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2018 BMW 530e eDrive Plug-In Hybrid First Drive Review: eDrive eNigma

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 5/9/2017 Motor Trend Staff

What is this thing? A status symbol for jet setters suffering carbon-footprint anxiety? The ultimate green-driver-coaching machine? A charity project for assuaging corporate guilt? After a morning spent driving it down out off a cold, damp, snowy Bavarian Alp, the mission of this latest BMW iPerformance plug-in hybrid is still a little unclear to me.

What is clear is that BMW is serious about casting this car as a planet savior. Just get a load of this line from the press kit: "Its exemplary environmental credentials have been recognized in the form of ISO certification by the TV Rheinland inspection authorities." That regulatory/testing body apparently studied the life cycle of the 530E—from extraction of raw materials, to assembly, to lifetime usage, to recycling—in order to holistically assess its "global warming potential." The verdict, according to ISO 14040 and 14044 standards: After 155,000 miles of use, the 530E will have been 15 percent gentler on Mother Earth than your neighbor's 530i. And that's presuming you always plug in to the (German) national grid—that percentage increases to 47 if your plug only connects to renewable electricity.

This self-identifying car geek can vouch for its credentials as a green-driving coach, thanks to the high degree of customization offered by the reconfigurable dash and center display screens. Coaching assists include a little arrow pointing up at a foot in the cluster and head-up display admonishing you to back off the throttle when the car senses a turn coming, when you're hot-footing it too hard, or if you're probing the 146-mph top speed. Center screen pages awards one to five stars based on how gently the driver accelerates and anticipates slowdowns and presents loads of info on consumption, power flow, power use by various systems, etc.

The instrument cluster transforms as you toggle through the various drive modes. The default is EcoPro with the separate E-Drive selector in Auto eDrive. This prioritizes electric drive, but engages the engine as needed to approximate 530i levels of responsiveness. This screen features a speedometer and a recharge/discharge power-use meter that indicates accelerator position. It also shows the point at which the engine will kick in, which varies with conditions but seemed to usually be around 40 percent. The Max eDrive mode prioritizes electric propulsion, firing the engine only if you floor the accelerator past its kickdown switch (the power meter indicates a 60 percent throttle max, but that just means you'll have to kick it down if you need more than 60 percent of total performance). Top speed is 87 mph, and range is claimed at 31 miles in EV mode, but final EPA range testing is not complete. A Battery Control mode directs the powertrain to preserve and/or use the engine to recharge the battery to a state of charge that you can specify. Comfort mode turns all the gauges white and still indicates accelerator position, with "eBoost" appearing just past 100 percent. Sport mode returns a classic BMW speedo/tach in red tones.

OK, so twiddling between and studying all those myriad screens engages certain pleasure centers in this geek noggin. But how do the powertrain and chassis do at lighting up the traditional pleasure centers when taming a twisty road? Erm, relatively well. This engine sounds best when running at full whack up near the top of the rev range, the way it does when it is making a 6.0-second 0-60-mph run (essentially matching the 530i's time). At lower/middle revs it sounds a tad lawn mowery, and let's face it—the point of slipping a 111-hp/184-lb-ft electric motor into the space where the 530i's torque converter lives, tucking a 9.2-kW-hr battery under the rear seat, and programming all those eco screens seems to be to keep drivers from caning the wee out of that engine. You can expect the EPA fuel economy numbers to improve greatly on the old six-cylinder ActiveHybrid 5's 23/30 mpg city/highway.

Chassiswise, it weighs about 150 pounds more, which is never great for handling. Most of that rides low in the back, though, so at least the weight distribution is slightly better and the center of gravity is lower than in other 5s. Our test car was not equipped with the $1,000 dynamic damper controls or $1,150 integral active steering, so the various drive modes primarily altered throttle and transmission logic (surprise! we like Sport best). Nor did we get a chance to sample the xDrive AWD gear (which for now is only offered on North American 530Es) despite ideal conditions for doing so. Storming the wet roads wearing Michelin Pilot Alpin winter tires the grip levels seemed impressive, body motion control was admirable, and neither my co-driver nor I managed to scare one other. The effort level of the steering seemed about right, and though we sensed little if any road feel, it's possible the wet roads just didn't have much to say.

As a car, the 530e is compromised only by its smaller fuel tank (12.2 versus 16.9 gallons—still good for a claimed 372-mile range), and its slightly diminished trunk space (minus about 4 cubic feet) required packaging that smaller gas tank under the floor. There's also no possibility of ordering even the space-saver spare tire the 530i offers for $150.

Those sacrifices seem pretty small, especially considering the mystifying price premium BMW is charging for all this PHEV gear: $200, with zero deletions from the standard equipment list. So a 9.2-kW-hr battery, a 111-hp electric motor, and all the controllers and wiring to connect them pencil out to half the option price one pays to add a $10 CMOS rear-view camera to a 530i? Two-thirds the tariff demanded for CarPlay software? Less than a third of what BMW cheekily charges for hands-free keyless entry? Well, it should easily outsell the ActiveHybrid 5, which cost $10,700 more.

So, what is it? A darned good bargain if A) you can resist its zillion packages and options, B) you feel guilty rattling around in that 4,500-square-foot house just the two of you, and you're determined to make carbon amends, and C) you aren't expecting the Ultimate Driving 5 Series.

2018 BMW 530e eDrive
BASE PRICE $52,395-$54,695
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, RWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 2.0L/181-hp/214-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus 111-hp/184-lb-ft electric motor; 248 hp/310 lb-ft comb
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 3,900 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 117.1 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 194.3 x 73.5 x 58.4 in
0-62 MPH 6.2 sec (mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON Not yet tested
ON SALE IN U.S. May, 2017

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