How many of us dares say we drive a diesel these days? It’s a risky business. Some people react as though you’ve just admitted to gathering all your waste plastic and throwing the lot from your car – outside the gates of the local primary school.
It’s amidst a negative backdrop like this that increasing numbers of motorists are considering changing to an electric car, or a plug-in hybrid model.
The obvious concern about going the whole hog and taking a leap of faith to a pure electric car is that it is unlikely to work seamlessly in all scenarios – notably, packing the family aboard and going on a long drive to visit Aunty Edna or driving to a staycation in Cornwall.
Whereas a plug-in hybrid, like the BMW 530e, reviewed here, is able to cover more bases. It has over 400 miles of driving range, there’s a petrol engine that can be filled at the pumps in a couple of minutes, and for the school run-cum-commute an electric motor and battery mean it can behave like a hybrid or electric car, with the potential to get from A to B without spewing anything from its exhaust pipe.
There are other benefits, too, such as no road tax and reduced benefit-in-kind tax bills for company car drivers. Given that such incentives can’t last forever - assuming the government doesn’t want to run short of tax revenue - is this a good time to switch from a diesel-powered BMW 5 Series to a plug-in hybrid version?
The point of the plug-in hybrid is to broadly match the performance and convenience of a diesel-powered, six-cylinder 530d. So let’s compare the two.
The 530e comes in SE or M Sport trim (tested here), as does the 530d, and costs from £45,810 or £49,110 respectively. The diesel versions are £46,195 and £49,495, so there’s precious little in it.
A modest saving can be had on road tax. The 530e costs nothing to tax in its first year, then £440 a year, whereas the 530d comes in at £515 and £450. The serious financial gain comes for company car drivers. Over three years (2018 to 2021), the cleaner 530e will cost a 40% taxpayer £8,437, whereas the diesel equivalent soars to £19,570. Slowly but surely word is spreading amongst company car users that plug-in hybrids can save drivers a small fortune in tax.
Charge the 530e every day and drive no more than 20 miles between top-ups and you could, in theory, never have to put a drop of petrol into a BMW 530e. During our testing, its battery charge comfortably gave a driving range of 20 miles, on winding, rising and falling country roads, compared with the official figure of 28 miles.
However, for comparison purposes, BMW quotes an average fuel economy of 141mpg and CO2 emissions of just 46g/km. That makes it exempt from London’s Congestion Charge and the T-Charge, as well as forthcoming Clean Air Zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham and elsewhere.
The 530d M Sport manages 55mpg and emits 134g/km, meaning it isn’t exempt from Congestion Charge but satisfies the T-Charge and Clean Air Zones.
Using the official fuel economy and current average fuel prices, a driver covering 10,000 miles a year would spend £412 on petrol for the 530e, whereas the 530d more than doubles that to £1082.
Want to cut to the chase? It’s like a petrol-powered 5 Series, albeit one that’s put on a bit of weight.
Need a bit more detail? Well, if you are coming from a diesel car, in all honesty, it’s a pleasure to start the car and be greeted with silence, rather than the unpleasant rattle of diesel that is more in keeping with a van making delivery rounds.
The battery gives enough acceleration to keep up with all but the fastest motorway traffic and can reach speeds of up to 87mph, if set to ‘Max eDrive’ mode. Leave it in ‘Auto eDrive’ and for most of the time, the clever computers default to electric running, but if you put your foot to the floor the petrol engine lends a hand and at that point the 530e becomes jolly swift.
BMW claims it can accelerate from 0-62mph in 6.2 seconds, and the top speed is 146mph, which is a shade behind the 530d and ahead of a 520d. And even when the engine is called into action, there’s a crisp, clean rasp rather than the rattle you’d get from a diesel.
The pleasure, however, comes not from driving fast but eking out the energy potential of the car’s battery. Points are awarded for Anticipation and Acceleration – a star rating, scored out of five – and it’s satisfying trying to get top marks and watch the average fuel economy rise as your rating improves. There’s also a screen, showing the mix of battery power, petrol and regenerated power you’ve used, so you can try and reduce the proportion of burnt fuel.
That battery will charge from empty, using a household socket in about 4.5 hours, or half that if you have access to a wallbox charger. However, ‘empty’ doesn’t mean the battery stops working. There’s always enough charge to keep the car operating as a mild hybrid, or you can use the engine as a generator and prescribe how much you’d like it to charge the battery by. Let it run flat and you’ll see fuel economy fall to around 35mpg; keep the battery topped up using the mains supply and you may rarely rely on petrol power at all.
A tip for buyers is to order the variable damper control with a 530e. The £985 option gives even the M Sport model pillow-soft ride comfort or tautens things up if you need to press on. As for the steering, road holding and brakes, this is one of the most polished packages in its class – if only the engineers could completely do away with the unpleasant ‘grabbing’ sensation that sometimes occurs when braking to a halt.
By the end of the year, charging your plug-in hybrid car will be as convenient as charging an electric toothbrush. BMW will be first to lease a wireless inductive charging system, which can be ordered now. The system consists of two parts, a wireless charging Ground Pad that is professionally installed at a customer's home, and a wireless receiver Car Pad mounted to the underside the car. When approaching the Ground Pad, the car’s screen automatically displays a bird's-eye view of the car and the Ground Pad, guiding the driver into position. The UK price is still to be announced, but it can be used indoors or outside, and is likely to become a popular option for drivers who can’t get enough gadgets in their life, and would prefer not to manhandle the five-metre charging cable.
Of the luxury plug-in hybrid cars on the market, only Volvo’s offerings can top the 5 Series for comfort and style. It is one of the most comfortable saloon cars available, with sumptuous seats that support in all the right paces, a good driving position, plenty of space for back seat passengers and excellent ergonomics that won’t leave the driver floundering for features like the climate control or phone.
The only downside to the plug-in hybrid model is that its battery eats into boot space, reducing its ability as a family holdall from 530 litres to 410 litres.
The tally of equipment is competitive, but the list of further options and special packages is exhaustive. It would be easy to spend as much as a new family hatchback on extras alone for a 530e.
This is a smooth mover that makes a good case for switching from a posh saloon with a diesel engine to a plug-in hybrid model. Seamless to use and delivering impressive performance, it won’t be long before large numbers of company car drivers switch to PHEV technology – with the 530e at the top of their shortlist.
|Engine/power unit||2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, with 9.2kWh battery and motor|
|Electric range||28 miles|