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Munich’s 50-year-old executive car icon goes boldly into the electric age

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Before we delve into the various strengths and weaknesses of the BMW i5, let’s rewind. After all, executive saloons have over previous decades gained a reputation for conservatism that, while hard to shake, is now entirely unjustified.

Twenty-five years ago, company car buyers wanted efficient diesel engines in packages priced and equipped just so. They didn’t want expensive powertrain technology. They didn’t even want riskier shades of paint.

At the time, BMW played to that brief spectacularly well. But now the executive car market has changed out of sight, under the pressure of CO2-based tax regimes.

And how the BMW 5 Series has changed along with it. The eighth generation of this mid-sized four-door is taking another bold step into the future. Incorporating updated versions of the mild- and plug-in hybrid powertrains of its predecessor, but casting out their diesel engines entirely, it is the first 5 Series to be offered as an all-electric model.

The zero-emissions i5 – the subject of this test – will be available in both saloon and Touring guises, and with a choice of single- or dual-motor powertrains.

Two years ago, Autocar had never road tested a fully electric BMW saloon, but now the i5 becomes the third, following the BMW i4 and BMW i7, with the likes of the iX, iX3 and iX1 already playing in their own niches. It has been a rapid expansion into the zero-emissions world for the brand. But what does it mean for the longest-lived BMW showroom model of them all?

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The range at a glance

Models Power From
520i M Sport 205bhp £50,755
530e M Sport 295bhp £59,455
i5 eDrive40 M Sport 335bhp £74,105
550e xDrive M Sport 483bhp £76,605
i5 M60 xDrive 593bhp £97,745

Shorn of its predecessors’ diesel engines, the eighth-generation 5 Series range consists of two plug-in hybrids, two electric i5s and the entry-level 520i mild-hybrid petrol.

There are three de facto trims for UK buyers: M Sport, M Sport Pro and M Performance (as represented by the range-topping i5 M60). The last two are distinguished by exterior styling elements (illuminated grille etc) and gain extra interior kit.

In 2024, BMW also launched the i5 Touring, which is available in exactly the same specifications as its saloon counterpart, albeit with a small premium to pay. 

DESIGN & STYLING

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bmw i5 review 2023 02 panning side

BMW updated the CLAR model platform of the previous 5 Series to serve under the new one, so there’s no EV-specific chassis for the electric version of this car.

The car has grown significantly. This G60-generation car is the first 5 Series to breach the 5.0m barrier on overall length, and the first through 1.5m in height. It’s wider in the body than the previous one (although, thanks to narrower door mirrors, only 15mm wider at its widest) and 20mm longer in the wheelbase. So it certainly begins to test the limits of what we might universally agree amounts to a mid-sized saloon.

Gloss black sills and lower body trims are an attempt to reduce the visible body mass. Even so, there’s a clear sense of chunkiness about this car that not all testers found appealing. Helping to redeem it, however, are more traditional, classic-BMW primary features than seen on the i4 or i7: a ‘kidney’ grille of fairly normal proportions and a neat interpretation of the Hofmeister kink at the C-pillar.

Under the skin, the new 5 Series range starts with a 520i Miller-cycle turbo petrol-engined model that, thanks to mild-hybrid assistance, now makes a little over 200bhp. Above that, while other global markets are still offered a 520d, 530i and even a 540i, the UK jumps straight to the plug-in options. The 530e teams a 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine with an enlarged and enhanced hybrid system for 295bhp in all and up to 63 miles of electric range.

There’s also a 550e xDrive, which combines a turbo straight six with that PHEV tech for 483bhp.

Then there are the electric options. Go for the i5 eDrive40 (tested here) and you will get a single, rear-mounted motor with 335bhp at peak. Plump for the i5 M60 instead and there’s an additional 257bhp motor for the front axle. Both cars use the same nickel-manganese-cobalt drive battery of 81.2kWh of usable capacity – less than some key rivals offer, though a class-competitive figure.

Combustion-engined 5 Series use double-wishbone front suspension with multiple links at the rear; and since the UK market range is based around M Sport trim, most cars will run on lowered, steel-coil sport suspension with passive stroke-dependent dampers. However, all i5s get specific axle modifications and come with self-levelling air suspension at the rear to cope with the weight of their rear-mounted motors, very much like the 5 Series Touring typically has over the years.

Adaptive dampers can be fitted to mid-range models and i5s as part of BMW’s Adaptive Suspension Professional package, though, which also adds active four-wheel steering. (Our test car had neither.) Those technologies both appear on the upper-end i5 M60 as standard, in addition to ride-enhancing active anti-roll bars.

Our i5 eDrive40 M Sport Pro weighed 2213kg as tested: a little over 170kg lighter than the Mercedes-Benz EQE 350+ we tested in 2022, though only a whisker lighter than the tri-motor Tesla Model S Plaid we tested earlier in 2023. By bigger EV standards, not bad, but clearly not exceptional.

INTERIOR

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bmw i5 review 2023 09 dash

There’s a strong whiff of 7 Series about the interior of this car, flowing not only from its expansive cabin width but also the scope and style of the digital technology employed in it, and from various cabin features used more widely.

BMW is creeping towards greater domination of its car interiors by their respective screens and digital interfaces, and wider integration of controls and functions within those digital systems – for better in a few cases but too often, in others, with insufficient apparent regard for accessibility of those controls while you are driving.

The i5 is not the worst example of this we have tested this year (the X1 was a much greater offender) but it’s certainly not the image of considered driver usability that BMW so often used to present.

In some ways, the i5’s cockpit is familiar. If it positions its driver at a marginally higher hip point than in previous generations (we are unable to measure these things but you are sitting atop the battery), it can’t be by much and it offers a fine, recumbent driving position in front of well-located pedals and a widely adjustable electric steering column. 

Space up front is good, particularly so for elbows and shoulders. In the second row, it’s not quite as generous as some may expect, but it’s more than sufficient for taller adults. Boot space is class competitive, the regular 5 Series narrowly pipping 500 litres of luggage capacity and the i5 only narrowly missing it.

Anybody wanting as much carrying-capacity as possible in their i5 will gravitate towards the Touring. Its 570 litres is only 50 more than the saloon manages on paper, though in reality, when you would load the boot up beyond the height of the roller-cover, it offer significantly more. However, 570 litres doesn't improve on that of the last-gen, combustion-engined 5 Series Touring, which is disappointing given the car is larger in every dimension. Note also that the rear screen no longer opens independently of the boot door itself.

The Live Cockpit Professional digital instrumentation looked a little over-styled and contrived for some testers’ liking. It’s readable but not as configurable for layout of information as we would like (but the optional head-up display helps to make up for the shortcoming).

But the 14.9in central infotainment, with its Operating System 8.5 software, can’t match that useful hierarchy of navigability. Too many permanent physical controls and menu shortcut buttons have now been taken away and the driver is too often left with too much to do to find the menu where they have been hidden away. 

The car comes with Veganza man-made leather as standard (merino leather is a cost option) but it is only moderately convincing on tactile appeal. Elsewhere, tactile material quality is respectable, but it is not in the league of the iX or i7.

By comparison with those cars, the i5’s electric window controls feel plain and a little cheap; its door cubbies are unlined; and many of its lower fascia mouldings are hard and a bit uninviting to the touch.

BMW will hope design features such as the car’s digital ‘interaction bar’ (the multi-coloured, actively illuminated light bar that spans the fascia, flooding the cabin in whichever colour takes your fancy, and flashing to warn of an incoming phone call or a safety alert) or its hidden ‘seam vent’ air vents will make up for some of the sensory appeal missing from the cabin.

Sadly, some testers felt the former looked a little garish and plasticky, and the latter were simply harder to adjust than conventional air vents.

Multimedia system

We are now onto BMW’s iDrive Operating System 8.5 infotainment generation. Just as it does in the BMW iX and i7, the system incorporates the heater controls, seat adjustment controls, interior lighting controls, headlight settings and many other functions you might expect to find physical switchgear for.

BMW tries to provide shortcut functions around the margins of the screen to make it easier to reach particular controls quickly, but they are small and fiddly to hit while driving. 

The system’s saving grace for drivers is that there’s still an iDrive-style cursor controller on the centre console. However, there’s no cursor controller on the steering wheel (like Mercedes provides) and going through the main menu screen to find a particular function to adjust can be slow and distracting.

The navigation system is easy to program via voice command and it routes sensibly and is easy to follow. Our car had the £1250 Bowers & Wilkins surround audio system, which sounded powerful, detailed and crisp in a car of quite low ambient cruising noise.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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bmw i5 review 2023 02 panning side

You might not imagine there’s much expectation on the cheaper of two electric 5 Series models to represent the BMW brand at its thrusting dynamic best, but consider that this is a near-£80,000 saloon, itself within a whisker of the price of a near-500bhp 550e PHEV, and the truth of the matter slowly surfaces. Even the junior i5 is a car that has to have at least some pace and handling appeal just to stack up.

And, on the track, it just about stacks up. On a day of marginally more favourable test conditions than its rival enjoyed, it beat the acceleration benchmarks set by the Mercedes-Benz EQE 350+ we tested in 2022 by useful margins. A twin-motor Genesis Electrified G80 is faster, however, and a Tesla Model S AWD – though pricier – faster again. 

So, as much as the Tesla is actually a more natural rival for BMW’s more powerful i5 M60, the single-motor i5 certainly isn’t the kind of EV that feels like it goes above and beyond reasonable performance expectations for the money. It’s brisk and responsive but not eye-opening, needing 5.4sec to hit 60mph from rest by our watch, which is really only about as quick as you would expect for the outlay.

Like on its other EVs, BMW gives you some slightly vague and abstract My Mode driving modes to configure the car through (Sport, Relax, Expressive, Digital Art) but, mostly, these can be taken or left. Elsewhere, you can use a ‘B’ transmission mode for a one-pedal driving style and you can adjust trailing-throttle energy regeneration through three presets or leave the car to manage it ‘adaptively’.

Being unsure exactly how much regen the car will deem appropriate for its current surroundings when you lift off the accelerator is a test of your confidence in it, though. Most testers preferred the simpler drivability of a locked-in preset.

RIDE & HANDLING

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bmw i5 review 2023 03 cornering rear

M Sport suspension settings give the i5 good body control, a consistent sense of rear-drive chassis balance and the medium-firm ride you might expect of a BMW saloon.

On turning in to tighter corners, the car feels precise rather than especially agile and there’s no escaping its bulk when you’re giving the axles complex problems to solve at speed, when the car’s mass can take several suspension strokes to rein in. 

Likewise, in narrower lanes, in parking spaces and around tighter junctions, the i5 does feel like a full-sized saloon car. The sense of mid- or ‘right-sized’ proportions that the 5 Series possessed several model generations ago – of a spacious cabin delivered in a package that didn’t so often loom over its lane or inevitably spill beyond a marked bay – isn’t present here. At low speeds especially, this feels like a big car, even if, on open roads, it does better at disguising its size.

With standard passive steering, the car has BMW-typical progressive initial steering response but always changes direction in linear proportion to inputs. There could be more weight and tactile feel to the steering, but the car is accurate and instinctive to guide. 

At higher speeds and commitment levels, there’s a moderately high grip level, thanks to its fairly adhesive Pirelli P Zero tyres. Push the car hard and it remains balanced, true to its line, and composed – at least until its mass is significantly disturbed – and can carry plenty of cornering speed. Turn the electronic stability controls off, though (and you can), and, without a mechanical locking differential at the rear axle and plenty of weight over those rear tyres, you get little throttle-steering chassis adjustability.

But while this is clearly a large and heavy car, there is some sporting purpose here: a more natural, less heavy-handed sort of dynamism than you get from a bigger Tesla, and a clearer tautness, poise and precision than many softer, heavier-feeling EVs have.

One last note on weight, as it can add up quickly. At 2130kg, the basic i5 eDrive40 saloon is already a fantastically heavy beast, and the estate adds another 50kg. Choosing the flagship i5 Touring M60 xDrive brings a second motor (and hence four- wheel drive), rear-wheel steering and active anti-roll bars. Loaded up with the family plus luggage, you’re looking at around 2700kg, all said and done. No wonder it has 593bhp.

Comfort & Isolation

Our i5 test car had BMW’s updated Comfort front seats, whose wider adjustability was masked somewhat by the simplistic manual controls on the side of the seat base. As with so many other things, you have to dive several menus deep into the infotainment system to find the finer controls for it, but when you do, you can extend the seat cushion, adjust the headrest and generally make for good long-distance driving comfort. Apart from wide-seeming B-pillars causing a big over-shoulder blindspot, all-round visibility is good.

The car’s slightly over-firm ride is the only limiting factor to its cruising comfort. It’s settled enough on the motorway and has the stoutness and wheel travel to deal with sleeping policemen around town particularly well. But it can get restive and fidgety on uneven out-of-town roads and has a tendency towards hyperactivity in the ride just when you want to find those greater reserves of composure. 

For those who would prefer a comfortable EV, however, testing experience of the i5 M60 with BMW’s adaptive dampers and active anti-roll bars fitted suggests that it is much more settled, although the latter can’t be had on an i5 eDrive40.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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bmw i5 review 2023 01 tracking front

BMW’s £74k starting price makes the i5 a pretty expensive 5 Series. Add some options to a mid-spec eDrive40 M Sport Pro and you can inflate its price close to six figures. Residuals are favourable, though, and BMW’s standard equipment levels are decent, although most buyers should expect to add at least one of its bundled options packs.

For real-world range, the car left us a little disappointed. Albeit it in cool test conditions (around 8-13deg C), it averaged 2.9mpkWh, suggesting a realistic day-to-day range of a little under 240 miles. For the money, you might reasonably expect better – and likewise of the 122kW weighted average DC rapid-charging speed the car returned in our test.

VERDICT

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bmw i5 review 2023 22 static

Compared with its nearest rivals, the BMW i5 looks fairly competitively priced, and what it gives up in some respects (on real-world range, or outright performance, for example) it makes up in others.

It’s more instructive, then, to consider it in a couple of broader contexts. Firstly, if  this is a 5 Series priced in the upper half of a G60-generation price range that starts at £51,000 and ends up a little under £100,000, does it justify that positioning? On outright sustainability and ethical appeal, you might say that it does. On performance, refinement, handling appeal and digital cabin technology, it does just about enough. But on electric range, ride comfort, all-round usability and material cabin quality, it probably doesn’t.

Secondly, we might wonder where it moves BMW’s electric saloon standard on, following the i4 and i7 to market – and it’s by this standard that the i5 is easiest to find wanting. Because while relative value gives the i4 a clearer selling point and superior range and luxury appeal deliver a couple to the i7, the i5 seems a little lost in the hinterland.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.