Friday 24 November 2017

Surprisingly sprightly but no competition for diesels

The onslaught of new models from BMW accelerates. Graeme Lambert drove the new hybrid 5 Series

BlueMotion, Greenline, BlueEfficiency, Green tec, Ecomotive, BlueTec, ECOnetic, EcoDynamics, eco2, ecoFLEX, DRIVe... our automotive world is full of eco-branding and clean-living acronyms. Even BMW, once the purveyor of the ultimate driving machine, is at it, spreading EfficientDynamics technology liberally throughout its range.

So when it announced the arrival of the ActiveHybrid 5 we nearly dismissed it as a money-making special, conceived to commemorate sponsorship of the upcoming London Olympics. After all, Active says more about sport, speed and sprightliness than efficiency, emissions and economy. Our cynicism was unfounded of course, this being the newest addition to the firm's planet-friendly arsenal -- despite the lack of "blue" or "green" in the title.

But colours matter not; the beauty of this particular 5 Series is much deeper than its skin. Which is good, as both the exterior and the cabin (save for badging and minor detail changes) look exactly the same as the 535i it is based on.

Under the bonnet there's that car's acclaimed 3.0-litre TwinPower turbocharged straight-six engine too, but the ActiveHybrid 5 adds some junk to the trunk. Lithium ion batteries mounted between the rear wheel arches (cutting boot space from 520 to 375 litres) feed power to a 54hp electric motor within the smooth and decisive eight-speed automatic gearbox. It replaces the standard car's torque converter and helps maintain the near perfect 50:50 weight distribution in the process.

Combined, this makes for 340hp and 450Nm of torque from only 1,200rpm -- giving this car performance Usain Bolt would be proud of (0-100km/h is under six seconds for anyone timing). It's not all about straight-line speed though; its 67-litre fuel tank and 6.4 litres/100km average consumption allow it to travel nearly 1,050km on a single tank. A regular 535i would fall short of this by over 200km, despite its larger fuel tank.

Labelled as a "BMW amongst hybrids", it would seem BMW's boffins were keen for this car to add up to more than just the sum of its numbers. You can't help but be taken in by the surprising performance, that torque figure making itself known right from the off. And despite the extra weight this car carries, it feels just as agile and alert as any other 5 Series -- with feelsome steering, sharp reactions and excellent body control.

In fact it's only the occasional squeal from the low-rolling resistance rubber reminding you that it is designed to save the planet, not terrorise it.

But the ActiveHybrid 5 is more than just a 5 Series with some batteries and an electric motor -- the technology goes much deeper. The cabin houses BMW's cleverest satnav yet. Using topography, the device can tell when a descent is imminent and will use all the remaining battery charge to boost performance uphill, safe in the knowledge that it can fully recharge on the way down.

If you want to travel in electric mode only (thanks to the satnav it will do this for the last moments of most journeys), you can do so for nearly 4km at up to 60km/h. In the ECO Pro setting the ActiveHybrid 5's most impressive trick surfaces -- coast mode. At up to 160km/h the engine can be fully disconnected from the driveshafts, so this 5 can free-wheel and recharge the battery pack. It's an eerie, somewhat addictive, sensation as you cruise at motorway speeds in almost complete silence, no engine braking and low resistance rubber taking care of momentum. Obviously you need a slight decline for this to continue for any length of time.

Impressive though the technology and the overall package are, there are a number of things holding this car back. If you want an estate, then look elsewhere -- the ActiveHybrid 5 is available as a saloon only. It's not cheap either, displaying a list price of €70,880 -- that's only €1,130 less than a 535d M Sport.

And that's the nail on the head; the biggest drawback for the hybrid is the existence of a long list of accomplished diesel examples of the 5 Series. The ActiveHybrid 5 may boast 149g/km CO2 emissions, but the 142g/km 535d is actually cleaner (though sits in the same tax bracket), cheaper (in SE trim), faster and more economical. Don't even get us started on the excellent 520d EfficientDynamics.

So is the ActiveHybrid 5 is a disappointment? Yes.

Does it deserve a wooden spoon? No.

This is the first of many full hybrids to come from BMW, all of which will be more efficient, practical and cleaner. So while the ActiveHybrid 5 may not be the most economical, efficient or emission-led BMW available, it is one of the sportiest, speediest and sprightliest hybrids you can lay your hands on.

And in our book, that means BMW should stand tall on the podium, collecting gold, silver and bronze.

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