New car review: BMW 530e
BMW plugs in to help save the planet.
Some pundits see plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) like the BMW 530e we’re testing here as a logical stepping stone between regular hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) like the Tesla Model S.
Advocates of the technology argue it will be easier for cautious buyers to move towards full electrification if there is a relatively risk-free way of doing so, and that the PHEV is just that.
Those on the other side of the fence see PHEVs as neither fish nor fowl, lacking the all-electric range of a BEV and adding cost and complexity to the internal combustion engine (ICE) format.
Mainly thanks to Toyota, which has led the charge in introducing the world to the concept of hybrids, many motorists have at least a basic understanding of how the technology works.
But in a nutshell, a hybrid merges an ICE with an electric motor and a battery that is recharged as the car drives, with the result that it offers superior fuel-efficiency to a standard ICE-powered vehicle.
However, hybrids like those built by Toyota have very limited electric-only range.
BEVs such as those made by Tesla and others, have no ICE but use an electric motor (or motors) drawing power from a large battery that is charged from the electricity grid and able to drive for decent distances, up to 400km and beyond in some instances, on electric power.
In between these two examples sits the PHEV.
Like hybrids, PHEVs include an ICE as part of their powertrain but by incorporating a larger and more powerful rechargeable battery than a basic hybrid, the PHEV can drive for an extended distance without using its ICE, just like a battery electric car.
In the case of the BMW 530e PHEV, that electric-only range is 67km, if its 12kWh lithium-ion battery is fully charged before setting off.
Proponents point out this is enough to manage the average Australian commute of 16km each way for a couple of days, meaning many people could drive a 530e to work and back without generating harmful tailpipe emissions.
That is provided they remember to recharge it, which takes about 3.5 hours on a standard household plug when the battery is fully depleted.
The ace in the hand of the PHEVs versus pure electrics, which grind to a halt when their battery is exhausted, is that if you do run out of battery power, they can keep on motoring, since the drivetrain switches back to hybrid or ICE mode.
It all sounds terribly complicated and undoubtedly it is at a drivetrain level, but in practical effect, driving the 530e is as easy as driving any ICE-powered car, only with greater fuel efficiency and the option to run on pure electric power if you choose.
Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre inline four-cylinder petrol engine that utilises a twin-scroll turbocharger, along with a synchronous electric motor integrated into the car’s eight speed automatic gearbox.
It also features a generator that recuperates energy back into the car’s high-voltage battery during coasting or braking.
Hence why, if you neglect to recharge the 530e, as I did for several days running, you won’t be left stranded, but you will miss out on the benefits of driving on less expensive and lower emissions battery electric power.
The presence of an ICE also means “range anxiety” need not be a thing because you know you can drive even if the traction motor battery is flat.
The 530e features a modern Type 2 charging port on its front left guard, with its lithium-ion battery chargeable at varying speeds via three different methods: a domestic wall socket (slow), BMW i Wallbox (faster), or public charging stations (fastest).
The charging cable is stored in a separate lidded area inside the boot, with the raised boot floor offering less capacity than you’ll find in ICE-powered version.
Among the 530e’s extensive list of standard equipment are 19-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry and start, adaptive LED headlights, ambient lighting, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, DAB digital radio, 16-speaker harman/kardon surround sound system, head-up display with speed limit info, wireless phone charging, automatic boot, heated electric front seats, and adaptive dampers.
There’s plenty of safety kit too, as befits its premium price and positioning, including frontal collision warning with city collision mitigation, active blind spot detection, lane departure warning, in-dash navigation and park distance control, to name a few.
I also had the opportunity to drive this model’s stablemate, the $95,900 BMW 520i.
Like the 530e, it’s powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, but only the 530e offers the choice of driving in petrol, hybrid of EV mode, accessed via switches grouped around its joystick-style transmission lever.
Choosing auto eDrive leaves it to the car to decide the most efficient settings between battery and ICE power, while selecting Max eDrive reverts the powertrain to full electric, until either the battery is depleted, or a heavy right foot exceed the electric limit.
Drivers can also save energy in the battery for later use by selecting the Save Battery mode, which can be handy if driving from the open road to urban conditions.
These hybrid modes are in addition to the standard BMW settings such as Sport that alter engine and transmission responsiveness.
When driven in petrol-only mode, the 530e produces 135kW and 300Nm, while the electric motor offers standalone outputs of 80kW and 265Nm.
However, the 530e also features what BMW calls an XtraBoost function that’s accessed when the control switch is set to Sport and the gear selector moved into the Manual/Sport position.
BMW says this mode provides an added dose of thrust under vigorous acceleration, increasing the joint output of the two power sources by 30kW and bumping peak power to 215kW for up to 10 seconds.
Thus configured, and with its combined outputs of 215kW/420Nm, the 530e is comfortably more powerful than not just the 520i, but also the sporty 530i.
Having driven the 520i and 530e back-to-back, there’s no doubting the superiority of the PHEV drivetrain in terms of its response and general muscularity.
It simply feels a crisper and more urgent unit, as evidenced by its 5.9 seconds 0-100km/h time, which is two seconds quicker than the 520i.
It’s also a half-second quicker than the 530i, all while sipping an impressively frugal 2.3L/100km for the combined cycle, versus the respective 6.8 and 6.7L/100km of its stablemates.
So, it’s quicker and more frugal than its lesser 5 Series siblings, but what about the rest of the drive?
In short, it’s thoroughly impressive. Smooth, quiet, and responsive, the transition between electric and ICE power is largely imperceptible.
The 530e also exhibits the sort of disciplined ride and handling qualities that we’ve come to expect from such German prestige sedans.
It sits impressively flat through the bends, and feels decidedly athletic, despite its large-car dimensions.
The chassis offers strong grip and good body control, largely avoiding uncouth suspension crashing over potholes, despite the fitment of run flat tyres on 19-inch alloy wheels.
If there is a dynamic weakness it’s the slightly spongy feel to the brake pedal, due to the car’s regenerative braking setup, which lacks the bite and progression of the 325i’s conventional brakes.
However, the driving position is excellent, and the handsomely trimmed diamond-pattern leather driver’s seat offers a wide range of electrical adjustment.
The leather-trimmed multifunction steering wheel is also satisfyingly thick in the hands and the steering itself quick and accurate, with well-modulated weight and feedback.
The cabin is suitably upmarket to match the price tag with strips of dark timber veneer on the dash and doors, hemmed by a contrasting matte-finish alloy.
It’s all very classy and suitably hi-tech, with a digital instrument cluster ahead of the driver containing mapping and other functions, a clear and informative head-up display and a multifunction central touchscreen that can also be operated via a console mounted i-Drive rotary dial or voice control.
Rear-seat passengers are well accommodated inside the generously proportioned cabin, with easy access via wide door apertures and comfortable seating that offers plenty of head, knee and leg room.
There are also individual air-con vents, USB charging points and a fold-down centre armrest with cupholders, but no ski port, presumably due to the large rear-mounted battery.
In summary, for some people who need to drive long distances, the still limited range of BEVs means they are not yet an ideal solution.
The 530e addresses this concern by allowing owners to run as an EV in the urban environment while still having ICE power available for long-distance duties.
In this regard the 530e is the answer to a question some buyers will indeed ask.
It demands few compromises and stacks up as a well-engineered and finished vehicle that delivers all the polished performance and dynamics a BMW with the added benefit of reduced tailpipe emissions.
MLP: $118,900 (MRLP).
ENGINE: 2.0-litre intercooled and turbocharged four-cylinder petrol hybrid, integrated synchronous electric motor, 12kWh lithium-ion battery.
ANCAP CRASH RATING: 5-star ANCAP (2017).
FUEL CONSUMPTION: 2.3L/100km (53g/km C02).
FOR: Handsome styling, quality finishes, refinement, well appointed, strong performance, great dynamics, fuel efficiency.
AGAINST: High purchase price, expensive options, basic new car warranty, run flat tyres, limited electric-only range.