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BMW ActiveHybrid 3 (Fabian Kirchbauer/BMW)
BMW ActiveHybrid 3 (Fabian Kirchbauer/BMW)

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BMW ActiveHybrid3: Eat my dust, Prius! Add to ...

You just could not do this in a Toyota Prius hybrid, not on its best day, going downhill, with the wind at your back. No, you could not do 255 km/h on those meagre stretches of the German autobahn that are still a wide-open free-for-all driving adventure. But I am doing 255, and in a hybrid.

This one is a BMW 3-Series hybrid sedan called the ActiveHybrid 3. I doubt I’m managing to stick within the manufacturer’s combined fuel consumption rating of 5.9 litres/100 km at this speed, though. With a more conservative driving attitude, I might. But not today.

Today I want to drive like a German gearhead in a part-time electric car – in a gasoline-electric hybrid. At least that’s what BMW is selling here at the press introduction of company’s fourth hybrid – the 3 slated to join the X6, 7-Series and 5-Series hybrids.

For the record, the ActiveHybrid 3 goes on sale in the fall for $58,300. That fits. The 5-Series ActiveHybrid 5 stickers for just less than $70,000 and the ActiveHybrid 7 lists for $132,300. The most affordable BMW hybrid, then, is within shouting distance of the larger and comparably powerful 2013 Lexus GS 450h hybrid (338 hp combined), which lists for $64,650 to start.

Honestly, at $58,000 and change, I don’t imagine more than a handful of Bimmer loyalists and green-hued early adopters will want the ActiveHybrid 3 in their garage. It’s not that the car’s performance is lacking or that the performance is embarrassing. On the contrary. BMW says the 0-100 km/h time is a zippy 5.5 seconds and that seemed about right to me. The combined 335 horsepower of the parallel hybrid system – the turbocharged six-cylinder gas engine alone is worth 300 hp – is more than double what you get in a Prius (134 hp combined) and it’s one of the reasons project leader Herbert Negele feels justified to call the ActiveHybrid 3 “the BMW of hybrids.”

I have spent ages driving Toyota’s Prius and I think that if I tried to flog one down the autobahn at anything approaching autobahn speeds, well, the fenders would fly off and the old-fashioned nickel metal hydride battery pack would either melt or explode. And the Prius can’t roll along on battery power for up to 4 km at speeds of up to 75 km/h and the Prius can’t “sail” or coast up to 160 km/h, either. The BMW 3 hybrid can and these are all talking points.

On the other hand, a Prius hatchback lists for $25,995 and has more front- and rear-seat headroom and front-seat legroom than the ActiveHybrid 3. And the Prius is rated at a miserly 3.7 litres/100 km in the city. In short, hybrids led by the Prius are “green” transportation appliances, while the ActiveHybrid 3 is aiming for status as a high-tech, high-performance sedan, right down to the modern lithium ion battery pack located safely between the rear wheels and below the trunk’s flat cargo hold with its 40/20/40-folding rear seatback.

Of course, the Bimmer comes with the requisite electronic gizmos like EcoPro mode, which is what you might call the “green” setting. When activated, the computer brain favours all-electric driving whenever possible, and even with the engine running, the programming aims for less aggressive powertrain actions. It will even turn off the engine and charge the battery on a downhill run.

What’s more, you can bring the navigation system into play to save fuel and energy once you’ve input a destination. The powertrain will adapt performance somewhat to the topography and local speed limits. If there’s a long downhill stretch, for instance, this 3 will expend the battery charge, knowing a recharge is just up ahead on the downhill. That’s fancy stuff.

And did I mention that the electric motor/generator is located where a torque converter might be in an automatic car – between the engine and transmission. It is bolted to a slick eight-speed autobox that shifts as cleanly and seamlessly as anything you might imagine.

Seamless was the plan of the guy in charge here, Herbert Negele. But at least the team had a basic template from which to work. The turbocharged six-cylinder is the same engine in the current ActiveHybrid 5. The 55-hp electric motor is also shared and it not only delivers the pure EV experience, BMW uses it as a kind of “supercharger” to boost acceleration, as well. The shared eight-speed automatic is a close-ratio gearbox at the low end, while the top gearing is for low-engine-speed driving that saves fuel. Negele says the lithium-ion battery was developed specifically for the BMW ActiveHybrid 3, however.

The battery is one busy bee, too. It powers both the electric motor and the air conditioning compressor, which means you get AC even when the engine is firing away – when the 3 is stopped, running on electric power or coasting. Given this hybrid, like all the rest, has a stop-start function, that’s good. If you want to know what’s what, a control display shows the hybrid’s energy flow.

The car itself, though, is your basic 3-Series, modified of course. That means you can dial in various electronically controlled chassis and performance choices, from Sport+ to Sport and Comfort. These vary engine and power steering responses to match your level of aggression, or lack thereof.

Smart and entertaining as it is, you’ll be hard-pressed to pick the ActiveHybrid out of a crowd. Aside from “ActiveHybrid 3” lettering on the trunk lid and special matte chrome exhaust pipes, there is nothing much to distinguish this hybrid from any run-of-the-mill 3. Ah, but inside you’ll find “ActiveHybrid 3” lettering on the front door sills and on the gear lever knob in the centre console.

What we can say is that for nearly 60 Gs, BMW Canada has loaded up its newest hybrid with a fantastically long list of features. The standard gear far exceeds anything you might get in even the most loaded Prius. And the Bimmer will do 250 on the autobahn, too, for just slightly more than twice the price.

jcato@globeandmail.com

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