What are you driving?
I'm driving a car that's not as it used to be, but in the best way possible. OK, let me be a little clearer - I'm driving the updated BMW 5 Series, in plug-in hybrid 530e form, and it's not quite the 5 Series you might remember from old. I'll swing back around to that in a bit, but first off - what's new?
Well, there's been some mild restyling, and the 5 Series now gets slimmer, sharper-looking headlights (which can be optionally upgraded to BMW Laser Lights, as on our test car, which seem to be bright enough to lift the paint from road signs as you pass), a more sculpted front bumper, mildly tweaked rear styling with, again, slimmer lights, and new alloy wheel designs, including the optional 20-inch rims bolted to our M Sport Pro test car.
Under the skin, all 5 Series models now get fuel-saving 48-volt mild-hybrid tech, unless you're talking about this plug-in hybrid 530e and 545e, or the mighty V8-engined M550i, which at long last is being made in right-hand drive and which gives you 90 per cent of an M5 for quite a bit less cash.
Inside, there's now a 10.25-inch infotainment screen as standard, with an optional 12.3-inch display, some upgraded active safety systems, an optional built-in dashcam and a BMW digital voice assistant (not to mention online connected services and the ability to integrate Microsoft Office functions into the dash).
It's a thorough, if visually mild, upgrade, but we can be thankful for that, as the 5 Series has clearly been to a different plastic surgeon than the one let loose on the new BMW 4 Series Coupe or the new iX electric SUV. Even if the grille of the 5 Series is a bit bigger, and now more conjoined than separate, the saloon still looks simple, clean and elegant. It's lovely, basically.
Name its best bits
OK, remember how I said that the 5 Series is now not what it was, but in a good way? Let me explain, and in doing so let me take you back in time, through the noughties, nineties and eighties, through a timeline of the 5 Series' rivalry with the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Hitherto, if you were a keen driver, you bought the BMW. If you wanted comfort, you bought the Benz. In recent years, though, the two great rivals have been drifting closer and closer together, each taking cues from the other, in a dynamic sense, and with this upgrade to the 5 Series, I think it's the closest ever to the E-Class in terms of comfort. Given that this is an M Sport-spec car, riding on massive 20-inch rims, with a mere smear of rubber between alloy and tarmac, this 530e should ride like it has bricks for springs.
Nope. Not even slightly. Thanks in part to the latest version of BMW's adaptive suspension (part of the €4,245 M Sport Pro pack), this 530e rides as if on a cushion of goose down. It is exceptionally comfortable, even over the worst excesses of Irish tarmac. Combine that with some Barcalounger-like front seats and you have an exceptional vehicle for covering galactic distances.
But that's not the 5 Series' raison d'être, surely? It's traditionally been the driver's car of the segment. Has that baby been displaced by the incoming comfort bath water? Thankfully, no. Although the over-stuffed M Sport steering wheel rim does its best to smother steering feel, there is quite a bit still making it through to your fingertips, and the overall sense of balance and agility is hard to beat. Even on frosty mornings, there's plenty of grip and traction, so you've no need to worry about driving one in wintry conditions. It's now a car that's as engaging and enjoyable to drive, as it is comfortable in which to ride. Quite the combo.
The 530e plug-in hybrid setup is also pretty impressive. Plugged in and charged up, BMW quotes an electric range of 51km and, with a little care taken, you should manage around 40km in realistic conditions. Combining the power of the electric motor with that of the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, you've got 292hp to play with, plus 420Nm of torque - plenty in other words, but you do have to mash the throttle hard, and push through the car's default-economy programming, to access it when you need it (unless you've specifically selected the Sport mode). Driving it with a depleted battery is a sure-fire way to drive up your fuel consumption, but even so a reasonable 6.2 litres per 100km should be achievable on longer runs. Driving it lots with the battery depleted (this tester lives in a terraced house in an area with few public chargers) didn't do overall economy any favours, but don't buy a plug-in hybrid if you can't plug it in regularly.
Anything that bugs you?
The petrol engine sounds a little gruff when extended, there's an occasional odd shudder from the wheels (it feels sometimes as if the track is too narrow for the body, but it's more likely to be just the suspension coping with those big rims) and the cabin subjectively feels less roomy than that of an Audi A6 or Merc E-Class. Oh, and the battery installation costs you 120 litres of boot space. And it's expensive. From a list price of €66,996, our test car was optioned up to €84,630.
And why have you given it this rating?
The 5 Series has long been a touchstone among keen drivers who fancy some crisp handling and steering to go with their executive-level parking space. While it has become much more comfortable with this version, impressively so in fact, the 5 still delivers when it comes to driving pleasure. And the plug-in hybrid system has the potential, if used correctly, to deliver some seriously impressive fuel consumption savings.
What do the rest of the team think?
I really like this car. It looks great outside and in, is of high quality and, as Neil said, manages to mix incredible comfort and refinement with genuine sports saloon engagement when the mood takes you. I'm not convinced that the upgraded 530e hybrid model is set to be the default choice in the 5 Series range just yet, however. Along with its smaller boot, it's still expensive to buy in comparison to, say, a 520d or even a 520i, though admittedly you get more performance for that premium price. In summary: a fab car for those that can afford it and can make the most of the plug-in hybrid tech.
Make sure you check out our twin test of this BMW 530e vs. the Mercedes E 300 de.
Shane O' Donoghue - Editor