The BMW ActiveHybrid 5 sees the company fitting a petrol-electric powertrain to its 5 Series executive saloon

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BMW’s latent scepticism about vehicle electrification must have given way to grudging acceptance midway through the last decade, hence this ActiveHybrid 5

In 2005, Munich signed a deal to collaborate with Daimler, Chrysler and General Motors on the development of hybrid vehicle technologies, and in 2009 BMW launched the X6 ActiveHybrid and the ActiveHybrid 7 limousine production models. They weren’t hybrids in the economy sense, however, as they featured V8 engines and weren’t capable of electric-only running.

Fuel economy isn't as good as it should be

Beyond the gaze of us Brits, you might wonder why, given the market-leading diesel engines that the company makes, BMW has been dabbling in the global market for petrol-electric hybrid luxury cars. The truth is that some of the biggest car markets in the world remain all but closed off to diesel-engined cars. Petrol hybrids are therefore particularly important in a global sense.

The ActiveHybrid 5 appears ahead of hybrid 3 and 7 Series models and all will use the same parallel hybrid powertrain, which promises to combine limited zero-emissions, electric-only running with diesel-challenging real-world economy, allied to the kind of distinguishing performance we have all come to expect of a BMW.

So, is it time to chop in your 535d?



BMW ActiveHybrid 5 xenon lights

The BMW ActiveHybrid 5 isn’t an economy car. That much becomes obvious the moment you realise that its primary powerplant is the same turbocharged 3.0-litre, six-cylinder engine that drives the 535i

And electrically assisted or not, a 300bhp petrol engine is never going to propel a 5 Series more efficiently than the four-cylinder motor you’ll find in a 520i, never mind the frugal diesel engine in BMW’s excellent 520d EfficientDynamics.

ActiveHybrid 5’s economy may improve if its six-pot didn’t sound so enticing. For once we'd have taken noiseless refinement over addictive reverb

Just as Lexus and Infiniti have learned, BMW has realised that, in order to make a profitable business case for a hybrid executive saloon, you have to be ambitious with your positioning. 

The costs of the lithium ion battery, 55bhp electric motor and high-voltage electronics that have been added to this car are simply too high to bring the ActiveHybrid 5 to market at anything less than the near-£47,000 that BMW is asking here. 

A large – and thirsty – petrol engine is therefore deemed necessary to justify the car’s price and positioning.

So the ActiveHybrid 5 has to deliver more than an impressive economy figure. With that in mind, its petrol and electric motors work together to provide the car with a peak 335bhp from 5800-6400rpm and 332lb ft from 1000-5000rpm – enough, without question, to consider this car a lower-rung performance saloon.

The integration of the car’s hybrid power components is impressive. Its electric motor is located just upstream of the eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, where you’d normally find a torque converter. The driveline has two wet multi-plate clutches; one connects the gearbox to the rear wheels, while the other can disconnect the engine from the rest of the transmission below 37mph in order to allow the electric motor to drive the wheels independently.

Power for that electric motor comes from a 1.35kWh lithium ion battery mounted between the rear wheel arches. The high-voltage circuit is rated at 317 volts, and also feeds power to the car’s air conditioning. This ensures that cabin and battery cooling isn’t interrupted when the combustion engine switches off.


BMW ActiveHybrid 5 interior

BMW could be accused of slightly gratuitous badging on the exterior of the ActiveHybrid 5, but there’s surprisingly little inside to remind you of what you’re driving. Aside from ‘ActiveHybrid’ kickplates on the sills and a badge on the cupholder, this is a familiar 5 Series cabin. Which makes it a very agreeable place to be. 

Standard specification is quite generous; you get heated Dakota leather, BMW’s Professional multimedia sat-nav system and a 10.2in full-colour display screen thrown in, for example. Material quality and fit and finish are very good, too. Better still, the inclusion of the hybrid gubbins under the skin hasn’t compromised passenger space or ergonomic success. 

The ActiveHybrid 5 comes as standard with an admirable level of equipment

While that lithium ion battery pack eats up a little usable boot length and prevents the rear seats from folding, its impact seems entirely acceptable given how much boot space you lose in a Lexus LS600h, for example. There’s plenty of room here for large cases, golf clubs and bulky cargo.

The car’s ‘black panel’ instruments are standard 5 Series fare, with one exception: directly beneath the revcounter, where you’d normally find a petrol range indicator, there’s a battery condition indicator. 

If you want to know whether the electrical propulsion system is charging, discharging or inactive at any given time, however, the ‘Hybrid’ mode on the car’s centrally mounted control display is of more use.


BMW ActiveHybrid 5 rear quarter

No other hybrid saloon we’ve road tested will prepare you for the unapologetic speed of the BMW ActiveHybrid 5. It clocked a satellite-verified 5.6sec sprint to 60mph, went from 30 to 70mph through the gears in just 5.0sec and covered a standing quarter mile in 14.1sec. 

Just for the record, the latter two numbers are identical to those recorded by BMW’s E39 M5; that was among the world’s quickest four-doors when it launched.

Feathering the throttle to stay in all-electric mode is as frustrating as ever. Where's the button to keep you on battery power for as long as possible?

So is this faster than BMW’s current 535d? Not quite. But the sensation of speed that you get from the ActiveHybrid 5 is definitely more compelling and longer lasting than that which you get from the diesel. The electric motor responds the instant you flex your right foot and infuses the lower end of the rev range with an addictive potency. 

At the other end of the tacho, the rasping smoothness of BMW’s blown six is even more marvellous. The eight-speed gearbox shifts intelligently in automatic mode and quickly in manual mode. And to be able to use the gearbox to climb through the revs at all, when the hybrid norm is to serve up more transmission slip than forward momentum when you’d rather be pressing on, makes this 5 Series so much more involving than its direct rivals.

The price to be paid for all that pace and verve, however, is economy. In the real world, the ActiveHybrid 5 isn’t a frugal car. It isn’t even close. Over almost 1000 miles of mixed driving, our test example returned just 21.6mpg. Some of that can be put down to the sporting character of the car, which does encourage you to extend it across country roads. But even allowing for that, BMW’s official combined figure of a whisker away from 50 miles to the gallon looks like a scandalous over-estimation.

Although its charging phases are quite cleverly managed, the very limited capacity of the car’s high-voltage battery seems partly to blame. BMW says it’s good for two miles of low-speed electric-only range, but in our experience a near-full charge can be depleted in the stop and start of a half-mile motorway traffic jam.


BMW ActiveHybrid 5 cornering

The BMW 5 Series has driving dynamics that you could probably identify blindfolded. The current car’s weighty and responsive steering, muscular reserves of body control and poised cornering manners are shared by every derivative, including this ActiveHybrid5. They make the mid-sized BMW utterly distinctive and almost as enticing to drive as any saloon you could name.

Like every other Five, the ActiveHybrid5 gives you the impression that here is an athlete clothed in a business suit. Its dynamic character seems to crystallise when bigger tests are asked of it, while other cars simply run out of answers.

If you’re going to rack up miles it's worth investing in the optional Dynamic Damper Control, which offers access to the soothing Comfort+ mode

Grip and damping levels are considerable and the handling is balanced, precise and stable but nuanced. A 535d M Sport would probably hang on slightly harder at the limit, but that wouldn’t necessarily make it a better fast road car. By way of comparison, an Infiniti M35h offers little handling entertainment.

Our test car came fitted with BMW’s Variable Damper Control, an option that gave it a breadth of ability the standard car probably couldn’t match. Sport+ mode delivers sports saloon composure and steering response, while Comfort offers a compliant and comfortable everyday ride. However, a basic 520d is probably a slightly better-riding BMW than even a VDC-equipped ActiveHybrid 5; over bad surfaces and in the softer suspension modes, the considerable mass of the hybrid does generate some unchecked and unwanted body movements. 

But that’s a minor criticism of an otherwise fine-handling car. This is just about the only hybrid we can think of that you’d take out of the garage simply for the sake of driving.


BMW ActiveHybrid 5

The regrettable real-world economy of the BMW ActiveHybrid 5 puts a hole in its ownership case that you can neither ignore nor forgive.

BMW will insist that the tax advantages make it appealing and that by choosing this car instead of the Jaguar XF we’ve placed at the head of the class, a 40 percent company car tax payer will save £110 a month in Benefit in Kind tax.

BMW should increase the battery’s capacity. The car would appeal more if it weren’t exhausted so quickly

And that may be true – but he’d need a very understanding boss to be able to claim for the 30 percent higher fuel bills he’d also be in line for. BMW claims a near-50mpg figure on the combined cycle, but our test returned just 21.6mpg.

The BMW’s residuals look impressive next to its wallflower hybrid competition from Lexus and Infiniti, but they’re much less outstanding compared with the fast diesel executive saloons with their better blend of high performance and low running costs.


3 star BMW ActiveHybrid 5

BMW would have been an odds-on bet to bring the market its first genuinely sporting hybrid saloon. And to drive the ActiveHybrid 5 is to be reassured that at-the-wheel entertainment is a major part of Munich’s plan for the hybridisation of its model ranges. For that, the applause must come long and loud.

However, diesel-dominated Britain has proved a tricky market for cars such as this. 

Its surprisingly sporty, but fuel economy is poor

Despite its performance appeal, the ActiveHybrid 5 isn’t nearly economical enough to make you want to give up a fast diesel saloon. 

You could forgive a deficit of a few miles per gallon in return for the verve of its petrol engine, but mid-20s – when a 535d would be in the high 30s – just isn’t tolerable.

Throughout the wider world, there may well be a bigger future for this car, but BMW will need a more economical take on the hybrid to make most British buyers sit up and take notice.

BMW ActiveHybrid 5 2011-2015 First drives