Before BMW brought us the Active Hybrid5, there was no really driver-orientated hybrid saloon available in the full-sized Executive sector. But there is now. Jonathan Crouch drives it.
Ten Second Review
BMW has taken the plunge into the hybrid sector with this, the ActiveHybrid5, a petrol/electric 5 Series saloon that at first glance, looks a very tempting executive segment choice. Using the turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six from the 535i, it adds an electric motor to up the power to 325PS and offers driving dynamics of a kind no other brand has yet managed with a hybrid. Sounds great on paper then, but hefty pricing and strong internal competition from BMW's excellent diesel 5 Series models mean that the ActiveHybrid5 will be restricted to the tiniest of niches.
At present, you probably don't associate BMW with hybrid power. But in the future, the Bavarian brand is determined that you should. A commitment that for UK buyers started here - with this car, the BMW ActiveHybrid5. This isn't BMW's first petrol/electric model. A few years ago, US and European customers got less sophisticated Active Hybrid7 and X6 Active Hybrid models respectively based on the 7 Series saloon and the X6 sporting SUV. The Bavarian brand didn't think there was a UK market for those, but with Mercedes and Audi entering the executive saloon market with hybrids of their own, the plunge needed to be taken. And if it was going to be, BMW wanted their offering to be state-of-the-art. Hitching their inline petrol six cylinder engine and their segment-leading 8-speed auto gearbox to hybrid technology for the first time in the way that they have in this ActiveHybrid5 model seemed like a good place to start from.
For the most part, this 5 Series feels anything but the typical hybrid. Fire it up as you would something more conventional then prod the throttle and it'll just feel reassuringly.... normal. But with an absolute bucketload of pulling power. In other words, if you didn't know it was a hybrid, you might not even guess. Well, not unless you had the hybrid system indicator showing on the dash anyway. Keep an eye on this and you'll be able to put BMW's claim to the test that this car should be able to run in electric-only mode for up to 2.4 miles and to a top speed of 37mph. The associated petrol powerplant is much the same turbocharged 3.0-litre engine that's found in the 535i. This straight-six is good for 301PS and packs 400Nm of torque, so it's hardly found wanting in the power stakes. Even without any electrical help, this is an engine that will send a 5 Series to 60mph in 5.9 seconds and run it to an electronically-limited 155mph maximum. So it might seem a little odd that those are the exact same figures you'll get from this ActiveHybrid5, despite it packing 335PS and 450Nm of torque when the petrol and electric motors are combined. Part of that is explained by the fact that the hybrid gubbins add another 150kg to the weight of the car, resulting in a 1.85 tonne kerb weight. Never mind. This is still a very, very fast four-door. Couple that with excellent steering and you have a car that feels at home on British roads. The other thing that sets this 5 Series apart from Lexus hybrids you may have tried is that it has a proper automatic gearbox with proper gears, not a CVT belt-driven unit that whines its way through the rev ratios and hates to be hurried. In fact, the 40KW electric motor (BMW's own) is actually built into the 8-speed transmission itself, a unit toughened up here to handle the extra torque.
Design and Build
From the outside, the ActiveHybrid5 looks like any other 5 Series apart from some rather prominent badges on the pillars. Well, I should qualify that a bit as it's only true up to a point. And that point usually comes when you open the boot for the first time. The 1.3kWh lithium-ion battery pack has to go somewhere and in this car, it sits just above the multi-link rear axle, chopping boot space down from an almost excessive 520-litres to a much more modest 375-litres, less in fact than a BMW 3 Series saloon from the next class down. At the wheel, it's just as well finished as you'd expect. There's a small gauge just here beneath the rev counter that indicates battery range and if you look for it, you'll find a hybrid logo on the cupholder but apart from that it's standard 5 Series fare. If this is underselling things a bit in your opinion, you can switch the central display to a mode that indicates whether the electrical propulsion system is charging, discharging or inactive at any given time. Otherwise the architecture of this cabin throws up few surprises, with the design of the switchgear being similar to items seen before on the larger BMW products.
Market and Model
The Active Hybrid5 comes only as a saloon, but you do get a choice of trim levels that see pricing range between around £47,000 and just over £50,000. So how does that stack up against other hybrid alternatives in the full-sized executive sector where the BMW 5 Series, the Audi A6 and the Mercedes E-Class reign supreme? Well at first glance, you might expect this BMW to face quite a lot of competition. The Mercedes E300 BlueTEC Hybrid is an obvious alternative. Then there's the fact that Audi has developed a hybrid version of their A6 and of course, Lexus has long campaigned in this sector with its GS450h. In actual fact though, I'd still suggest the Active Hybrid5 to be in a class of one. After all, the Mercedes is a diesel and significantly slower. The Audi has a lower-order four cylinder engine rather than a 3.0-litre six. And the Lexus is nothing like as good to drive. So far so good. But that's before someone points out to you that for about £2,500 less than the least expensive Active Hybrid5, you could have had a BMW 535d diesel, a car which is more powerful, has more torque, is quicker, is far more economical and offers lower emissions. And that for around £6,000 less than this hybrid, you could have had a conventional petrol-powered 535i with the same basic engine, just lacking the electrical assistance. So why would you choose this car? To make an eco-minded boardroom statement? Because you don't like the smokey NOx emissions common to diesel engines? Or because you simply want the cleverest, most sophisticated 5 Series you can buy? All are possible reasons.
Cost of Ownership
On paper, your company accountant should approve. After all, the Active Hybrid5 delivers similar performance to a 535i but, with 16% lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, sits six bands lower in the benefit-in-kind company car tax scale. Those are the headlines, but here, you have to look beyond them to get the full picture. BMW quotes a combined fuel economy figure of 44.6mpg which, on the face of it, is amazing for a big, heavy petrol-engined saloon car that is as quick as this ActiveHybrid5. It's also quotes an urban fuel consumption figure that's even higher, some 49.6mpg. Achieving those kinds of figures in day-to-day motoring will of course be another thing entirely. Emissions are rated at 149g/km which is again an incredibly low figure for a vehicle of this potency, although that figure steps up to 163g/km if you go for the version with the 18-inch alloys. If you want a comparison, a petrol 535i auto manages 37.2mpg on the combined cycle and 177g/km and a diesel 535d auto achieves 52.3mpg and 142g/km. But no matter what your benchmark, you can't deny that this car delivers an impressive set of fuel figures, provided you select the 'ECO PRO' mode on the Drive Performance Control system. With this engaged, at speeds of up to 100mph, a coasting mode will cut in where you can just rely on the electric motor to nudge the car along, with the petrol engine completely decoupled. I'm not sure how beneficial this is, but it feels decidedly odd to be travelling at 70mph with zero revs on the clock.
If you're looking for hybrid power in an executive saloon but you still prioritise driving enjoyment, then you want one of these. It's faster and more dynamic than hybrid versions of segment rivals like the Audi A6 and the Mercedes E-Class and a vastly more interesting thing to drive than an equivalent Lexus GS450h. True, people who prioritise hybrid motoring don't tend to prioritise rewarding handling. But at least this car proves that these two things can actually come together quite beautifully. In other words, BMW's Active Hybrid5 is a great technical achievement. A car that treads lightly in its application of hybrid technology, yet appears to yield real results. Drive one and there's the potential to enjoy yourself hugely. Enough even to almost make you want to forget the major caveat - namely that the alternative diesel 5 Series model is cheaper and more frugal. And the fact that you'd have to do a pretty high mileage before even financially justifying this car over its conventional petrol counterpart. It all points to the truth of the matter. That BMW didn't build this hybrid model for Europeans who'd struggle to justify it but for US and Chinese buyers not so enamoured with the alternative prospect of diesel power. People of that sort on these shores are rare indeed, but if you're one of them, then here's a rare choice to match.