The strange case of BMW and the ActiveHybrid 5
LISBON, Feb 23 — “The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.” — Private J.T. “Joker” Davis, from the Stanley Kubrick film “Full Metal Jacket”.
As BMWs go, the newly-launched ActiveHybrid 5 is an untypical amalgamation of the very ethos that is BMW — brash, loud and unapologetic — and the need to jive with the larger collective of responsible motoring. Hence, that single quote sums up neatly what the company is trying to achieve with this, their third attempt at the petrol-electric hybrid.
Innate in the brand’s DNA is the message that driving is at the core of the experience. It is also the first thing you will notice when you get into the ActiveHybrid 5, that it does not drive like how you would expect a dual-engine vehicle to perform. Instead, it drives virtually like the 535i on which it is based.
The synchronous electric motor, married seamlessly into the bell housing of the eight-speed automatic transmission, generates 55bhp and 210Nm — sufficient to motivate the executive saloon up to 60kph.
On the conventional side, the award-winning twin-turbocharged 3.0l inline six-cylinder produces 306bhp and 400Nm. Together, the motors make 340bhp and 450Nm. Which go to propel the car from standstill to 100kph in 5.9 seconds and an electronically-governed top speed of 250kph. Just like the 535i.
The performance is near-identical because the hybrid motor and the requisite battery — a 675Wh lithium-ion pack capable of up to 4km of pure electric drive — tacks on another 140kg onto the body. To BMW’s credit, nearly all the weight is located between the fore and aft wheels, thereby maintaining their prized symmetric weight distribution.
Located vertically between the rear strut towers, the lithium-ion pack consumes 145l in trunk space but still leaves a usable 375l available. BMW was reticent over the replacement cost of the unit, in the unlikely event that it needs replacing, which buyers should take to mean “a lot.”
From within the cabin, the graphical electric motor assist indicator displayed as part of the iDrive system tells the driver that this is not your ordinary 5 Series. It denotes when the car is being driven using just battery power, the petrol engine, or a combination of the two.
In use, the transition between the two power sources is seamless enough that you never know which of the two motors is driving the car. Unlike the Active Stop Start technology that utilises a conventional starter, the integrated motor here also serves as the igniter for the petrol engine, allowing it to burst into life without missing a beat.
Within city limits and using a feathered throttle, the ActiveHybrid 5 will trundle along happily — silently — using just the electric motor; anything more than the slightest pressure on the accelerator is enough to tickle the main engine into life.
Omitted is an option to constrain drive purely to the electric motor, but perhaps the idea of a 5 Series golf cart was a bridge too far for BMW.
To show that battery power will not be limited to an urban environment, the included ECO-PRO mode allows the vehicle to coast at speeds of up to 160kph with the engine completely off — a surreal experience that drivers coming from conventional vehicles may find initially disconcerting.
The extent to which the electric motor is involved can be manually determined. In progressively more aggressive steps — ECO-PRO, Comfort+, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ — the driver can adjust not just how quickly the petrol engine is brought into play but also how responsive it becomes. From lazy to racy and anywhere in between, the choice is a few button clicks away.
In the event that the optional magnetic damper system is specified, changing these settings also alters how the car drives overall and how stiffly it rides.
Beyond the engines, manual controls such as the steering and brakes feel as they do on the regular 535i: Nicely-weighted and progressive but devoid of much in the form of nuanced feedback.
To boost fuel savings, BMW also equipped the ActiveHybrid 5 with low-rolling resistance, run-flat tyres. Despite the worrying inference, it is safe to report that “low resistance” in this case does not equate to compromised mechanical grip.
Returning to the theme of duality, BMW says the thinking behind a vehicle like the ActiveHybrid 5 is two-fold. First, that hybrid technology is best applied to large displacement engines where any fuel economy improvement is more tangible. And two, that hybrids ought to mean a reduction in fuel consumption and not driving pleasure.
Conceivably, the type of buyer who purchases a car purely for its economy differs markedly from the one who picks a car based on performance. It is here that BMW hopes the new ActiveHybrid 5 is able to straddle the chasm that divides the two.
It is also this dichotomy, however, that tears the driver in opposing directions.
The awareness that this is a hybrid engenders a mindset that is heavily economy-biased, that demands a light-footed and considered driving style; anything else feels as though you are being unfaithful. On the other hand, the car’s raw power and ability simply behoves the driver to drive as it yearns to be driven. So, how?
A more practical consideration would be the cost-benefit analysis of the ActiveHybrid 5. BMW claims a fuel economy improvement of up to 15 per cent over the regular 535i, itself already a parsimonious performer.
The upshot is that the price is expected to be in the region of 15-20 per cent higher than the 535i, depending on final specification. In relative terms, that seems fair.
In absolute numbers — taking into account the very large number of RM598,000 that is the retail price of the 535i in Malaysia and considering it will not enjoy the hybrid tax break owing to its displacement — not so much.
To complicate matters further, hybrid car buyers fall broadly into two categories: those primarily motivated by the (maximum) fuel savings, and those who drive one as an ideological statement. Given the price premium, BMW is clearly aiming for the latter. However, that requires a car that embraces the idea to its very core, which BMW has said from the offset that it is not prepared to do — yet.
For now, the ActiveHybrid 5 almost comes across as the un-hybrid, one that seemingly treats the “hybrid” moniker as you would a distant and mildly embarrassing relative whom you have no choice but to occasionally acknowledge.
Is that what buyers want? Only time will tell.
Model: BMW ActiveHybrid 5
Engine: Twin-turbocharged, 2,979cc six-cylinder, in-line, petrol (306bhp/400Nm)
Synchronous electric motor (55bhp/210Nm)
Combined operation (340bhp/450Nm)
Acceleration: 0-100kph in 5.9 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 250kph (electronically restricted)
Consumption: 7l/100km (claimed average)
Price: To be determined
Availability: Late 2012/2013