BMW plug-in hybrids test: 330e vs 530e

BMW makes two of the best plug-in hybrids you can buy, in the shape of the 330e executive saloon and the plusher but more expensive 530e. So, which should you choose?...

BMW 330e vs BMW 530e

The contenders

BMW 3 Series 330e M Sport

  • List price - £41,450
  • Target Price - £36,419

Our reigning executive car and plug-in hybrid champ, with a good electric-only range, plenty of power and potentially low running costs.

BMW 5 Series 530e M Sport

  • List price - £50,120
  • Target Price - £42,155

Plug-in hybrid version of our Luxury Car of the Year is available with big discounts that make it look tempting, even next to the 330e.

If you've been sitting on the fence about buying a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), now is a great time to make the jump into the welcoming arms of electrification. Fuel prices may be down, but electricity is cheaper still, and the tax benefits can be staggering for company car drivers.

Besides, gone are the days when PHEVs were heavily compromised compared with their conventional counterparts, in the pursuit of low CO2 emissions. These days, they are often the pick of the range.

BMW 330e vs BMW 530e side studio boots open

Take, for example, our Plug-in Hybrid of the Year, the BMW 3 Series 330e. It combines an impressive official electric-only range of 37 miles with swift acceleration and real driver appeal, something that isn’t true of all PHEVs. So, that’s what you should buy, right? Well, let us throw a spanner in the works by introducing the larger BMW 5 Series 530e.

Looking at their list prices, you might think there’s a gulf between them, but the gap shrinks considerably after discounts. The difference in monthly PCP finance costs isn’t nearly as big as you might think, either. Game on.


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Although both of our contenders have 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engines that can produce 181bhp and electric motors with 111bhp, the 330e’s maximum combined output of 288bhp trumps the 530e’s 248bhp. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the 330e takes half a second less to accelerate from 30-70mph – a handy advantage should you find yourself on a short motorway slip road. But neither car will leave you feeling short-changed by the acceleration on offer. Nor can we fault the responsiveness of their eight-speed automatic gearboxes.

BMW 330e front cornering

Each car has a 12kWh battery under its boot floor. In the 330e, we managed a decent 26.5 miles on electric power only before the petrol engine kicked in during our tests. Unfortunately, we haven’t done the same test on the latest 530e (the battery has just been upgraded, giving an official electric-only range of 33 miles), but 23 miles in real-world use should be possible. That difference shouldn’t be a surprise, because the larger, heavier 530e requires more energy to motivate it.

Both the 330e and 530e impress when you get to a sinewy stretch of road, having precise steering that gains weight naturally as you start to turn the wheel, building your confidence in their abilities. Both grip strongly and are well balanced in corners in standard rear-wheel-drive form, as tested. Four-wheel drive is optional on both cars, but their ranges and CO2 emissions are worse if you tick that box.

While there’s no doubt that the 530e feels pretty agile for a car of its size, the 330e is keener to dart into bends and will ultimately put a bigger smile on your face. Yes, the lighter petrol and diesel versions of both cars are even more rewarding to drive, but the differences are acceptably slim.

BMW 530e front cornering

Despite both cars being tested in M Sport trim, ‘e’ versions of the 3 and 5 Series aren’t fitted with the stiffer suspension that non-hybrid M Sport models come with. Still, you’re left in no doubt that these are sporty saloons, with bumps being rounded off acceptably rather than smothered brilliantly. The 530e is more comfortable, though, and it gets even better if you add Variable Damper Control adaptive suspension (£985); this allows you to stiffen it up for your favourite bit of twisty road or soften it for a cushier ride. You can get a similar system in the 330e, but only as part of a £2200 M Sport Plus Package, and the ride still isn’t as plush as in an equivalent 530e.

It’s the BMW 5 Series 530e that comes out on top for refinement, too, proving quieter when cruising on the motorway. The BMW 3 Series 330e isn’t bad for wind noise, but there’s far more tyre roar, especially if you go for optional 19in wheels. Both have similarly hushed electric motors and petrol engines that hand power back and forth between each other almost imperceptibly.

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