BMW 550e PHEV review: a smooth, sophisticated plug-in hybrid spoiled only by electronic gimmicks

The BMW 530e
BMW's new 5-series plug-in hybrid model comes in the rear-wheel-drive 530e (pictured) and the 550e xDrive with four-wheel drive

There are no diesels for the UK and the mild-hybrid petrol models are slow in coming out of Munich, so our first impressions of BMW’s new 5-series were of the battery-electric model. Fine-riding, yes, but big, heavy and not desperately efficient.

I achieved only 2.8 miles per kilowatt at the national speed limit on a chill but far from freezing day, so it goes without saying that I spent a fair bit of time tethered to a recharging post.

Given that most of these boss-class saloons will be company cars and charged at little cost to the user at the fastest and most expensive DC units, it’s perhaps forgivable, but hardly in keeping with BMW’s once all-conquering “efficient dynamics” billing.

PHEV to the rescue

The other tax-efficient option for the company car user is the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) drivetrain which, while not as generous as those for pure EVs, at least allows you to do long journeys without range anxiety and yet has effectively zero tailpipe emissions on regular short journeys between recharges.

Two such vehicles are offered: the rear-wheel-drive 530e, which starts at £59,455 and has a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine delivering 295bhp and 332lb ft augmented with a 22.1kWh (gross) lithium-ion battery pack and a 181bhp/184lb ft electric motor in the transmission. This 2.1-tonne four-door saloon has an all-electric range of 56-64 miles, a top speed of 143mph and accelerates from 0-62mph in 6.3sec.

BMW 530e front
The BMW 530e can reach a speed of 143mph

The big boss of the PHEVs is the £76,605 550e xDrive with four-wheel drive, air suspension and optional four-wheel steering. It has a twin-turbo 3.0-litre straight six-cylinder petrol engine, which delivers 482bhp and 516lb ft. Using the same battery as the 530e, along with a 194bhp/207lb ft electric motor, this 2.23-tonne saloon has an all-electric range of 52-56 miles, a top speed limited to 155mph and 0-62mph in 4.3sec.

Note that I haven’t quoted official fuel consumption figures, which for plug-in hybrids are meaningless since they are a weighted mean of tests in two impossible conditions, the battery completely full and the battery completely empty. For the record, however, the 530e is quoted at between 403 and 470mpg and the 550e at between 282 and 353mpg. Meaningless.

First impressions

Based on BMW’s CLAR chassis platform, this eighth-generation G60 5-series is effectively an updated version of the previous G30 seventh generation. For UK buyers it’s also the first 5-series which won’t be available with a diesel engine, since they form only about 15 per cent of sales these days.

It is also, at 5,060mm in length, the first over five-metre 5-series. It’s 2,156mm wide with the mirrors and 1,515mm high. So, to look at, it’s a big old thing; not helping this impression of a land battleship is the flat grey paint in which BMW insists on painting its test cars.

The interior feels and looks modern and luxurious, though in places that impression is only skin deep. The automotive obsession with piano-black finishes on quite flimsy panels is carried over into this top gun BMW saloon, with a bendy panel supporting the centre console in which the iDrive rotary controller sits.

BMW 530e cabin
A bendy panel supports the centre console

While the upholstery and trim are a little overdone (and you can spend a king’s ransom on optional upgrades), the general mien is comfortable, supportive and rather grand. There’s plenty of room in the rear seats and the 520-litre boot is large enough for four passengers’ proper luggage.

BMW 530e interior
The rear seats are roomy, comfortable and supportive
BMW 530e boot
The 520-litre boot offers ample stowage space

Then we come to the screen-based control systems, which can be accessed in a variety of ways including the iDrive, your voice and proximity sensors which you activate by waving your hands like a demented conjuror, all with mixed degrees of success. I stuck with the iDrive rotary controller and thanked my stars BMW has kept faith with this system, which was much criticised at its launch in 2001.

Highways apps, which give a limited form of self-driving to SAE 3 levels, are apparently in there but in a short drive I never found them. Similarly, the intelligent satnav, which isn’t particularly. There is a cadre of drivers who love this sort of showy tech, boasting about it in fashionable cocktail bars and preceding each and every drive with a lengthy set-up process. To up the boasting quotient for such folk, the latest 5-series has its own sub-branding: sounds courtesy of movie-music maestro Hans Zimmer, loudspeakers from Bowers & Wilkins and so on.

On the road

PHEVs pull away on battery power when available and within a few yards it’s clear this car is something special, with a ride quality that is out of this world. Of course, this 5-series model is sprung and damped via air units, which are never cheap and don’t always give the finest low-speed ride quality. All true and on heavily ridged French country roads there was a sensation of humming from the front suspension like wave ripples on the beach. Not uncomfortable, but just there.

But that was it, moan over. In every other circumstance the BMW’s body control was just uncanny. Fast or slow, bumps large and small, heavy road crowning, concrete autoroutes, bridge expansion joints, sleeping policemen, potholes – you name it, there was absolutely nothing to upset the 5-series demeanour. It just seems to be riding on a different sort of road to everything else.

BMW 530e rear
The new BMW PHEV's ride quality is 'out of this world', says our reviewer

And that four-wheel steering system makes it feel so small and confidence-inspiring on a tight country road and stable and deliberate when turning into a fast corner. The brakes feel equally progressive and powerful.

Of course, the power is considerable, but it never overwhelms and the progression of the throttle means it’s as easy to tickle the throttle as it is to jam it to the firewall. Notwithstanding a little local difficulty with some of our police forces, BMW’s turbo six is one of the finest engines in production and it sounds creamily smooth. The electric motor never feels intrusive, it just fills whatever torque gaps there are, and gives a natural feeling and seamless power delivery.

The Telegraph verdict

Big and expensive, this eighth-generation 5-series is being sold as much on its software and gadgets as it is on dynamics and power units. Did it need to break the five-metre-long barrier, did it need quite so many software gimmicks, is piano black a fit-and-proper cabin material for an £80-grand car? Discuss. But while you are doing so, remember that when it comes to joining up villages, towns and cities, in all weathers, in sybaritic comfort and with astonishing body control and driver appeal, this plug-in BMW has few if any peers. Although I must admit that Herbie my Labrador would prefer the estate version, if that’s OK with you.

The facts

On test: BMW 550e PHEV saloon

Body style: Four-door saloon

On sale: Now

How much? From £76,605

How fast? 155mph, 0-62mph in 4.3sec

How economical? 282-353mpg (WLTP Combined)

Engine & gearbox: 3.0-litre biturbo six-cylinder petrol, eight-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive

Electric powertrain: AC permanent magnet synchronous motor delivering 194bhp/207lb ft, with 18.7kWh (usable) lithium ion NMC battery, 7.4kW on-board charger

Electric range: 52-56 miles

Maximum power/torque: 483bhp/516lb ft

CO2 emissions: 23-19g/km (WLTP Combined)

VED: £0 first year, £560 next five years, then £180

Warranty: 3 years/unlimited mileage

The rivals

Audi A6 Black Edition 50 E TFSI Quattro 299PS, from £63,050

Audi A6 Black Edition
An all-electric range of under 30 miles makes the Audi A6 less tax efficient

We’re waiting for the A6 revamp including a battery electric version coming this year, but for the moment this 2.0-litre four-cylinder PHEV is it. The 295bhp drivetrain gives this two-tonne saloon a 0-62mph time of 6.2sec and the lithium-ion battery gives an all-electric range of under 30 miles which makes it less tax efficient.

Mercedes-Benz E300e PHEV AMG Premium, £70,900

Mercedes E300e
The Mercedes E300e offers a good driving experience, but steer clear of the options list

Mercedes also makes a super-economical diesel but the 2-litre 201bhp petrol combined with the 127bhp electric motor and a 25.4kWh lithium-ion battery gives a 147mph top speed, 0-62mph in 6.4sec and an EAER all-electric range of 68-71 miles. Good to drive despite its 2.2 tonne weight and comfortable, but stay away from the options list.