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Remember the classic sci-fi movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers? It was where people (specifically Donald Sutherland in the cool '70s version) would be replaced by alien copies –grown from giant pods - while they slept. These pod-people looked the same and generally went about their business, but underneath were completely different and intent on assimilating and replacing every human on the planet.
Now stay with me here, as I draw a connection with the 2016 BMW X5 xDrive40e plug-in hybrid SUV. (This will work, I promise.)
From the outside, the model that launches the BMW iPerformance range in Australia looks exactly the same as every other X5. You can even option the $3300 M Sport pack for that flared-arch, big-wheel look that buyers can’t seem to get enough of.
In fact, aside from the subtle eDrive badges and plug-in charger flap on the front left fender, there are no visible differences between the petrol-electric 40e and its $118,900 price-matching precursor in the alphabet, the diesel 40d.
The theme continues inside, where the eDrive button on the console is the only obvious change from a ‘regular’ X5.
Equipment levels are high, as are luxury touches, with a stitched leather dashboard, keyless entry and start, radar cruise control, lane departure warning, surround-view camera and the large 10.2-inch iDrive screen all standard.
The hybrid’s battery system is under the boot floor, which is raised an almost unnoticeable 40mm to accommodate the 96 lithium-ion cells, but it does remove the 150-litre under-floor storage and space saver spare, as well as the option to fit seven seats.
Same outside, same inside, same price, same equipment… like the fictional pod-people, these hide in plain sight hybrids are hard to spot and like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, Audi Q7 eTron and forthcoming Mercedes-Benz GLE500e, seem to be becoming the norm.
But unlike our celluloid replicants, who exhibit zero traces of emotion or engagement, this hybrid still gives off plenty of that BMW charm.
Powered by a combination of a 180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine and an 83kW/250Nm electric motor, the X5 40e has a combined output of 230kW and 450Nm – not far off the 230kW/630Nm figures from the X5 40d twin-turbo 3-litre diesel.
What this means is a claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.8 seconds and a maximum range of 31km on pure electric power. BMW also claims a combined fuel consumption of just 3.3L/100km, but more on that shortly.
The components aren’t completely new or unique to the X5, either. The petrol engine is the same as in the 528i sedan. Whereas elements of the electric machine (yes, BMW insists on calling it the ‘machine’) are ported from the sleek BMW i8 plug-in hybrid super-sports coupe.
The ‘machine’ integrates the eight-speed gearbox with the electric drive unit, which in turn is coupled to the constant all-wheel drive system of the X5.
This enables three distinct driving modes: Auto eDrive, where the petrol and electric motors are used to their most efficient effect possible; MAX eDrive, which is a forced EV mode and enables silent, electric running up to 120km/h; and SAVE, which solely uses the 2.0-litre petrol engine for power, and recharges the batteries through heightened regenerative braking.
In this setting, the eDrive X5 will recharge from an empty battery to around 80 per cent while driving. You can also charge the car from either a dedicated public charger or a $1700 (plus fitting) optional home charger in about 2.5 hours, or by using the supplied 240-volt plug adaptor in about five hours.
Another benefit of the EV capability in the 40e is pre-emptive cabin cooling (or heating) using the BMW remote smartphone app. You can set the car to ‘precondition’ the cabin, or even prepare for a set departure time – something that makes a huge amount of sense in the Australian climate.
So with cabin adequately prepared and the car in its default Auto eDrive mode, we set out for a loop around our nation’s capital to take in examples of both urban and extra-urban driving conditions.
The thing that still feels strange in any EV is the completely silent movement at slow speeds in and out of carparks. You do feel you need to check that the car is even on, and the initial resistance of the electric drive makes accurate slow movements something that needs to be learned through practice.
Outside the car, it even makes a distinct 'hybrid approaching' noise to alert humans - just like the body snatchers!
Heading through the CBD, it became apparent that Canberra was both a good and bad place to sample the X5 40e. Good, for the quality of roads and reliability of traffic flow, and bad in that there is no traffic – not as Melbourne and Sydney know it – to really showcase the benefits of the electric drive system.
On paper, the X5’s range of 31km (which BMW admits is more like 25km of real-world use in Australia) sounds very short. But consider your commute - do you really travel that far in any given day?
The Australian average is 15.6km each way. I personally travel about 8km to drop my daughter at school and then a further 4km to the CarAdvice office every day. Assuming my 40e was charged before leaving home and set to charge when at work, I wouldn’t actually ever need to use the petrol engine.
In these conditions, the X5 is superb. The silence and smoothness is very impressive, and the already excellent cabin a roomy, comfortable and practical place to spend time.
Ease off from the lights in a hushed glide, and the petrol motor will kick in - should you squeeze the throttle that little bit harder, or if the car deems your driving to require it. There is minimal disturbance as the 2.0-litre kicks over, offering a continual smooth and quiet drive as the car thinks about fuel consumption more than you ever will.
You wouldn’t call the 40e sluggish in this environment. It is responsive for short, sharp bursts of acceleration and manages the hybrid powertrain mix as well as any.
Driven like this, the X5 works very well and makes that 3.3L/100km claim very achievable. Our initial section of the drive loop saw 26km achieved under predominantly EV power before depleting the battery cells and forcing the petrol engine to take over.
It was at this point on the drive that the roads opened up to some 80km/h sections and we entered the extra-urban phase of the drive. And it's here that the hybrid doesn’t make as much sense.
The battery pack adds 120kg to the curb weight of the X5 (2230kg), and it's positioned higher in the vehicle than it would be any purpose-built hybrid or EV. Combined with its rearward placement, the 40e's center of gravity is shifted upward, and weight distribution changes from a balanced 49:51 (front to rear) to 46:54.
Its doesn’t sound like much, but even with the standard adaptive air suspension, the X5 40e feels substantially more ‘hefty’ through tighter corners and roundabouts. Come to a decent bend and there is a sense that you are interrupting the momentum of the car by wanting to change its course.
This isn’t to say the X5 Hybrid doesn’t feel surefooted and compliant, it just has a sense of mass that you don’t immediately expect. The ride itself is comfortable and you can tell the car has been tuned for passenger enjoyment rather than dynamic feedback.
Without the electric backup, the 2.0-litre engine can sound a little raspy under higher load and you sense the car is topping out when it comes to power delivery on higher speed sections.
You can encourage a faster recharge of the battery cells by tapping the X5 into its SPORT drive mode, where the regenerative braking becomes more active. It’s a very pronounced feeling, and again something you would get used to over time. Plus, it would no doubt lessen the brake-pad wear that X5 owners know only too well.
This drive section, on predominantly petrol use, showed 17.1L/100km consumption, rounding out the entire trip at just over 10L/100km. Given the route was around 60 per cent country driving, this is a figure you would expect from a diesel X5 model.
Another short trip back through town and onto the airport saw the economy relax to 7.3L/100km – still impressive, given the mixed driving style and multiple route conditions.
So how, then, does the BMW X5 xDrive40e hybrid fit within the top-selling premium SUV ecosystem that BMW themselves defined?
Think of the X5 range as a bell-curve, with the top-selling xDrive30d in the middle. At one extreme you have the weaponised X5 M, which is twitchy and thirsty around town, but astonishingly capable and relatively livable out on the open road.
Head to the other end then, and you find a spot for the xDrive40e. Smooth, silent and frugal in the city, but out of its comfort zone away from the big smoke.
BMW agrees it's not the X5 for everyone, but for those who rarely venture out of their postcode and want to enjoy a seamless step to hybrid driving, then the 2016 BMW X5 xDrive40e is well worth a look.
It’s the car that would have fit well with my own X5 ownership. With five days out of every seven on short-urban running duty, and the occasional relaxed freeway drive on the weekend.
If this is the first car to run the iPerformance badge, I can’t wait to see what BMW does next.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.