“BMW will reshape what many think of plug-in hybrids with its forthcoming 545e xDrive, proving that fast and frugal can co-exist.”
There’s simply no escaping the fact that the future of motoring is shifting towards electrification. It simply must, for the car companies to survive, and BMW is no different in that respect. Currently, around ten percent of its sales comprise of electrified vehicles and BMW has lofty ambitions to have seven million electrified cars on the road by 2030, with two thirds of those fully electric. Ambitious figures, but should we expect anything less from Munich?
BMW’s battery electric vehicle (BEV) offering is somewhat limited right now. However, its plug-in hybrid range is much broader, covering almost every model from the X1 to the 7 Series, and it’s getting more interesting with its latest addition. The 545e xDrive becomes the second plug-in hybrid 5 Series variant, joining the 530e (or fifth if you count the xDrive and Touring derivatives).
Technically, the car we’re testing here is still a pre-production vehicle, but save for some minor software calibrations it is what buyers will soon be able to order. The 545e makes its debut in ‘LCI’ guise sporting many of the new parts such as restyled front and rear ends, the latter including a tasteful taillight design.
Also making an appearance on the prototype are the latest incarnation of BMW’s Laser Light headlights. These include a more angular daytime running light signature that differs from the standard LED headlights and have a light blue element in the ‘eyebrow’. This blue stands out more than the pictures would suggest, and some will think that this blue is an identifying feature of the plug-in hybrid model. Those willing to spend an extra £2,000 on the Visibility Pack will at least get something obvious for their money. Whether they’ll be brave enough to add the black 19-inch wheels and Bernina Grey amber-effect metallic paint is another thing, but we think it looks ace, as does the new larger 12.3-inch center display for the iDrive system.
As you may have guessed from its model designation, the 545e gets the same hybrid system based on the 3.0-liter straight-six engine that does work in other models including the 745e and X5 xDrive45e. The setup is little different, as Steffan Löschner, Project Leader for the 5 Series plug-in hybrid, explains: “It’s the same engine from the normal combustion models only it uses an electronic compressor rather than a mechanical one for the air-conditioning.”
On the electrical side of things, the 545e is identical to the 530e and uses the same 12kWh lithium-ion battery residing behind and below the rear seats. Rechargeable via an onboard 3.7kW charger, it takes around three and a half hours to go from empty to full (or a little over five hours from a domestic plug socket), and that can provide up to 33-miles of zero-emission driving. Löschner adds that running the cabin pre-conditioning while the car is plugged in and charging will prolong the EV driving range by up to ten percent.
As you start the 545e, it defaults to its Auto eDrive hybrid mode although you can change this to the Max eDrive mode in the settings. While the electric motor may have a modest 109hp output, it feels like more given how easily it shifts the large 5 Series along. The sense of refinement and quality are amplified by the serene atmosphere in the cabin.
There’s little in the way of road or wind noise as the speed picks up, nor is the whir from the electric motor pronounced. It’s worth going to the trouble of inputting your journey into the car’s navigation system, even if you know where you’re going.
This allows the system to maximize the powertrain’s efficiency by recuperating more energy back to the battery during descents and even prompting you when to take your foot off the accelerator. Not everyone will like that, but if you’re keen to exploit the plug-in’s potential, it can be strangely satisfying to see the technology at work. BMW is also the first OEM to roll out a geo-fencing technology that will automatically detect when the car enters a designated low- or zero-emissions zone, such as the ULEZ in London. As it reaches the boundary, it switches to electric mode without the need for any input from the driver.
Smart stuff, but there are more possibilities for these functions. One BMW software expert mentioned how, in the case of a particular M5 owner, they were able to program the car to lower its windows when it entered a tunnel because he wanted to hear the engine at work… That may sound gimmicky, but it merely highlights how owners could further personalize their cars to perform specific tasks at various locations.
The other side to the 545e comes when you select the Sport mode and combine the electric motor with the straight-six. A total of 394hp might not seem like a great deal of performance to get excited about by today’s standards, but the 442lb ft of torque ensures that this electrified BMW can cover ground and a very acceptable pace: it dispatches the 0-62mph sprint in a mere 4.7-seconds.
Compare that to the E39 M5 and you’ll find the 545e is faster by over half a second, yet it emits almost a tenth of what the V8 saloon managed back in 1998. The pace of progress, eh?
There’s an added reassurance of the xDrive transmission to help you get the most from the car’s performance too. In comparison to the 530e xDrive, the six-pot carries a 60kg weight penalty, though this has a negligible effect on handling. It grips in the corners and the brawny saloon quickly moves to reassure you that it is far more capable than you might first expect.
The engine sounds great as it resonates back through the cabin and its coupling with the electric motor results in fantastically linear acceleration that will surprise the uninitiated.
Our test car featured the optional rear-wheel steering system for added handling accuracy. At higher speeds it turns the rear wheels in phase with the fronts by up to three degrees resulting in sharper direction changes. You don’t feel it steer from the rear; instead, it has the effect of shaving off a few degrees from the apex of a corner. At slower speeds, the steering system shrinks the car, providing agility more like that of a 3 Series than a 5. As your confidence grows, it devours fast sweepers and the rate of speed it can build-up leaves you having to continually remind yourself that it’s a hybrid.
The optional adaptive suspension also helps in this regard, though it would be interesting to see how a 545e performs without this and the rear-wheel steering.
If the 530e wasn’t enough to convince dyed-in-the-wool petrol heads that plug-in hybrids can be impressive, the 545e might be the tipping point. Sadly, BMW doesn’t have plans to offer the 545e xDrive in a Touring body, even though there’s nothing preventing it from doing so, from a technical standpoint. Nevertheless, being able to have a ‘regular’ or ‘non-M’ 5 Series that could outgun an (older) M5, with the potential to do more than 100mpg whilst offering some fantastic in-car tech is something that not many would have predicted. Maybe the future of thrilling motoring isn’t entirely lost
Watch this video for Test Drive BMW 545e xDrive