Aside from Toyota, BMW may have best mastered the marketing aspect of new, environmentally-friendly technology.
Sometimes we comment on an unusual design, every now and then we throw in some snarky words. And, time and again, we ask ourselves: why should electric cars (or plug-in hybrids) look like they were drawn by a five-year-old car enthusiast? If you think of the very first electric cars, the first hybrids, and now fuel-cell cars, the great majority of them were quite different, even unique.
The answer to that is simple: they are designed to be magnets for attention, to be memorable status symbols of environmental consciousness, for both the brand and the car owners.
BMW took an alternative approach. Instead of manufacturing "different" cars, they went for a new sub-brand, i, and built an entire marketing campaign around it. Thanks to this tactic of a new brand, rather than just a new look, both the i3 and the i8, especially, are closer to what one would expect, when one thinks of a car. Of course, it takes only a glance to see that this car is no old-school, petrol or diesel-powered car, but the i8, for example, could pass for a classic sports car.
But the time for striking-looking cars and marketing schemes is over. Electric cars and hybrids are now an everyday affair and can indeed replace normal cars for daily use. For BMW, this means that electricity is no longer solely the domain of the i sub-brand. Their cars are no longer strictly divided between the "old" BMW and the "new" i series. The X5, with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain, is just the first of a series of models that forecasts the future standard: in the near future, every active BMW model series will be available in plug-in hybrid (and partly-electrical) models.
The official name of the plug-in hybrid X5 is xDrive40e. While the xDrive refers to its all-wheel drive, the 40e is more or less just a marketing term, denoting the model type rather than its engine displacement, as is usual with BMWs. Indeed, both the performance and the price of the 40e are in line with the 40d, and somewhere between the 35i and 50i. In fact, with the arrival of the 40e, the 40d will be practically unnecessary.
Looking beneath the surface, we find the sort of technology we might expect: turbocharged petrol engine (in this case, 2.0-liter), like you'd find in other BMW models, and an electric motor integrated with the transmission. The petrol engine is capable of 245, while the electric motor carries 113 HP, meaning that the total system power available to the driver when they floor the gas pedal is 313 horepower. As such, X5 can be decisively fast, even on the highway, while the consumption remains favorable. Ideally it is 3.3 liters while, realistically, when used for longer and faster rides (as it was during our brief test ride, which included some urban driving) it compares to an equally-capable diesel. But on shorter, everyday drives, with regular charges, you could come out with around zero petrol consumption.
In order to keep the consumption down, it's good to use the indicator, which lets you know when to release the gas pedal, so that you can reduce speed without working the brakes. This increases the regeneration, and keeps the consumption as low as possible. The same applies to the navigation system, when used in the ECO PRO mode. This lets the electronic brain focus on driving on electricity as much as possible (through regeneration and the management of electricity consumption). Seated behind the wheel, you'd hardly notice this is happening. In automatic mode, the X5 can go on electric up to speeds of 70 km/h, before petrol engine takes over (when the pedal is floored, it kicks in earlier), but then the petrol use stops when coasting at speeds less than 160 km/h. In pure electric mode, the X5 is capable of hitting 120 km/h, while the third mode is a battery-saving mode. The official electric range is 31 km, but when tested the actual range was 25 km or less.
The Li-ion battery, with a 9 kWh capacity, is hidden beneath the trunk, which nevertheless has a flat (but slightly shallower) bottom. Inside the trunk you'll find room for the chargers, large enough to hold the bigger version required for a home charging station, and the cable for usage at rapid charging stations. Charge time is around four hours via a regular domestic outlet (2.7 kW), less than three hours on a special domestic outlet (3.6 kW), and half that at a rapid charging station (7.4 kW). This latter option is the one that most plug-in hybrids miss, a shame because it enables the use of fast charging that has already become a normal activity, for example at shopping centers.
Of course the X5 also features its own smartphone app, which controls charging and air-conditioning from a distance, as well as plush equipment, including Professional Navigation (which knows how to reach the nearest charging station and checks whether it is busy), and electronically-controlled suspension. But perhaps the most important thing is that, from behind the wheel, you'll feel very much at home, as you would in any X5. The 40e is a new step for BMW, but (unlike the i-models) the driving (aside from attaching a cable to a charging socket) is business as usual. It's for this reason that many regular customers would buy this car, when they might otherwise opt for diesel.