My fellow automotive journalists tend to treat hybrid test drives with about as much enthusiasm as a trip to the eye doctor, or visiting their grandmother in the hospital. They understand their duty, and know it's the right thing to do, but they're always keeping an eye on the next, hopefully sweeter, gig. "Hybrids take all the joy out of driving," one of them once told me. That reflects the majority opinion.
But I like hybrids. I drive one as my daily bread. Few things give me more joy than saving money, particularly on gas, that most wasteful commodity. So when I heard that I was going to get to test-drive the new BMW ActiveHybrid 5, in Portugal no less, I got really excited. Even from my enthusiast's point of view, I'll admit that most hybrid cars, fuel-efficiency aside, have about as much pickup as a Segway-riding cop giving parking tickets. Somehow, though, I guessed that the Bavarian Motor Works wasn't going to mess around with a weak hybrid drivetrain.
I guessed correctly. The ActiveHybrid 5 is essentially the BMW 535i with an electric drive system added. BMWs first two hybrid cars used a V-8 engine, but this one has a three-liter inline six-cylinder job, plus a 54 hp electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery. It goes from 0 to 60 in the exact same amount of time, and actually has slightly more horsepower and more torque. The rest of the car, other than a few incidental design tweaks, is almost exactly the same.
And so I drove it, along the highways, coastal roads, and hills surrounding Lisbon. Let's quote from my notebook here: "Seamless toggle between electric and gas engine"; "Beautiful lines, elegant interior, comfortable seating"; "it hums like a hive": "if I had to drive my kid to school in the suburbs of Lisbon, now I would know all the routes"; "the H5 handles fabulously."
If I had any complaints, it was that the steering was something less than fully intuitive for me. The car felt a little unwieldy on narrow roads. But that's standard fare for four-door luxury machines, and no one else I talked to seemed to have that problem. In a blind taste test between this and a non-hybrid, it would be pretty much impossible to tell the difference. In every aspect — braking, acceleration, overall handling, and torque — this baby was every bit the equivalent of its non-hybrid brother.
That included, surprisingly enough, fuel economy. BMW estimates that the 5 series hybrid will only get, on average, two or three more miles per gallon than the regular 535i which has a 25-mpg overall rating on these shores. At a sedate businessman's lunch after our test drive (in stark contrast to the ludicrous Bat Mitzvah celebration for the new Mini Roadster the night before), a BMW executive told me that the company was seeking a balance between dynamism and fuel efficiency.
"If it were to get 40 to 45 MPG, then it would not be a BMW anymore," he said.
I wondered: If you're going to take the time to create a magnificent machine that operates in five dynamic driving modes, has an 8-speed sport manual transmission, an electric motor that operates on its own for a couple of miles up to 37 mph and a seamless powertrain that allows you to coast gas-free at speeds up to 100 mph, why not jack up the fuel efficiency into the 40s? Well, part of that has to do with simple physics. The ActiveHybrid 5 is a nearly 4,400-pound car. Even German efficiency can't create a fully gas-saving motor for something that heavy.
But the other, possibly more important reason has to do with market segment. The ActiveHybrid is competing with Lexus and Infiniti hybrids, not to mention the Audi A6 and the Mercedes E400. These cars aren't being driven by slightly well off liberal soccer moms. Their owners are middle-aged luxury yachtsmen who want adjustable thigh support and wood-veneer paneling. You start shaving poundage off a magnificent 5 Series ship, and suddenly you're in a different league. It's go high-end or go home, and in the ActiveHybrid 5's case, the hybrid tech comes at premium of roughly $10,000 over the regular 535i.
By any standard, the ActiveHybrid 5 is a significant car, a neat, sophisticated machine with impeccable, state-of-the-art hybrid technology and a lovely aquiline nose. Yet it left me wanting and feeling somehow uneasy, like I'd just conducted a disappointing love affair with an elegant countess. Maybe I'd been spoiled, MPG-wise, by years of Prius and Fusion-ing. Maybe I'm not that into operating a luxury hybrid office-on-wheels. But you don't buy a hybrid for the torque. You buy it so you don't have to stop at the Shell station more than once every ten days. In that way, and only in that way, BMW still has work to do here.
They've still taken a massive leap forward with this drivetrain, which they're planning to introduce into the smaller, sportier 3 Series this fall. Already, I'm imagining what it'll be like to pull that sucker around a curve. I hope to be singing the Ode To Joy, and saving money on gas in the bargain.
Full Disclosure: For this review, BMW provided transportation and hotel accommodations.
2012 BMW ActiveHybrid 5 stats:
|Configuration||Front-engine, rear-wheel drive|
|Engine||24-valve DOHC I-6 turbo supported by lithium-ion battery-powered electric motor|
|Power||300 hp plus 54 hp from electric drive system|
|Torque||300 ft.-lbs., plus 155 ft.-lbs. from electric drive system|
|Top speed||140 mph|
|Zero to 60 mph||5.7 seconds|
|Mileage||24/35 EPA estimated.|
|Base price (incl destination charges)||$61,845|
|Remarkable features||Top-shelf hybrid drivetrain|