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First Drive: 2013 BMW ActiveHybrid 3

The first rule in selling hybrids is to engineer them to achieve outrageous fuel economy. Look at the EPA-champ Toyota Prius, now clogging passing lanes all over America. In contrast, look at the entire crop of performance-oriented hybrids like the Honda Accord Hybrid, the Lexus LS600hL and GS450h, and most recently, the Infiniti M35h. All of those cars promised increased levels performance without the fuel economy hit. What they actually delivered was increased sticker prices and decreased sales.

BMW has had a few of those duds in the marketplace, too. The first big Bavarian hybrid misfire was thinking that the customers of that rolling celebration of conspicuous consumption, the X6, would want to save fuel. In fact, the only thing the X6 ActiveHybrid did was to give dealers nightmares about how to get the big, sale-proof SUVs off their lots.

BMW's second hybrid was based on the 750i, which meant it, like the X6, used a burly twin-turbocharged V-8 engine. With a mild hybrid system helping it out, the ActiveHybrid 7 couldn't match the fuel economy of the dramatically less expensive, six-cylinder 740i -- and could barely beat that car off the line. Needless to say, it also didn't win the forty-yard dash out the showroom door.

Earlier this year, BMW announced a trio of new ActiveHybrid models, based on the 3-, 5-, and 7-series. Using an electric motor in place of the torque converter in ZF's magnificent eight-speed automatic transmission, the new ActiveHybrid models now use the N55 single-turbo 3.0-liter straight six. That's a far more suitable powertrain for the 7 -- though it might still be overkill there. But if it's potentially overkill in a 7, it's head-scratching in the 5 and just plain silly in the 3.

We drove the ActiveHybrid 5 a few months back and reported that it worked well, but indeed wished that it instead used the new turbo four-cylinder. We've now had the opportunity to drive the ActiveHybrid 3, and we're wishing the same thing, only harder. Like the 5, the ActiveHybrid 3 works extraordinarily well. The powerful (55-hp) electric motor can propel the car up to 47 mph, and the internal combustion engine starts and stops almost imperceptibly. To that end, it uses a belt-driven motor mounted up front that allows the engine to be started and stopped independently of the propulsion motor, helping to ensure that there are no nudges or surges sent through the driveline as the engine fires up or shuts down.

Since the propulsion motor is on the input side of the transmission, it experiences gearchanges just like the gas engine would -- and an occasional jolt can be felt, especially when the transmission downshifts as you're slowing for a red light. And it's only in the final few feet, as the braking system orchestrates the final handoff from regenerative to friction braking, that you notice that the brake pedal is controlling both braking systems.

In aggressive driving, 335i drivers might notice the hybrid's additional mass in the rear -- the ActiveHybrid 3's lithium-ion battery resides behind the rear axle, and the weight makes itself known in the form of a vintage Porsche 911-like pendulum effect if you turn in very quickly. The hybrid 3 snaps into oversteer far more quickly than any other 3-series. The robust rear end also heaves over big bumps.

The hybrid system's additional grunt (total system power is 335 hp compared to the 335i's 300; it twists out 332 lb-ft of torque instead of 300) isn't readily apparent, as it's saddled with an extra 270 lb of mass. Indeed BMW quotes a 0-62 mph time of 5.3 seconds, a rather imperceptible 0.2 seconds quicker than the standard 335i.

The hybrid system's reduction in fuel consumption is, sadly, also rather imperceptible. BMW expects it to receive an EPA label with 25/33 mpg printed on it, corresponding to a 2-mpg bonus in the city versus a conventional 335i automatic, but not one single mpg improvement on the highway. Worse, the four-cylinder 328i is nearly as quick, and it uses less fuel (although the EPA revised the 328's fuel economy number down to the same 23/33 mpg that the 335i received -- a fluke that we hope will be corrected for the 2013 model year.)

More importantly, the ActiveHybrid 3 will cost $50,195 when it goes on sale this fall, $6900 more than the 335i and an eye-watering $14,400 more than the 328i. The hybrid does include some equipment that's optional on other 3-series, but even if the price of gasoline skyrockets to $20 per gallon, the ActiveHybrid 3 will never pay for itself in fuel savings. It might have one of the best-integrated hybrid systems in the world, but with no significant performance advantage and a negligible fuel economy improvement, there's simply no compelling reason to buy it.

BMW has just announced that a 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel is coming to the U.S. in the next twelve months. If that engine appears in the 3-series, we can look forward fuel economy ratings more than twenty percent better than the 328i -- we expect over 30 mpg city and over 40 on the highway. Now that would make for a compelling package.

If BMW wants to be serious about a 3-series hybrid, it needs to plug in the smallest engine it can find -- not the biggest one -- and give us a fuel-economy champ. Because in this segment, history has shown that it doesn't matter how well the system works, if it doesn't post astronomical EPA numbers, it's doomed for failure in the marketplace.

Of course, that's a shame since the ActiveHybrid 3 drives so well. We think there's an easy solution: BMW should make no mention of the hybrid system at all, selling this instead as the top-of-the-line 3-series -- after all, the margin may be slim but this is in fact the most expensive, quickest, and most economical 3 you can buy. A 340e badge would convey all of that nicely. And it might help what is ultimately a very pleasant car set itself apart from all of its failed predecessors.