How do you develop a plug-in hybrid when your company’s mantra is to build ultimate driving machine? That’s the question that kept poking at me during a brief drive of new 2018 BMW 530e xDrive iPerformance sedan and, for equal consideration, how is green credibility and fuel economy reconciled with your pedigree as an automaker, which demands better, faster and more fun-to-drive motorcars? You evolve, reinvent, expand and maybe you redefine what “ultimate” means.

With BMW iPerformance technology, BMW resolutely moves toward a future demanding eco-electric powertrains. It is been 5 years since it began this march forward with first ActiveHybrid models, BMW’s approach temporarily culminating in fascinating, disconcerting and strangely exhilarating 5 Series plug-in, the 530e.

Blue light special

Though equipped with a futuristic drivetrain, 530e feels just like a 5 Series after you have slipped inside the cabin, of course, it is not a space ship. This may be a plug-in hybrid, but it is still a BMW and as such the cockpit is designed to promote and protect the true driving experience. That means car is equipped with good outward visibility, firm seats, acres of legroom and the application of company’s latest technology. One notable difference between 530e and the 530i is the application of blue interior lighting along the door panels and dashboard. It’s a nice touch but perhaps a little overdone. Cool tech is here and it is all about teaching drivers to go green. Both head up display and the iDrive infotainment system screen are set up to coach drivers toward maximum efficiency, should one choose that goal. BMW makes a game out of going green, too. Among 530e iPerformance’s numerous driving modes, the default setting is EcoPro while a Max eDrive mode changes that to, you guessed it, maximum electric power. Not tested here, but of note, is coming inductive wireless charging system currently in development. Using it, 530e owners will ultimately park their vehicle in garage and it will charge up without plugging in.

A different drive experience

Driving 2018 BMW 530e is a discombobulating experience. That’s the word for it, the best word to describe difference between expectations and reality. You think 530e will drive in a significantly different way, only to discover scant evidence of its electrified drivetrain. Yet, at the same time, something about driving experience lacks BMW’s typical dynamic signature. The latest 5 Series has been criticized for this since its debut for 2017, so that could be part of it. Drive it gently, and power layers on nicely. Demand acceleration and there’s a perceptible lull and pull back. Engine is louder than you expect, yet responsiveness fails to match noise levels. As far as handling is concerned, ponderous is too strong a word for my impressions. Perhaps “chubby” is a better way to describe sensation of running this car around a corner. You can feel the extra 150 pounds of electric motor and battery weight as 5 Series lumbers down the road and rolls into corners, under control but feeling heavy and chubby. Is that bad? Is the objective of electrification to mimic the internal combustion experience? Or do we need to assign new “kpis” to how we assess the performance of these electrified creatures? For example, 530e xDrive iPerformance will travel about 30 miles on electric power alone. Taken together, gasoline engine and electric motor deliver up to 72 MPGe. Meanwhile, standard 530i is supposed to return 27 mpg in combined driving, burning gas no matter how short the trip is. Additionally, when turbocharged gas engine goes to work, transition is smooth and difficult to notice. Aside from unexpected noise levels I previously mentioned, refinement levels are outstanding, from interplay between gas engine and electric motor to shifting smoothness of 8 speed automatic transmission. Do such traits qualify a car as a modern ultimate driving machine? Driving assist programs work well in particular head-up display noting local speed limit complete with color indicators of your compliance with the law. Lane assist system is a strict disciplinarian, guarding against wandering drivers. Still, just because such safety systems work with accuracy and tenacity, question of whether they belong in a BMW or not is a valid one. As far as expectations for a luxury plug-in hybrid go, 2018 BMW 530e iPerformance drives well enough. But at same time, it falls short of expectations of a BMW.

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