s car. The 3 Series also adds near-perfect weight distribution and an agile chassis, all in a compact size body.
There’s also one other key attribute that the latest 3 Series has – an interior that feels genuinely designed around the driver, with a great driving position, and all controls perfectly weighted and where you want them. BMW’s Head-Up Display is also excellent – for displaying speed, but especially for showing satnav directions in a really clear way.
On top of this base, the ActiveHybrid3 adds a straight-six, 3-litre petrol engine with twin turbos mated to an electric motor powered by a lithium ion battery. There’s no encroachment by the hybrid system into the boot space, so the luggage capacity remains the same as a standard 3 Series.
The ActiveHybrid3 is quite simply an excellent car to drive. It offers almost M3-levels of performance and handling, but it wears a hybrid badge. No other hybrid in the world offers this sort of driving experience. It’s the perfect car for people who want high performance, but who want to be seen as more environmentally responsible than an M3 owner.
The six-cylinder, 3-litre powertrain is beautifully smooth, refined and rapid, and it makes a great noise (although the car is quiet at motorway speeds). The eight-speed automatic transmission is also excellent, making quick and imperceptible gear changes, and it’s virtually always in the right gear at the right time. The only one thing that this car lacked was steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters; with those, the ActiveHybrid3 would be even more complete. You can shift manually by pushing/pulling the gearlever, but the BMW system for up/down changes isn’t the most intuitive arrangement.
The chassis is agile and controllable, and of course the rear wheels provide the power while the front wheels do the steering, resulting in every corner being an enjoyable experience. With all that power it’s easy to influence the car’s line through corners by use of the throttle.
You’ve also got four driving modes: ECO PRO, which tunes the car for maximum economy; Comfort, which is the standard setting; Sport, which provides sharper responses; and Sport+, which allows a greater degree of slip from the rear wheels.
The ActiveHybrid3 has excellent handling but also has a very comfortable ride – all of the latest 3 Series models achieve this, but the adaptive M Sport suspension in this car (a £750 option) certainly helps.
The official combined fuel economy of the ActiveHybrid3 is 47.9mpg, with emissions of 139 g/km CO2. Yes, that’s 139 g/km CO2 for a car that produces 340hp, 450Nm torque, accelerates from 0-62mph in 5.3 seconds, and goes on to 155mph. That’s a fairly amazing set of figures. Of course, in real-life you can either have great performance or good economy – you can’t have both (although we bet that BMW’s engineers are working on a solution to that problem as we speak).
Driving the ActiveHybrid3 carefully, we achieved 44mpg. Driving it progressively, we returned 27mpg. During our week with the car – and almost 1000 miles – we achieved an average fuel economy figure of 37.2mpg. This is well short of the mid-50’s-mpg that we would achieve in a 320d, but mightily impressive for a car that drives so well as the ActiveHybrid3.
The ActiveHybrid3 has a cruising mode that switches off and disconnects the petrol engine from the driveshaft up to 100mph, and being a full hybrid, according to BMW, it can run on electric power alone for up to 2.5 miles at speeds of up to 46 mph. During our week with the car we never managed more than a few hundred yards on electric power. When the car does switch between petrol and electric power, it’s fairly seamless.
One advantage of the ActiveHybrid3 is that you get a 340hp car that pays only £120 in Vehicle Excise Duty (road tax).
Based on CO2 emissions , this car makes sense from a company car point of view; there is no other car that will give you this level of driving involvement along with emissions of 139g/km CO2 (the ActiveHybrid3 has an 18% Benefit in Kind rate). However you have to factor in the purchase price
An interesting comparison is between the ActiveHybrid3 and the BMW M3. The M3 has a 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds, a top speed of 155mph, produces 414hp, costs £57,590, has a combined economy figure of 22.8mpg, emissions of 290g/km CO2, £475 per year road tax, and a 35% Benefit in Kind rate.
The ActiveHybrid3 has a 0-62mph time of 5.3 seconds, a top speed of 155mph, produces 340hp, costs £43,225, has a combined economy figure of 47.9mpg (more than double the M3), emissions of 139g/km CO2 (less than half that of the M3), £120 per year road tax, and an 18% Benefit in Kind rate.
Based on these figures, the ActiveHybrid3 suddenly makes sense
The ActiveHybrid3 costs £43,225. However our test car had options including the following: BMW Professional Multimedia package (£1,875); Visibility package (£925); Front electric seat adjustment with driver memory (£910); glass sunroof (£870); head-up display (£800); and adaptive M Sport suspension (£750). All the options came to £9759, taking the total price of our test car to £52,975.
The ActiveHybrid3 is also available in M Sport spec; this is £3000 more than the SE that was tested.
There’s also the ActiveHybrid5, which is also a great car, but one that’s designed more for motorways than agility.
The BMW 3 Series, with its responsive rear-wheel drive chassis and driver-focused cabin, is quite simply one of the best cars that you can buy – even in 320d form. So if you replace the 2-litre diesel engine with a 6-cylinder, 3-litre petrol unit that develops 306hp, then the driving experience is only going to get better.
The trouble is, the economy is going to suffer, so that’s why BMW has added a battery and electric motor to improve the fuel economy to 47.9mpg – and also increase the power output to 340hp at the same time. So you’ve got the best of both worlds; near-M3-like levels of performance, with near-50mpg economy – all in a compact, agile, 3 Series.
Only two main issues count against it. Firstly, the laws of physics – you can’t enjoy 340hp of performance and enjoy 47.9mpg at the same time – so real-life economy is likely to fall well short of the NEDC figure. Secondly, the laws of accountancy – you can’t have the toys of rear-wheel drive, a 3-litre engine, a hybrid system, and all the other trappings of comfort and technology for the price of a Ford Focus.
Ignoring real-life fuel economy and its price, we’d have no hesitation in awarding the BMW ActiveHybrid3 a 10 out of 10. However taking these factors into account, it gets a Green-Car-Guide rating of 9 out of 10.