The plug-in hybrid isn't short of detractors, but the suitability of the technology for the current climate is clear enough. A PHEV offers its driver EV silent running when it suits, and petrol power for when that's preferable - and in a country where the public charge network is still not brilliant, that duality has plenty of advantages. Plus, let's be honest here - we'd probably all like to keep a petrol motor where possible, which means that what you really want is a PHEV built by a manufacturer renowned for both their combustion engines and EV technology.
Here we are, then, with a BMW 545e, a G30 5 Series powered by a turbocharged, 3.0-litre, 286hp straight six and a 11.6kWh, 108hp electric motor. With the best part of 400hp, xDrive all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic, here's an unassuming 5 Series with the performance of an E39 M5. Electric range is quoted at between 29 and 33 miles (depending on options) and overall fuel economy, officially, is from 122mpg. If any plug-in hybrid can convince the naysayers, the 545e ought to be it.
Hold that thought. Driving the 5 Series at a BMW range event means others had a go first, and by the time of our drive the battery was depleted. To zero. First blood to the detractors, as this is their favourite trope, lugging around batteries and motors without actually using them. Hardly ideal for the 5 Series' eco credentials, though useful for assessing the 545 against its conventionally powered stablemates as a petrol car.
Given Sport mode both replenishes the battery through regen and aims to deliver the most dynamic drive, that seems the logical place to start. By and large the 545e feels like a 5 Series, which is to say fairly hard to fault: it's capable, finessed, assured and luxurious. It's only when driving a bit harder, in those situations where the BMW saloons tend to distance themselves from rivals, that the 545e begins to fall a bit short. Some of that will be down to the test car's spec, as the M Sport Pro package with bigger wheels mandates the fitment of run-flat tyres. And, as we know by now, they spoil things - there's a reason RFTs are never found on M cars. Here it means a less settled ride than we've come to expect from this 5 Series (the softer damper setting buried in Sport Individual is worth seeking out) as well as a relative lack of precision - this just doesn't steer or grip as a 5 Series ought to. However good the car looks on bigger wheels, the dynamic penalty enforced with the run-flats means it doesn't seem worthwhile.
Other issues seem unique to the model. Throttle response is curious, very sharp at the top of the pedal then indecisive further down as the car seems unsure whether to draw on electric motor or not. Consequently, the slickness and cohesion of a BMW powertrain isn't quite there. And while the manufacturer has done a fair job of masking the additional mass of PHEV architecture, there's no escaping the fact that Autocar weighed this very 5 Series at 2,046kg. An equitable weight distribution is great, but even more kerbweight to balance is not, and the 545e simply doesn't drive with the poise of something like a 540i. Nor does it feel quite as fast as might be expected from a £60k 5 Series, either, however nice it is to have a large straight-six for company. With so many hybrids using fairly ordinary combustion motors, the charm of a 3.0-litre BMW engine is not to be taken lightly - especially with only 30e four-cylinder models available to this point. But you'd hope for more verve.
Of course, when you don't want or need a straight-six, an electric 5 Series is predictably pleasant. The Electric mode sits alongside Hybrid, Sport and Adaptive, keeping the car on battery power until the juice is either gone or the driver requests full throttle. Obviously, performance has nothing on a dedicated EV, though it'll easily be sufficient for urban errands, and can reach 87mph. And don't underestimate the appeal of a car this refined running on electrons - it's extremely soothing. A shame, therefore, that it can't be utilised more often; the EV range is rated at 30 miles on WLTP, so expect a touch less in reality, especially in poor weather. With the car already over two tonnes, it's hard not to think that the benefits in range of additional battery capacity might have been worth a few more kilos.
Significantly, none of these technical shortcomings dramatically limit the model's likeability as a 5 Series. The 545e can play the hushed long-distance cruiser, the electric urban runaround, the 400hp BMW (once charged) and the company car tax-friendly saloon. It does pack a lot of things under one roof, and does many things with aplomb. The not unfamiliar problem is that for its extra weight, cost, and complexity, the process of electrification is generally better at rewarding on-paper problems than real world ones. Short of another fuel crisis, no conventionally powered 5 Series owner is going to be overcome with jealously. Which is understandable - BMW has been making very good petrol and diesel executive saloons for decades, and has it down to a fine art; more often than not the 545e feels more like a very convenient tax solution than a concerted effort to move the 5 Series forward. The M550i has ten times the charm for much, much less than ten times the cost.
That must you probably guessed at. In fairness to it (and PHEVs in general) the usual provisos apply: presented with the right use case, the 545e will almost certainly prove cheaper to run than the alternatives, assuming you can charge it at home and keep within its limited range. And while anyone wanting the dynamic pleasure of a straight-six 5 Series will be better served by one unencumbered by batteries, business users will likely rejoice at BMW's decision to fuse the two together. The size and spending power of that audience meant that we expected a little more from what is obviously intended as a crowd-pleaser - but its disadvantages just serve to highlight how mightily good the current 5 Series really is. Which means that it's probably still the best six-cylinder, plug-in hybrid executive saloon you can buy. Go figure.
SPECIFICATION | 2021 BMW 545E
Engine: 2,998cc, straight-six turbo plus 11.6kWh electric motor
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 394@5,000-6,000rpm (286hp engine + 108hp electric motor)
Torque (lb ft): 442 (332@1,600-3,500rpm from engine)
0-62mph: 4.6 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 2,020kg (BMW 'not loaded' weight)
Price: £60,260 (price as standard; price as tested £72,595, comprised of Technology Plus Pack (Driving Assistant Professional, Parking Assistant Plus, Head-up Display, Harmon/Kardon surround sound, BMW Drive Recorder, Enhanced Bluetooth with wireless charging, BMW Gesture Control, WiFi hotspot preparation) for £4,995, Comfort Pack (Steering wheel heating, powered bootlid, Comfort Access, Comfort front seats) for £2,495, M Sport Pro Pack (20-inch style 846M wheels with runflat tyres and adaptive suspension) for £2,495, M Sport red brake calipers for £300, Electric sunroof for £1,095, Split folding rear seats for £395, Piano Black BMW Individual trim for £560)
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