Thursday 14 December 2017

Our future is like a cup of tea: it's all about how we make it

BMW 530e gives taste of electrified future

BMW 530e
BMW 530e
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

The cousin, bless him, put on the kettle, as he always does. I 'put on' the car, as I seldom do. The cousin has plugged in the kettle for as long as I've known him and his warm welcomes. I've only begun putting on the car. But I'd better get used to it as routinely as the cousin with the kettle, I'm told, because of the looming, promising, frightening, challenging 'electrified future' that has moved closer so quickly.

I was driving the new BMW 530e, which is a plug-in hybrid. It has a 2-litre petrol engine, electric motor and battery bank all orchestrated by a little computer so they work separately, or in unison, to extract the maximum from each.

While it is not a 'pure' electric, it is part of the future electrification of cars. I think plug-ins and hybrids are critical links in straddling the chasm between current fossil-fuelled cars and future fully-electric motors.

Anyway, it took me just 30 seconds to get the flex out of the little holder in the boot, slot it into the charging inlet on the 530e and plug into the cousin's kitchen socket - where coincidentally he'd been charging his mobile phone.

With the brother also along, we chatted for 75 minutes which, the car's info display told me, gave me 11km of 'pure electric' power. Another 30 seconds and we were ready to go (the car won't start until you unplug).

In truth, the 2-litre petrol engine - seamlessly - began lending a hand within 5km, because I needed more power to overtake. But that is not the point, really. If I repeated the exercise everywhere I stopped or at the house, I'd have saved myself a decent portion of petrol. It is a matter of getting used to it.

And it is a matter of being able to quickly identify and easily access public charging points (there's a flex for that, too). That, I fear, is one of the areas that are acting as a deterrent. Too many blinking public chargers are occupied by non-electric cars. And there are not enough of them anyway. So while I/we may have seen the electric future, I have to ask: what next? I think we are in danger of thinking all this is just going to 'happen'. It's not. It's going to take a huge effort, tough decisions and a lot of money to shift us along. Not just by government but by all of us.

We've taken baby steps here towards anything remotely resembling an electrified-car future. Sure, we have a charging network for battery-powered cars. And we have what appear to be generous financial incentives for electric and hybrids. But we've not engaged with what it is truly going to take to persuade you to cross from fossil to electric power.

And even if we are swayed, where are the cars? What good is a small electric supermini to a family of four or five? Where are the electric crossovers/people carriers?

They're coming in increasing numbers, we're promised, but the vast majority still rely on fossil-fuel aid - they need charging points, too. That's why I say we've seen the future (especially following the UK's 2040 ban on petrol and diesel sales) - now what's next?

Setting all that aside, however, there are other implications and practicalities to be noted about the test car. The 530e has a 2-litre 4cyl petrol engine and a lithium-ion battery. The combined 230PS is 45PS or so more than the BMW 520d. It sure was lively.

Overall, I calculated I used 5.7 litres of petrol every 100km. That wouldn't be far off 520d diesel consumption. If I drank more tea at more cousins'/neighbours' houses, l'd have plugged in more and used less fuel. Same goes for charging at base. But when it's raining, or it involves asking the daughter to shift her car, you don't bother, do you?

Sadly, you also lose boot space (down 110 litres to 410) because the battery pack is accommodated underneath. You have to weigh that against being able to cover 35km or so on a full 'pure electric' charge - around what most people commute, the experts say.

Your road tax is €20 lower (€170) than the 520d as emissions are just 44 g/km. I think in the real world, you'll have a longer range in the 520d because you'd need to assiduously plug-in/recharge the 530e a lot to come anywhere near their claimed range of 650kms.

Depending on model and spec it also costs around €3,000 more than your 520d - which would take a fair bit of electric, chat and tea-sipping, to make up the difference.

There were memorably good things about this car, too. The quietness was exceptional. It appealed to me, as a car, more than the 520d or 530d. And if I wanted acceleration, the electric boost kicked in with gusto. I enjoyed my drives - more than I anticipated.

Given the imminence of an electrified future, this 530e makes a lot of sense. It's just that, like the cousin with the kettle, you'll need to 'put on' the car a lot more often.

FACTS & FIGURES

BMW 530e iPerformance plug-in hybrid M Sport saloon: 2-litre 4cyl 184hp petrol engine, 95hp electric motor, 9.2kWh lithium-ion battery; 2litres/100km/46g/km (provisional), tax €170/year.

Price: €67,100, includes white Dakota leather, heated front sport seats, front LED fogs; 'standard options' - run-flat tyres, auto transmission, Park Distance Control (PDC), auto air con, satnav, single-disc CD player, online services.

Test car options: M Sport Plus package; 20ins alloys, Harman Kardon surround sound, concierge, Apple CarPlay prep.

Total: €72,350.30 (includes €2,500 VRT relief, €5,000 SEAI grant).

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