Let’s not kid ourselves, we like performance cars because it is one-part thrill ride and another part rocking up with the longer frankfurter in a sausage measuring contest. Racing from the lights on a quarter mile to prove that your hire-purchase commitments for the next half decade wasn’t a complete waste, is all part of the irrational affair we have with fast cars. Think of it as high-noon duel or knightly joust for the 21st century motorised man, because nobody said “All this horsepower is going to make parallel parking so much easier” ever.
On the other hand, once you do get the keys to something that could trouble the fuzz in second gear, every half-wit with a souped up budget car and an ego three times the horsepower at their disposal will want to validate the size of their bratwurst by racing you whether you are in the mood or not.
This is why Q-cars, or Sleepers are they are known elsewhere, have become such a fascinating subject amongst enthusiasts. Imagine having all that performance potential stuffed beneath the frock of an unassuming car that your office accountant would commute with. Able to stealthy cruise by any car meet without reverse cap wearing yobs heckling you for a showdown, while being able to turn up the wick for your own personal indulgence. Its for the sophisticated gentleman who says “big wings add big horsepower” ironically rather than literally. The sort of chariot that accurately describes Theodore Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” quote figuratively.
While Jaguar were some of the first to toy with the idea of having unassuming sedans beat the stuffing out of proper sports cars with the 3.4-litre Mk1 of the late-1950s, nobody does the Q-car game as good as the Germans, which is a little ironic considering that it is a commonly held belief that the ‘Q-car’ term came from cleverly disguised British Q-ships that were used to lure German U-boats and blow them out of the water.
The Germans were particularly good as they sold their performance oriented models such as the first-generation Audi RS6, BMW’s first three generations of the M5, and AMG’s fettled 300SEL 6.3, disguised as normal mainstream models. Cars with the capability to outrun and outgun contemporary sports cars, and even the odd supercar, of its day, with no visible paraphernalia except for the little nods to clue in the studious and knowledgeable into what lies beneath.
Sadly the discrete speed machine is a dying breed these days, not least because it seems that the Germans are pretty content in channelling the spirit of Uwe Gemballa on their Autobahn- and Alpine- conquering performance sedans.
Today’s Audi RS4 and RS6 are bloated muscle cars that were drip-fed on steroids, while the new M3 and M5 comes with more ‘M’ badges stamped on them than cylinders, whereas AMG’s garish First Edition nonsense has all the subtlety of a Rammstein concert in an industrial fire. Even Jaguar thought it necessary to strap the XKR-S with a huge spoiler, because horsepower. Hardly the sort of cars that had earned the admiration of enthusiasts everywhere in the first place.
All things considered, it seems that the Q-car genre is no longer found on the top rung of performance sedans, but on a rung below the pinnacle of the model range. The range-topper model before the entering the performance-addled variants. Which brings me to the next quickest 3-Series before the M3, the ActiveHybrid3.
When the ActiveHybrid3 first came on the scene in 2012, not many thought highly of it. It was afterall, a continuation of BMW’s lacklustre ActiveHybrid series of hybridised models, which started with the X6, followed on by the 7-Series, and later the 5-Series. This was several years before the Holy Hybrid Trinity of Ferrari, McLaren, and Porsche stepped out from under its covers to readjust everyone’s view on hybrid drivetrain. Around the same time, people were questioning all the three brands of the performance differences of not having hybrid tech burden their flagship specials, and questioning their collective wisdom.
Like the order of the cosmos and treating headaches with hilarious doses of heroin, time eventually proved us wrong, and our perception of hybrid drivetrains would eventually change. But the ActiveHybrid3 had an unfortunate existence in a timeframe where few believed that there were any performance merits to be had in a hybrid drivetrain.
People’s perspective of hybrids in good old 2012 were still stuck with the pious Prius, which were appreciated by Californian hipsters and lampooned by Top Gear in equal measure. But the ActiveHybrid3 was a little different. Let me explain.
Considering that a hybrid needs to be, well fuel-efficient and clean to earn the green-credentials needed to attract the average hybrid buyer, or be eligible for low-emission tax breaks, engineers would usually pair a hybrid system to a relatively downsized frugal engine.
This was the case for the ActiveHybrid5, which downsized the X6 and 7-Series ActiveHybrids’ V8 engine that had a mild hybrid system with a small electric motor assistance, in favour for a turbocharged inline-six with a full hybrid system and all-electric propulsion. However BMW engineers maintained that the use of a 306/400Nm 3-litre turbocharged inline-six mill from the 535i was necessary to “achieve the desired balance of driving performance and fuel efficiency”.
While that pairing made sense for the ActiveHybrid5, it doesn’t quite explain why BMW shoehorned the same powertrain into the smaller and lighter 3-Series, but not that I’m complaining.
Not only is the 40kW electric motor able to give you 4km worth of all-electric drive at an average cruising speed of 35km/h, it also dispenses 210Nm of torque from the get-go, filling up the brief pause of turbocharger lag found in its non-hybrid sibling, the 335i. The 335i is by no means a slouch. It is still able to set your hair on fire when you hustle it, but the ActiveHybrid3 adds some electricity to the mix, if you pardon the pun.
Its 0 to 100km/h sprint time of 5.3 seconds is only a hair’s breath of 0.2 seconds quicker than the 335i, but the way it bolts off the line makes it feel a whole lot faster and immediate than the figures would suggest. In many ways, the electric motor makes the ActiveHybrid3 more responsive and quicker on its feet than the 135kg-lighter 335i. And considering that BMW’s M Division didn’t thoroughly re-engineer the M3 as they did with the M5 - with its hydraulic steering rack and non-run flat tyres, the ActiveHybrid3 is possibly an M3-lite that was several years ahead of its time. Because by the way technology is progressing and perceptions are changing, it is inevitable that hybrid-power will be adopted by the M3, and this would be a precursor to that moment in the near future.
The ActiveHybrid3 has no right to call itself a hybrid of 2012. It was a hybrid of 2015, the hybrid of the Holy Hybrid Trinity era, when the biggest performance brands showed that hybrids could be made to improve performance. But by then the ActiveHybrid3 was winding down, as BMW was changing their focus towards the iPerformance range of plug-in hybrids with bigger battery packs and smaller engines. Perhaps BMW’s engineers knew that there wasn’t much of a point developing a smaller engine package for the ActiveHybrid3, after all the 330e plug-in hybrid was just around the corner with the F30’s facelift.
The strange confluence of circumstances that dictated the ActiveHybrid3 meant that it was a little over-endowed for its kind. A little bit pointless, and thus unappreciated by its target audience and under-appreciated by enthusiasts. Few bought it, few would be able to recognise it subtle badging and unique rims, and fewer still knew what it was really capable of. What's more, if you don't feel like having to explain what you drive at a cocktail party, you can just describe your car as a hybrid and drive off in utter all-electric silence, with nobody judging you as a massive car bore or a show-off. In every sense the ActiveHybrid3 was a Q-car even unto the Q-car genre itself, which is why I love it and will mourn its passing.