BMW has a clear ambition to lead the charge when it comes to offering the most comprehensive range of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) in the premium segment.
The company currently has the i8 sportscar, the X5 40e, the 740e and soon it will be joined by the 330e and 530e.
We have just driven the 530e in Munich, Germany and it could be made available in SA in the last quarter of 2017 or early in 2018, according to BMW SA. This, of course, will hinge on how the currency performs in the coming months.
Based on the latest generation 5 Series, the 530e essentially uses a similar hybrid setup to that of the 740e, but with slightly less power from the combustion engine.
This means a 2.0-litre TwinPower turbo engine up front, which puts out 135kW and 290Nm augmented by an 83kW and 250Nm electric motor. The total system output is 185kW and 420Nm and power is supplied to the rear wheels through an eight-speed gearbox.
It is all seamless in the way the system works with the electric power alone giving you up to 50km of range at a maximum speed of 140km/h. According to the company, the claimed consumption figure stands at 1.9l/100km while the carbon emissions are pegged at 44g/km. The 9.2kWh battery takes about two to four hours to charge using a 230V plug.
During our drive in Munich, which included a stint on the open road and stop-go traffic conditions, we averaged around 6.8l/100km which, for a vehicle of this size, is still impressive. The combustion engine itself lacks the overall refinement befitting a vehicle in the segment, but things become civil once at cruising speeds.
The only qualm I have, however, relates to the boot space, which measures 410l and is a compromise from the regular, combustion-only powered models that have a 530l boot. This comes down to the fact that the lithium-ion battery pack is located below the rear seats and ekes into the boot. That aside, though, plug-in hybrids make sense if you commute short distances to and from work (below the 50km electric range), which means that you are more than likely to only run on electric power, saving on petrol.
Being a 5 Series, the model is still dynamic and comfortable for the most part, but it will be interesting to see how it fares compared with its diesel counterpart such as, say, the 530d, particularly from an economy and performance point of view.
Plug-in hybrid vehicles are of course a stop gap between combustion propelled vehicles and fully electric ones. This, in the grand scheme of things, means that BMW will reduce its fleet carbon footprint quite considerably compared to its rivals, particularly as markets such as China and the US continue to embrace hybrid models.
For South Africans, however, the technology remains expensive and the models do command a premium over a turbo diesel derivative for instance. Another factor is that South Africans in general drive vast distances in comparison to most global markets, so a plug-in hybrid makes little sense over an equally frugal turbo diesel model. As a result I am of the view that turbo diesels will continue to be the popular choice among discerning, penny-mindful premium car buyers.
In isolation, though, the 530e is an accomplished executive sedan that will appease those who are averse to diesel engines, yet want the convenience and thriftiness that a hybrid model affords. The technology will, of course, be embraced by more people as soon as it manages to trickle down to more affordable models. That will take some time, though, but the prospects are there if the technology becomes cheaper to attain, which will influence the economies of scale and therefore the sticker price of future plug-in hybrid cars.
A number of manufacturers continue to steer their models towards the greener route, which means at some point both diesel and petrol engines will be relegated to the annals of automobile history. It is an era I might dread to see, but the car is constantly changing, morphing into something more than just a mode of transport, but also a well-connected mobile device that has the ability to steer itself.
That said, there is arguably a strong case for plug-in hybrids in the future and should the technology become more readily available, the battery packaging that much better and the price more palatable, then we might see an influx of these models into our market.
While the BMW 530e will remain a niche model in the company’s portfolio, the model certainly has a place in the line-up. – Lerato Matebese