Three years ago BMW’s CEO, Norbert Reithofer, said, “In the future we will not sell cylinders, we will sell modern technology.” It would be easy to interpret Mr. Reithofer’s words as an indication that BMW was moving away from cars that are highly pleasurable to drive to ones that simply moved their occupants from point A to point B.
The Bavarian automaker is acutely aware of its fiercely loyal, but highly discerning, customer base and will not sacrifice the performance personality that has long been a part of BMW’s DNA. To protect its franchise, the company has adopted a philosophy called “EfficientDynamics” that has become a mantra that all of its engineers march to. It’s a big word but in simple terms it is the pursuit of an athletic driving experience while simultaneously lowering consumption and emissions.
EfficientDynamics covers every conceivable aspect of an automobile, including electrification, with the eventual goal of emission-free driving pleasure in the form of a combustion engine fueled by hydrogen. In the midterm of reaching that goal, hybrid technology will play a significant role in increasing efficiency.
BMW’s first foray into hybrids was the 2010 ActiveHybrid X6. Discontinued for the 2012 model year, the nearly $90,000 crossover featured a 400-horsepower V8 and employed a two-mode hybrid system jointly developed with General Motors and the then DaimlerChrysler. Fuel economy was an un-hybrid-like 17/18 city/highway. Last year saw the entry of the $97,000 ActiveHybrid 7. Utilizing a mild hybrid system (the electric motor only assists the gas engine, it doesn’t propel the vehicle on its own), the flagship sedan rewards its well-heeled owners with 17/24 mpg numbers compared to 15/22 for the gas engine model.
For 2012, BMW takes its next hybrid step with the ActiveHybrid 5. Think of it as a 535i with improved fuel economy and fewer emissions that doesn’t give up any of the performance or driving dynamics. The EPA has estimated the ActiveHybrid5 to achieve 23 mpg city, 30 on the highway, and 26 combined.
Available in one very well equipped trim level, with plenty of options boxes to check, the 2012 ActiveHybrid 5 has a base price of $60,950.
The Hybrid Drivetrain
The first BMW 5 Series sedan introduced to the U.S. in 1975 was powered by an inline six-cylinder engine, a tradition that continues with the ActiveHybrid 5. Re-engineered last year, the six, known as the N55, was selected as a WardsAuto 10 Best Engines two years in succession – an award highly coveted by auto manufacturers. About the N55, editors concluded that, “BMW is so good at inline six-cylinder engines that just about every other automaker has surrendered the niche to the Bavarians.”
Utilizing a single, twin-scroll turbocharger, the 3.0-liter engine produces 300 horsepower – 100 horsepower per liter – at 5,800 rpm and 300 pounds-feet of torque from 1,200 to 5,000 rpm. With direct injection, an improved variable valve timing system and other refinements, the redesigned engine is 15 percent more fuel efficient, with lower emissions than its predecessor with the same output. Employed in the 2012 530i, the gasoline engine powered car has an EPA estimated fuel economy of 21/31 city/highway and 25 mpg combined.
Joining forces with the inline six, to enhance both efficiency and BMW’s hallmark driving experience, is a liquid-cooled electric motor that produces 54 horsepower and 155 pounds-feet of torque. Replacing the torque converter in the eight-speed automatic transmission, the motor combined with the gas engine puts out a lusty 335 horsepower and 330 pounds-feet of torque. According to BMW, electrons from the 1.35-kW-hour lithium-ion battery located in the trunk can move the ActiveHybrid 5 on electricity alone up to a speed of 37 mph. The battery can store enough energy for an all-electric driving range of about 2.5 miles at an average speed of 22 mph.
Similar to Porsche and Volkswagen hybrids, the 5’s hybrid system has a multiplate clutch pack between the engine and transmission. One clutch separates the engine from the motor; the other separates the motor from the rest of the drivetrain (necessary for the electric motor to restart the gas engine when required). From a stop, mash the go pedal to the floor and the engine and motor combined will accelerate the ActiveHybrid 5 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, the same as the gas-powered model. When cruising, up to 100 mph, lift your foot off the pedal and the second clutch decouples the engine completely when the car is coasting. Engineers refer to this as “sailing,” and the result is increased highway fuel efficiency. At red lights, Motor Trend says the system’s “auto starting and stopping is utterly seamless.”
As in other BMWs, the ActiveHybrid has the automaker’s Driving Dynamics Control system with four selectable modes: Comfort, Sport, Sport plus and Eco Pro. The first three configure the chassis, steering, engine and transmission for different driving conditions, while Eco Pro adjusts electronic throttle mapping and transmission shift points to optimize fuel efficiency.
Conservative, Outside And In
Compared to the previous generation car, the restyled sixth-generation 5-Series is a bit on the conservative side, but maintains the archetypal BMW style of a long hood, short overhangs and coupe-like roofline. The car assimilates visual cues from the two sedans that flank it on either side in BMW’s lineup. From the larger 7-Series flagship, it borrows a striking presentation of BMW’s hallmark twin-kidney grille with alluring LED headlamps adeptly integrated into the hood and front fenders. Influence from the smaller 3-Series is evidenced in the body-side styling, including a finely chiseled character-line that runs the length of the car at door-handle height. Backside, the rump gracefully blends influences from both cars that features L-shaped LED taillights.
Of course it wouldn’t be a BMW without the Hofmeister kink – a term for the counter curve at the base of the rear roof pillar as it meets the body. First introduced in 1961, the design was penned by Wilhelm Hofmeister, the chief body design stylist at BMW at the time.
The hybrid looks little different from its gasoline engine companions – ActiveHybrid 5 lettering on the C-pillars, galvanized kidney grille slats, matte chrome tailpipes and an available Bluewater metallic paint color. Exclusive are optional 18-inch “Streamline” light-alloy wheels.
Inside the four-door’s well-appointed cabin, the 5 mimics the visual and conservative luxury appeal of the 7-Series. Interior appointments are first-cabin, with real wood trim, metal accents and soft leather. The seats are firm, supportive and well bolstered.
Everything about this interior communicates high style with an instrument panel design that is clean and simple. The reviled iDrive control interface is now easier to use, while still serving its original purpose of clearing the dash of a hodgepodge of buttons and knobs.
Affluent high-tech mavens will be delighted with the wealth of advanced technology available on the ActiveHybrid 5. For example, the standard navigation system is linked to the hybrid drivetrain and can analyze topographical data (if available) to maximize fuel efficiency on planned routes. If the system determines that an uphill climb is followed by a notable decline, it will use electric power to boost performance on the way up, knowing that it can recapture energy on the way down.
Other technological assets include lane change warning, lane departure warning, rearview camera, parking assistant, night vision with pedestrian recognition and a head-up display. Integration of Apple’s iPhone or other smart phones and music players are also available.
To state the obvious, the ActiveHybrid 5 is an expensive proposition. The base MSRP is $60,950 – $8,450 more than the 535i – and can easily and quickly climb from there when piling on the options. But for that price, not only are buyers getting the BMW prestige factor, they are also getting the “Ultimate Driving Machine” reputation. There’s enough cachet and performance to make any upwardly mobile executive consider joining the hybrid club.
A romp on the throttle will have most convinced that not all hybrids are for hypermiling sissy-foots. BMW’s projected 0-60-mph time of 5.7 seconds indeed falls to the conservative side, though it’s no surprise (to me) that the chassis does as well. Though the electronic power steering and run-flat tires leave something to be desired, this has less to do with the hybridization of the 5 as much as it does the 5 Series of this generation.
The ActiveHybrid 5 drives exactly like a 535i. The added oomph from the electric drive system – which bolsters total power output from 300 to 335 hp, and torque from 300 pound feet to 332 – negates the roughly 300-pound weight penalty of the hybrid. BMW’s 0-60 figure of 5.7 seconds for this car exactly matches that of the 535i.
Accelerate in a more BMW-like manner and the 302-hp six awakens and silkily couples (via a clutch) to the motor. Crudely clomp your foot down and the combination will twirl the needle to 60 mph in a claimed 5.9 seconds. A good number, but one that undersells the performance of this car, because the electric motor’s instant response gives the combination a viciously sharp edge.
Prices are manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.