As a child who spent his formative years in the ’80s, I was always fascinated by the visions of the future. Those stunning Syd Mead illustrations of toroidal space stations orbiting the Earth, and utopian cities awash with ever-helpful robotic drones were what we were taught would await us in the years ‘beyond 2000’.
A recurring theme of these fantastic stories was the advent of the electric car and the changes it would bring. According to my bible of the time, the Usborne Book of the Future (I still have a PDF copy if anyone is interested?), when the future came we would all be driving the props from Total Recall which ran on a combination of petrol and electricity and ironically still had Volkswagen moon-pie hubcaps with cross-ply tyres.
Well that 1980s future is now here, and while we aren’t commuting by rocket-belt (dammit), petrol-electric hybrids are very much a part of our everyday lives. And those VW hubcaps are still pretty popular!
The 2016 BMW X5 xDrive 40e is the realisation of a car that was imagined back when the Usborne book was first published. Everyday family transport that offers both petrol and electric power and betters even the wild future vision of travelling “over 20km on a litre of fuel”.
Headlining the introduction of the BMW iPerformance range, the X5 40e impressed us with its ability to seem just like every other X5 – only much more economical – when we briefly drove it at launch earlier this year. But we felt to better understand the benefits, and challenges, of the hybrid drivetrain, we should live with one for a longer period of time.
Our test car, a Glacier Silver 40e (metallic paint is a $2000 option) spent time in both Melbourne and Sydney and was used for daily family and business duties, as well as a couple of longer trips – just as it would if you owned it.
A key part of the iPerformance strategy is to ensure parity in pricing and specification of the hybrid drive variants with their traditionally powered counterparts. At $118,855 (before options and on-road costs), the X5 40e shares a price tag and long list of standard equipment with the twin-turbo diesel X5 40d.
The BMW X5 is first and foremost a luxury SUV, so soft-close doors, keyless entry, head-up display, surround-view camera and Harmon/Kardon stereo system are all part of the package.
Our test car features the comfort seat option ($1100), and extended Nappa leather package ($1200 option) in Ivory white which further enhance the premium feel.
Unlock the 40e at night, and the cabin is bathed in a sensational blue LED light to signify its green tendencies. I know, I know – it doesn’t make sense, but it is cool.
There’s ample room for five adults, and solid interior practicality from the 40:20:40 rear seats and convenient split tailgate. Sitting behind the wheel, you cannot tell this is the hybrid model. In almost every way it looks and feels like every other X5 on the road. Until you drive off – in blissful silence.
The 40e features a 180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine (the same as in the BMW 528i) under the bonnet, and an 83kW/250Nm electric motor integrated within the eight-speed automatic gearbox.
This results in a total power output of 230kW and 450Nm of torque when both power units are called upon. At slow speeds though, particularly when manoeuvring from a car park, the X5 will attempt to run solely on electric power – that is, assuming you have enough zap.
When we took delivery of the car, the battery was showing less than 30 per cent charge, so we headed for the nearest public charge station in Melbourne’s CBD to top up the tank – so to speak. Purchasing an X5 40e gives you access to the ChargePoint network and while this sounds very progressive and environmentally friendly, Australia’s EV infrastructure is, putting it mildly, pretty shit.
Melbourne offers a grand total of four charging locations. Two are behind the $20 per-hour parking facility at Federation Square (yeah… no), one is at the Sofitel Hotel parking and the fourth is down a laneway, barely wide enough to fit an X5, behind a locked, caged gate near Southern-Cross Station. We’ll just call that a resounding fail then.
Fortunately, you can also recharge the X5 using the supplied 240-volt charge pack, which stows away neatly beneath the boot floor. This fits any standard mains-socket, but for those living in suburbs with limited off-street parking, you need to get a bit creative. For me this meant parking the car on the footpath and running an extension cord over the fence.
This then highlighted another weak point faced by most current plug-in hybrids. Charge time.
BMW claims that a standard power-point will charge the X5’s 9kWh lithium ion battery in a shade under four hours, from flat. We found the real time to be quite a bit longer than that.
The 40e is capable of charging at 3.5kW per hour, giving a minimum theoretical charge time of about 2.5-hours. Plug it in to a household socket though, and that time can stretch well above five hours. At one point we saw a charge time of over seven-hours despite the car having about 30 per cent juice still in the battery.
Why? Well beware, there is some high-school physics ahead.
Power (watts) is calculated by multiplying your voltage (volts – duh) by the current (amps). A standard Australian house will offer a 240-volt outlet which is protected by a 10-amp fuse. That means at best, you can expect 2400W, or 2.4kW from your wall. I had to connect the X5 via a 10-meter extension lead (which is not recommended for a whole bunch of sensible reasons) which adds resistance to the circuit. Thanks to Ohm's law (remember that chestnut?), increasing resistance reduces current and as such, increases the charge time.
That means if our current drops to 6A, at best the car would only be charging at a rate of 1.4kWh, not even factoring in fluctuations of supply. Think of it as the promise of the NBN with the reality of ADSL on Census night. Basically, this is not hugely practical for a quick splash-and-dash.
The payoff for an overnight charge is short lived too. Expect 20 kilometres range at best for the electric drive. Not a pinch on Tesla’s monumental ability, but surely something that will be improved in future iPerformance vehicle generations.
None of this is really the car’s fault though, and despite the fact that we have a dedicated EV charge point at the office, the most efficient way to charge the battery is through the regenerative braking performance achieved while driving.
You can force the car to ‘charge’ itself by, ironically, driving in SPORT mode. This runs the petrol engine more aggressively and also adapts the car to its most extreme regenerative braking profile. It’s so friction-oriented that the X5 will slow down (ultimately to a halt) down the 6.2 per cent gradient in Melbourne’s Burnley Tunnel.
We spoke to BMW who noted that under the most optimal conditions, the 40e could regenerate at a rate of 50kWh – which means a full battery in around 11-minutes. Assuming you don’t have access to the most perfect uninterrupted downhill stint in engineering history, you’ll appreciate knowing that we were able to recharge the battery to well over 80 per cent in about 45-minutes of driving.
That said, for the majority of the week, we left the X5 predominantly in its standard COMFORT drive mode and AUTO eDrive setting to get a more ‘general’ understanding of how the hybrid’s efficiency would work in the everyday world.
Using the car’s range estimation, my morning commute of about 12 kilometres would see approximately two kilometres drop from the fuel range figure. I would leave the car plugged in to top up charge during the day (which became quite an easy routine each morning), rinse, then repeat. This meant in a commute only role of under 20km per day, the X5 was never fully depleting its battery and was running the petrol engine less than 20 per cent of the time.
When driving, extra throttle loading would encourage fuel use. We found the petrol motor smoothly switching over when climbing the hill on the exit to the Burnley Tunnel, or when running particularly late for an 8am STEM Girls Club (they get to build LEGO architecture!) and needing to hustle that little bit more quickly through commuting traffic.
Throw in a few longer runs that had the 2.0-litre turbo humming more often than not, and it all came out to around 4.4L/100km for the week. That's up on BMW’s claim of 3.4L/100km combined cycle, but much better than the urban-cycle claim of 7.6L/100km.
You can even watch the consumption on a live telemetry graph on the iDrive screen, which shows the petrol and electric usage mix.
Now I’m sure psychologists will have a fancy word for this, but even for a not-particularly-environmentally-focussed person like myself, these low consumption figures read as a challenge and you drive in a manner that seeks to better your previous best score.
Environmental gamification doesn’t have the same marketing zing as ‘gotta catch em all’ but this has to be an unexpected benefit of fossil-fuel consuming heathens such as myself trialling the dark-art of hypermiling. Trying to eke every usable electron from the hybrid X5 is straight-up addictive!
Conveniently too, BMW offers a new BMW Remote iPhone app to monitor your iPerformance car so you can remotely check in on charge status, and most importantly, report on all the data.
The app is one of the better ConnectedDrive products and requires you to register the car against your BMW account before being able to access it from anywhere. You can check on its location (fun when you know other media outlets have the car…), lock and unlock, and even pre-condition the interior temperature which is great on those chilly Melbourne mornings.
It wasn’t perfect, at times not ‘connecting’ to the car to get an up-to-date reading, but as a product, it is moving in the right direction.
What no app can help though, is the 160kg of extra weight over the rear of the car due to the placement of the battery pack (kerb weight is 2980kg). The ride of the 40e, particularly with our 19-inch wheels, errs on the softer side, but when turning tighter corners or roundabouts, the X5 40e tends to wallow and sag with the weight from the back end.
A ‘normal’ X5 offers a very enjoyable and sporting chassis dynamic, and while the 40e can keep up in most areas, this is a very notable exception. The ride is still compliant and comfortable, but the hybrid just doesn’t feel as sporting as its conventional counterparts.
The battery placement also negates the ability to add an optional third row of seats, and marginally reduces luggage space by 150-litres to a still usable 500.
To balance opinion of the 40e, I handed the plug to the CarAdvice CTO, Cam, for his usual kid-filled weekend errands.
“When it is in the electric sweet spot, it's sumptuous, silent, and really quite extraordinary. The EV acceleration isn't bottomless but there's plenty there before the engine will kick in, as long as you don't expect it to jump too quickly off the line”, noted Cam of the X5’s performance.
“What's amazing is that once you've learned the car's rules about use of the battery, you feel completely compelled to drive within them. Gaming the battery becomes an all-consuming addiction. Unlike other hybrids where the use of the battery versus the engine feels completely out of your control, here you're given enough pure electric power and speed to moderate your driving so that you stay within it. That alone was a revelation in the power (forgive the pun) of modern hybrid technology.”
The core car in the BMW X5 still shone through to Cam, “the interior is lovely, particularly that dashboard and gorgeous leather seats. It just reeks of comfort”.
That said, Cam wasn’t a fan of some of the more flimsy elements around the cabin, notably the sunglasses holder and driver-side storage cubby.
He agreed that the X5 felt heavy and noted that you can feel the car rocking back and forth when braking to a complete stop.
The always impressive Trent Nikolic also got his mitts on the 40e, here are his thoughts…
For me, the X5 40e's strongest point is how much like any other X5 it is. The only real difference is when you ask it to hook in at speed on twisty roads, when you can start to feel some of the extra weight that is added by the hybrid system. Aside from that, there is nothing to discern that you're driving anything other than a BMW X5.
The transition between hybrid electric propulsion and petrol engine is extremely smooth and effectively imperceptible. It's another X5 40e feature that impresses, especially when you're moving regularly from crawling speed up to, say, 60km/h. The electric range isn't extensive, and it won't make a huge difference to your driving habits, but the fact the transition is so smooth, is a real bonus.
It's incredibly efficient too, thanks to the smarts of the hybrid system, and that's the tangible benefit for X5 owners who might spend most of their time around town. If you head out into the country on longer drives more than once a week, you need to opt for the diesel, but if you spend most of your time around town, the 40e has no peer when it comes to fuel efficiency. The real world usage for what is a large SUV is extremely frugal.
We appreciated our test example in Sydney, which was shod in 19-inch wheels and higher sidewall tyres than we expected, which no doubt contributed to the more comfortable ride, especially around town. Over poor surfaces, the X5 was effortless and never felt like it was banging or crashing. The suspension always seemed to be composed.
The X5 remains the standard setter for the title of 'driver's SUV' within the large SUV segment. It set the standard originally and continues to do so. The fact that you can have your cake and eat it too, with the efficiency of the hybrid drivetrain is a tangible benefit to buyers.
And as we said at launch, the ability to do the things you normally expect of an SUV, but with more efficiency is the best rationale for the BMW X5 40e. It does everything a diesel X5 does, but rather than filling it once a week, you fill it once a month.
The hybrid drive is more suited to urban running though, so if you do need to do a lot of touring miles then one of the already efficient diesels will likely be more suitable.
In its intended environment however, the 2016 BMW X5 xDrive 40e is an excellent car. You don’t realise how much more relaxing a drive you have when the car is silent (this is post school drop-off mind you) and there is something quite calming about the whole experience.
Where Tesla has turned science fiction into science fact, cars like the X5 40e have made the Usborne vision of the future a functional reality. Economical hybrid drive cars that blend in seamlessly with our everyday lives.
Yes, the Australian changing infrastructure is pretty pathetic, but this will no doubt change over time. Give it a few years and there’ll be one on every corner, supporting the growing fleet of blend-in hybrids, some no doubt with those timeless VW hubcaps.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.