It was a slightly surreal moment. I popped the gear selector of the G30 5 Series into D, and up on the screen came a parking camera display showing two parallel blue lines straddling a small, black hump. Now, normally, one tries to avoid driving over things when parking (I do have a cat, after all), but the whole point in this case was to run the hump over.
Inching forward, the camera angle changed to a nearly vertical-down view, showing that the black hump was disappearing under the bumper, and the display now also included a small blue circle, which changed to green when the car was correctly positioned. Ignition off, the 5 Series started to charge its batteries. Welcome, then, to the future of fuelling-up your BMW at home – no wires, no plugs, no hassle and (almost) no petrol.
OK, so we’re used now to the idea of a plug-in BMW, thanks to cars as varied (and good) as the 330e and the i3. But the idea behind the new 530e plug-in hybrid is that, soon, you won’t need to plug it in at all. BMW will, from next year, be able to provide you with a version of this currently experimental wireless induction charging plate.
It won’t be cheap, though (estimates run as high as £1,500 for one), but it is simple. You don’t even need to dig it into the driveway; it just sits on the ground wherever you need it. It will charge the 530e’s 9.2kWh battery stack only a little more slowly than the existing, wall-mounted, cable charger, and you won’t even need to get wet while plugging the car in on a rainy night.
Of course, all that’s for the future but, for all its futurism, the 530e is very much a car of the moment. It’s part of BMW’s iPerformance range; a line-up that includes the likes of the 330e, the 225xe and the 740e. The idea of iPerformance is, somewhat surprisingly, similar to that of the M Performance range.
Just as M Performance models sit neatly between the mainstream 1, 2, 3, and 5 Series ranges, and their full-on M counterparts, so too does the iPerformance line-up straddle the gap between a conventional BMW and the concept-car-like BMW i3 and BMW i8 families.
THREE INTO FIVE
So, the 530e is in its essence a sized-up 330e, and it uses the same drivetrain. There’s the turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine with 184hp, plus an electric motor with 95hp, giving a total system output of 252hp. Combined, the petrol and electric motors have a maximum output of 310lb ft of torque, giving a 520d diesel a run for its oily money in the twist stakes.
That electric motor is sandwiched between the engine and the eight-speed, ZF automatic gearbox, allowing it to use the same ratios as the petrol engine to find greater efficiencies, and it’s fed by the 9.2kWh battery stack, mounted atop the rear axle.
The combination of battery and electric motor does mean that weight has gone up considerably, to 1,845kg at the kerb (about the same as a V8-engined M550i), and the fuel tank has had to be made smaller; reduced to just 46 litres. The boot is smaller, too, at just 420 litres (compared to a standard G30 5 Series’ 530 litres). So, while the 530e is a clever car, bristling with hightech, it’s not one without compromise.
Fully-charge the battery stack and brim the petrol tank, and BMW says you should be able to run for around 400 miles, 31 of which will be on just the electric motor, which can power the 530e at speeds of up to 87mph. Officially, fuel economy is quoted as the faintly ludicrous 141.2mpg, while CO2 emissions are a saintly 46g/km.
So do those numbers add up? Well, we decided to find out. Our test drive began at the foot of the Obersalzburg mountain in Bavaria, home to the scenic town of Berchtesgaden. Zeroing the trip at the bottom of the mountain (to avoid any unfair extra charging of the battery by coasting down the Obersalzburg’s steep sides), we had an indicated battery range remaining of 20 miles.
The 530e has three main electric driving modes (aside from the usual Comfort, Sport and Eco Pro settings), which are Max eDrive, Auto eDrive and Battery Control. Battery Control allows you to either save charge in the battery for later, or to top-up the power in the cells as you drive.
Auto eDrive is the general, does-a-bit-of-everything hybrid mode, while Max eDrive locks out the petrol engine (as long as there’s sufficient charge in the battery), and runs on pure electric. We selected Max eDrive and headed off.
Now, we weren’t driving as if following a funeral cortège, and nor were we using lunatic haste. Basically, we were trying to drive as like normal people – observing speed limits,but also trying to enjoy the car on windier sections of open road.
Driving like that, we squeezed a reasonable 18 miles out of the battery (this with three people and luggage on board, in ambient temperatures close to freezing, running on winter tyres), before the system decided it had had enough and called on the petrol engine to help out.
The remainder of our 70-mile journey was driven in Auto eDrive, and included country and city roads, villages and one brief unlimited stretch of Autobahn. Arriving at our stop, we consulted the trip computer, which revealed that we’d averaged 46mpg for the journey, having obviously managed those first 20 miles without using a drop of fuel. Is that good enough? A 520d under the same circumstances would probably have managed at least 55mpg, maybe more, and would cover a good 600 miles before your next stop for juice.
LIKE FOR LIKE?
BMW, though, argues that comparing the 530e with the 520d isn’t quite right, since the two cars are aimed at two entirely different customers. A 520d is aimed squarely at those who pound the outside lane of the motorway, for mile upon mile, while a 530e is for those who live and work in town, and probably only cover a handful of miles each day. Was the 530e a bit thirstier than the diesel would have been? Yes, absolutely, but then the diesel could never have run at all on emissions-free electric power, and that could be a crucial consideration these days, not least when you think of how many potential 5 Series owners and drivers live within commuting distance of London.
If Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to ban diesel power from the city centre of the capital come to fruition, then a 530e driver could be sitting pretty, whereas a 520d owner might be sitting, moping, watching their residual value melt away. It’s food for thought, if nothing else.
Style-wise, it’s very hard to tell the 530e apart from any other 5 Series. The smaller wheels, 17-inch items front and rear, with generous 55-profile tyres, are a bit of a giveaway, as is the small flap on the left-front wing, behind which is the charging plug. There are subtle blue highlights in the grille and on the wheels, and a small eDrive badge on the rear pillar. Those aside, it looks stock. That goes for the inside too. The 530e gets the same 7 Series-inspired interior as the rest of the G30 line-up. Now, that’s both good and bad. It’s good, very good, when it comes to comfort and build quality. In fact, I’d think it fair to say that the 530e, and the rest of the 5 Series range, has one of the best-built interiors in motoring.
Electric and hybrid cars, because of their frequent silent periods, tend to exacerbate any cabin noise, any squeaky trim, simply because you notice it more. Try a Nissan Leaf to see what I mean. Better still, try a Tesla Model S, the last version of which I drove sounded like a box of old toys, with all the squeaks and rattles. In the 530e’s cabin there is… silence. It is utterly still and calm in there, and the seats are great. Wrapped in optional Mocha Nappa leather as in our test car, it was only with reluctance that my buttocks parted company with them.
You get the new iDrive system, which marries a touch-screen to the familiar twist-and-click wheel, and it has the new ‘tile’ layout first premiered on the 7 Series. There’s a huge range of connectivity options, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as voice control and Microsoft Office 365 integration, which allows you to create voice-to-text emails.
On the downside, the cabin does look a bit plain, and a bit predictable. It’s all generic BMW parts bin stuff and, while that’s an enviable parts bin into which to be dipping, it’s hard not to think they could have been a touch more daring with the layout. Look at the brilliant i3 for a little inspiration, perhaps. There’s also the issue of the electronic instrument pack. It looks great in Comfort mode, aping the look of classic analogue dials, but the Sport mode layout, with its red background and big numbers, looks like something from a video game.
There’s no quibbling with the handling and ride, though, bar a comment on the steering. The G30 just seems to lack the steering sharpness of the old F10, and certainly doesn’t have the meaty wheel-feel of the E60. It’s fine, in that it’s fast to react to inputs and is unerringly accurate, but there’s not much in the way of proper feedback. At least the chassis makes up for that – the 530e rides with supreme comfort, at least on the ultra-smooth roads of Bavaria. Doubtless, the smaller wheels and more compliant winter tyres helped here, but there’s no question that the 530e is a comfortable, pliant car in which to ride.
It also has exquisite body control, staying flat and stable over mid-corner bumps, and was enormously confidence-inspiring even descending steep mountainside switchbacks. The only clue that the 530e was packing more weight than a standard 5 was a faint wavering sensation over some sudden crests, as the springs and dampers momentarily struggled to keep the extra mass in check. Overall performance is good. The 530e is badged as such because it’s supposed to have equivalent performance to a petrol-only 530i, and so it more or less proves. You’ll hit 62mph from rest in a brisk 6.2 seconds, and top speed is a very healthy 146mph.
Refinement is just astonishingly good. Even with the petrol engine operating, there’s no need for a conversation between front seat passengers to rise above the level of a soft murmur, and it’s only when you ask for full acceleration that the four-pot turbo engine becomes a little too vocal. Incidentally, the electric motor can add a little extra oomph at flat-chat, meaning that snap overtaking manoeuvres are dispatched efficiently.
There’s also a bundle of impressive safety equipment, including active cruise control and lane-keeping steering, which combine to provide the 530e with a modicum of autonomous driving capability, along with a camera that reads speed limit signs and adjusts the cruise control accordingly.
Is it all worth it though? Does the 530e bring the electric revolution that bit closer? Yes, I think it does. Here’s a car with all the regular talents of a 5 Series, but with an added level of eco-friendliness that would make a Toyota Prius blush. You do need to live in a certain location, and have certain specific driving habits, to make the whole package work to its best but, given the likely incoming restrictions on diesel, here’s a 5 that’s been future-proofed.
The idea behind the new 530e plug-in hybrid is that, soon, you won’t need to plug it in at all
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW 530e iPerformance G30
ENGINE: 1,998cc, 4-cyl + electric motor
MAX POWER: 252hp
MAX TORQUE: 420Nm
MAX SPEED: 146mph
MAX SPEED ELECTRIC: 87mph
LIST PRICE: £43,205 (inc VAT)
Above: The 530e is a large saloon combined with an environmental conscience. Left: Two-litre, fourcylinder, turbo-charged engine combines with the electric motor to send power smoothly through the excellent, eight-speed Steptronic gearbox.
With a 0-62mph acceleration time of 6.2secs, the 530e has a very respectable turn of speed. Real world economy, however, remains to be seen.
Blue accents in the front grille distinguish this as an iPerformance model.
Does the 530e bring the electric revolution that bit closer? Yes, I think it does
The electronic instrument cluster includes plenty of information to help owners maximise driving efficiency.
The interior is a comfortable and beautifully quiet place to be.
Outwardly, the BMW 530e G30 plug-in hybrid looks much like a standard saloon. The charge point cover, in the front, nearside wing, is a distinguishing feature, together with ‘e’ badging and blue highlights.