There's already a plug-in hybrid version of the BMW 5 Series, called the 530e, but BMW didn't want to leave it at that. Now it has slipped its six-cylinder engine under the bonnet and linked it with the same hybrid hardware to create a low-emission saloon that is as fast as it is frugal.
In the Metal:
Our first drive in the BMW 545e xDrive is also our first opportunity to try out the LCI (Life Cycle Impulse - BMW's way of saying 'facelift') updates to the 'G30' 5 Series. Among the updates is a new-look daytime running light signature that moves further away from the long-standing 'angel eyes' design.
Furthermore, when looking at these photographs of the 545e, you may notice the bright blue top sections of the lights that you could easily mistake as an identifier for this being a plug-in hybrid. However, those blue flashes denote the Laser Light headlights, which offer enhanced illumination over longer distances at night. The dual 'L' light signature also features the turn signal in the outer element. Other than the rear badge, all that sets the exterior apart is the battery charge port cover on the front left wing, a typical location on BMW plug-in hybrids. As plug-in hybrids continue to become part of the mainstream and contribute towards lower fleet emissions, the visual similarity with the other 5 Series models further normalises them. Incidentally, the eye-catching colour shown here is called 'Belina Grey Amber Effect', which is from the BMW Individual colour palette.
Updates to the interior bring an enhanced 10.25-inch display for the iDrive infotainment system, while buyers can upgrade to a 12.3-inch screen. BMW is running its latest Operating System 7 that features a new generation of BMW Maps, which uses the cloud to conduct faster calculations and re-routing functions. Along with wireless Apple CarPlay, there is now better integration with Android Auto, too. Sensatec is BMW's synthetic leather upholstery option, by the way, and it looks and feels incredibly good.
Under the scorching summer sun in Germany, I'm grateful for the BMW's ability to precondition the cabin temperature while it's plugged in and charging the battery. Incidentally, doing so can save as much as ten per cent of the overall battery range, according to BMW. If you've got it fully charged, the 5 Series could have an electric driving range of up to 54 kilometres (according to WLTP testing). In typical driving, with the air conditioning running, the BMW should still comfortably manage 48 kilometres - that's more than the average daily commute in Ireland. While it would always be nicer to have more electric range, this strikes a decent balance between packaging and weight versus performance output.
From a hardware perspective, the plug-in hybrid side of things is identical to the 530e's. That means a 12kWh (11.2kWh net) battery coupled with a 109hp electric motor. Each time you start the BMW 545e xDrive, as long as there is some charge in the battery it will begin its journey in Auto eDrive (hybrid) mode, but you can choose to make the pure electric Max eDrive mode the default setting. The 5 Series wafts you from A to B in a cocoon of comfort and near-silence when moving under battery propulsion. Pedestrians thankfully get a subtle audible reminder as the 545e moves electrically at lower speeds.
Away from a built-up area, there's the instantaneous shove of electric power that presses you back into the seat. It wastes no time in getting up to speed and, providing you are reasonably prudent with your right foot, in the Auto eDrive mode it will alternate between using the electric motor and the straight-six petrol engine. Alternatively, you can select the Max eDrive mode through the Driving Experience Control to run in pure electric mode 100 per cent of the time, so long as the battery has some charge. In this setting, the BMW remains perfectly adept at tackling a variety of commuting options and can travel at up to 140km/h in electric-powered serenity.
It's better still with the adaptive suspension fitted, as it adds a further layer of isolation between you and the broken tarmac. That comfort and quietness take some of the stress out of everyday driving. However, this is every bit a driver's car with the inclusion of the same six-cylinder engine found in the larger BMW X5 xDrive45e and 7 Series plug-in hybrids. BMW quotes impressive combined system outputs of up to 394hp and 600Nm. What makes that more remarkable is the 38- to 54g/km of CO2 emissions this car is rated for. As a reference point, the 'E39' BMW M5 produced 400hp and 500Nm, while emitting 336g/km.
Choose the Sport mode and the 545e begins to flex its muscles and make full use of its dual-motor toolset. The straight-six engine is such a key feature to a BMW's driving experience. In this application it is highly impressive, buttery smooth yet demonstrating the ability to pull like a locomotive with the capability of devouring autobahns on home soil. It has noticeably more punch with the six-cylinder engine up front and makes the 530e seem a little anaemic in comparison.
But the 545e is more than a Trans Europe Express and, when you push on through some more challenging sections of road, the xDrive transmission helps the car's dynamic capability. A reasonable amount of early caution quickly fades as the BMW proves itself to be every bit as surefooted as you would hope it to be. Further help in the handling department comes from the optional rear-wheel-steering setup that contributes to more precise steering manoeuvres at higher speeds by turning the rear wheels in phase with the front wheels by as much as three degrees. Otherwise, the steering comes with the usual BMW-like progressive feel and well-judged weighting that makes you want to drive just for the sheer enjoyment of it.
When you prefer to optimise efficiency from the powertrain, it is vital to use the BMW's navigation so it can determine what part of the hybrid system to deploy and when. It reads traffic flow, road signs and topography to help it maximise how and when it conducts its hybrid functions. For example, on a steeper decline when heading into a town, it will indicate for you to lift off the accelerator as it switches to the regen mode, harvesting energy back into the battery. Furthermore, the hybrid system is now capable of detecting zero-emission zones in cities. When it sees that your destination is inside such an area, it will maintain sufficient battery charge and automatically switches to the Max eDrive mode as soon as you pass into that area, enabling you to complete your journey electrically. All of this requires no further input from the driver other than the initial destination entry into the navigation system.
What you get for your Money:
We'll have to wait a little longer until the BMW 545e xDrive officially goes on sale in Ireland, but when it does, it will be available with much of the same equipment options as the 530e. Along with the rollout of the updated 5 Series model, new options such as the Laser Lights will be available to order. We will update this section once we know pricing for the 545e.
With the addition of the straight-six engine to the plug-in hybrid setup, the BMW 545e xDrive becomes an extremely enticing proposition. Not only does it have a useful battery range, but it also delivers a fantastic balance of performance and driving fun with a reduced guilty conscience thanks to its low emissions.