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A straight-six turbo petrol engine and electric motor promise much. Do they deliver?

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It may very well already have happened – but if not, this could be the week that the BMW Group sells its millionth plug-in hybrid vehicle.

The firm has been anticipating breaking through that barrier since August 2020, when it announced three new PHEV model derivatives for the 5 Series range. As a result of those additions, the popular 530e can now be had in both saloon and Touring estate bodystyles, and in both rear- and four-wheel-drive mechanical configurations. But there is also the subject of this week’s road test to tempt you to lump a little more on your electrified executive saloon: the six-cylinder 545e.

All six-pot 5 Series now get xDrive four-wheel drive as standard, so BMW is only developing a technical theme here. Even so, you can’t help wondering how much extra sporting appeal the car might have had as a rear-driver.

With this car, BMW completes a circle it began drawing just over a decade ago with its very first petrol-electric 5 Series: the F10-generation ActiveHybrid 5. That car combined a turbocharged straight-six petrol engine with an electric motor, but back in 2011 that electric motor could develop only about half the power of the 545e’s equivalent component and it drew current from a battery pack a fraction the size of the one in our test subject. Electric range was a claimed two and a half miles.

The ActiveHybrid 5 was a water-testing exercise – and it proved warm enough that, over the next decade, BMW turned to four-cylinder petrol-electric power for its first serious waves of 30e-badged 3 and 5 Series PHEVs. Now the firm is returning to the idea of a silken straight six working in league with a torque-rich electric drive motor to add greater energy, dynamism and desirability to its electrified 5 Series range.

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So will the 545e be the company-car-tax-efficient executive sports saloon that finally lures you to plug in?

The 5 Series line-up at a glance

BMW’s 5 Series range now comprises four-cylinder mild-hybrid petrol and diesel engines; four- and six-cylinder petrol-electric plug-in hybrids; an inline six-cylinder mild- hybrid; and two petrol V8-powered performance options. Almost the only thing missing from it, perhaps ironically, is a traditional straight- six petrol option. Where it isn’t standard fit, four-wheel drive can now be added as an option on every derivative bar the 520i.

Trim levels start with SE and progress through M Sport, M Performance and full M-car tiers.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - BMW 5 Series

DESIGN & STYLING

2 BMW 545e 2021 road test review hero side

The 545e builds on the mechanical make-up of the 530e in some ways but leaves it intact in others. Unlike the four-cylinder electrified 5 Series, it’s available exclusively with a four-door saloon body and xDrive intelligent four-wheel drive.

The electrified portion of the car’s powertrain is identical to the 530e’s, and if there’s a disappointment to be noted anywhere in this section, that is probably it. The car is part-powered by an AC synchronous electric motor of almost exactly the same outputs as that of the 530e (107bhp, 195lb ft). It’s mounted between the piston engine and eight-speed automatic gearbox and, in tandem with an electronically controlled clutch, doubles as a substitute torque converter.

Blacked-out radiator grille is probably the most divisive constituent part of the M Sport Pro package. (It’s chrome on a regular 545e M Sport.) Most of our testers disliked it.

The motor draws on a lithium ion drive battery, beneath the back seats, which operates at 354V and stores up to 10.8kWh of usable electric current for the car to run on, just as it does in a 530e. That makes for an advertised all-electric range of up to 33 miles – and that, in a market in which the best £50,000-£60,000 PHEVs are now nudging 50 usable miles of electric range, certainly isn’t a standout selling point.

The 2998cc turbocharged six-cylinder engine ought to be, though. Where rival plug-in execs generally stick with lighter, leaner-running four-cylinder motors, the 545e’s straight six can make 282bhp and 332lb ft all on its own.

In the UK, the 545e comes with a choice of BMW’s long-established SE or M Sport trim levels – but if you want to be confident of securing the most tax-efficient status for your car, SE (with 18in wheels as standard and a CO2 lab test score from 40g/km) may be the one to have. Plump for M Sport and you can go for an M Sport Pro option package that brings adaptive dampers, 20in alloy wheels and run-flat tyres with it (our test car had it) – but it does reduce the car’s WLTP lab-rated electric range to less than 30 miles and, by doing so, will bump it up a couple of benefit-in-kind tax bracket percentage points.

On the scales at MIRA, our test car weighed 2046kg (just over 100kg more than BMW’s lightest kerb weight claim for it because of plenty of fitted optional equipment). These days, you’d hope a mid-sized electrified saloon might be a little lighter, but at least the 545e’s weight is distributed as sweetly as it could be, there being only 2kg to separate the burden carried by the car’s front and rear axles.

INTERIOR

12 BMW 545e 2021 road test review cabin

It may now be five years since this generation of the 5 Series went into production at BMW’s Dingolfing factory in Germany, but the interior is showing very few regrettable signs of age or antiquation. The G30 generation conjures the same spacious, solid and grown-up impression today as it always has: that of a saloon that has carefully honed ergonomics and proper, adult-sized passenger accommodation levels, that uses digital technology in all the right places, and that exhibits apparent quality wherever you look.

Our test car had two-tone black and ivory Dakota leather, piano black veneer and satin chrome decorative trim, and it presented all of it consistently well – the car’s slightly hard, dull leathers (which can be upgraded at extra cost) being the only very minor disappointment.

Digital instruments are standard fit. With the 545e, they have some special gauges in Hybrid mode that help you to keep the piston engine shut down.

The 5 Series is big by mid-sized executive class standards and particularly wide, but it delivers an expansive feel within. The cabin is configured more like a smart working environment than some avant-garde designer kitchen and features plenty of high-quality switchgear for the control of its driver modes, infotainment systems and other secondary systems, which brings with it easy usability. So there is rarely any frowning or fumbling to find the right touchscreen display menu to change the radio station or switch on the rear demister. Plenty of cabin storage is provided, too, and where digital technology is used, it is used well.

The driving position is first class: lower than many in the saloon class, but offering good visibility and excellent comfort, and sitting you in perfect orientation with the controls. Our test car’s front seats offered only moderate lateral support, but they were well pitched for the car’s role: easy to slide into and adjustable for cushion angle and length, and separately for backrest angle and shoulder support.

There is room for two adults in the back in comfort, or three at a push, and no compromise to space has been made to accommodate the car’s under-seat drive batteries. Some compromise to the powertrain is apparent in the boot: the 545e has a more raised boot floor than other 5 Series models, although it doesn’t pop up above the level of the loading lip so it’s easy to feed long items through into the cabin when the rear seats are folded. There’s still 410 litres of space back here, but the shape of the space will prevent you from carrying some bulkier items of cargo.

Infotainment and sat-nav

BMW introduced its latest Operating System 7.0 iDrive infotainment to the 5 Series two years ago and, by combining touchscreen operation with a physical rotary input device for those who prefer one, and including good voice recognition and excellent all-round navigability, it remains an excellent technical solution.

The home screen can be configured to your liking with different widget-style modular displays for any function you might want, and accessing other menus is never too arduous or distracting. It helps a lot that you needn’t engage with the screen much at all if you don’t want to. There are useful physical control consoles for the audio system and HVAC controls, and BMW offers gesture control as an option, too (although how miming turning the volume down in front of the main display could ever be easier than simply turning a volume knob remains something of a mystery to us).

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

26 BMW 545e 2021 road test review charging port

Anyone looking to notionally position the outright pace of the 545e in relation to other performance saloons may be interested to know that, on a warm, dry day at MIRA Proving Ground, it matched BMW’s acceleration claims for the 1998 E39-gen M5 super-saloon almost to the tenth – and that’s for 0-60mph, 0-100mph and over a standing quarter mile. Given its head, it’s not a slow car, then; but it’s also not always such a potent-, effusive- or assertive-feeling one, either.

Its inline six is certainly a richer, sweeter-sounding presence when it’s running – but remember, that may be only about half the time you’ll be driving the 545e, unless you’re a particularly high-mileage user or you’re unable to charge the car routinely. From the driver’s seat, the engine note sounds a little digital and artificial, but it wasn’t contrived enough to annoy or discourage our testers, or to mar the experience.

There’s enough here to keep an enthusiast driver interested on a sinuous or quick road but the car’s powers of driver engagement don’t run to the levels of a sports saloon.

The car defaults to Hybrid mode when it starts and will run electrically at low and medium speeds except when you dig deep into the throttle. BMW’s digital power gauge (which is replaced by a proper rev counter in Sport mode) is a useful guide to how much power can be used before the combustion engine starts – but unless you have plenty of charge in the drive battery and can switch to Electric mode, it’s not that much.

The gearbox does a seamless job of juggling ratios under electric power and also gets quite close to matching a directly driven electric rear axle for outright tip-in pedal response. There are times, however, when you’d just like a bit more electric oomph under your foot, and you rouse the petrol engine in order to nip into a gap without really meaning to.

Select Sport mode and the straight-six engine runs almost all of the time, making for stronger all-round responsiveness and plenty of roll-on, in-gear muscle when you choose to select gears yourself using the paddle shifters. The car still feels its two tonnes when accelerating – but there’s enough briskness to pick off slower-moving traffic on single-carriageway roads easily, and to make authoritative motorway progress. Whether there’s enough overall to give the 545e the character, drama and real-world thrust of a modern performance saloon is left a little open to question, but if Sport mode was your daily default, it certainly wouldn’t leave you wanting very often.

RIDE & HANDLING

27 BMW 545e 2021 road test review on road front

Our 545e had the tidy, accurate, neutral and secure handling you’d expect of a contemporary BMW, although by the firm’s own standards it wasn’t brimming with sporting poise or purpose. It was a rounded, pleasant car to drive, with just enough bite, precision, grip and composure to keep you interested on a winding road, but it didn’t go quite as far as other sporty, mid-range BMW saloons to involve or engage.

Part of that can perhaps be attributed to the 545e’s weight (although body control is quite good), and part to its four-wheel drive system, but the particular specification of our test car must also have played a part. Keep your 545e M Sport standard and it’ll come on 19in wheels with conventional tyres. But option up the M Sport Pro package and, while you get the 20in rims that some will crave, you also get run- flat tyres and normal coil springs to go with BMW’s optional adaptive dampers (where other BMWs might have got either lowered springs or Adaptive M Suspension instead).

BMW has quietly claimed supremacy over its rivals for assisted driving tech. The 545e’s instrument display gives you a map of the surrounds of the car when it’s in ‘piloted’ mode, so you know which of the vehicles around you its sensors have identified

Specifying the best-handling 545e on the order form clearly isn’t a straightforward exercise, then. Ours cornered with a fraction more body roll than some testers would have liked, and it also responded to steering inputs just a little more sluggishly (with nearly three full turns between locks on the rack).

The outright grip level and mid-corner chassis balance are both good, and you can position the car with confidence at speed. However, those run-flat tyres certainly don’t yield greater adhesion as they flex and work, and they don’t make for the most informative steering feel, which is instead slightly numb just as you feed in an input. The upshot is that although the 545e is a typically composed, fluent and capable car to drive at speed, it’s still not the regular G30-generation 5 Series at its most involving, or at the height of its dynamic powers.

Track performance

The 545e recorded a mixed performance on MIRA’s handling circuits, doing slightly better, at least in subjective terms, around the slippery, consistent-radius curves of the wet track than on the tighter and more technical ones of the dry circuit.

The car’s Pirelli run-flats certainly took to the wet circuit more naturally and their grip level endured more consistently. In low-grip conditions, the DSC Traction stability control mode works particularly well, allowing you to manipulate the chassis with power and weight transfer and rotate the car usefully, but only up to a point. Here, the rearward torque distribution of the four-wheel drive system was apparent, allowing the car to accelerate out of the slower bends with plenty of traction and a little bit of attitude.

On the dry track, the car did respectably, but the lateral grip of its tyres peaked at a pretty average 0.94g and the chassis balance and handling adjustability weren’t as praiseworthy as we’d have liked.

Comfort and isolation

The flip side of the dynamic compromise that we’ve just described is a fairly quiet and supple ride for the 545e. It doesn’t really punish you for choosing those optional 20in wheels except on really coarse surfaces – when it conducts just a little bit of noticeable road noise – and it absorbs most smaller, sharper inputs as fluently as the bigger ones.

It may be slightly annoying to some that, having paid extra for adaptive dampers, the car doesn’t make it easier to adjust them. Only by using the second-tier Sport Individual driving mode can you choose a softer damper calibration than the car would otherwise have – and it’s not an easy menu to access.

But the better news is that those adaptive dampers just do what adaptive dampers were primarily designed to do, softening off and firming up automatically with the road surface to keep the car level and comfortable, and working in a way that won’t have you reaching for adjustment options most of the time.

Mechanical refinement in the car is good. With the engine running, it produced only 63dBA of cabin noise at 50mph, which is a strong luxurylevel score, and wind noise is kept very well at bay at higher speeds.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 BMW 545e 2021 road test review hero front

BMW’s claimed optimal 33-mile electric range for the 545e dropped to 29 miles for our test car as a result of its fitted options, and in mixed real-world driving, 29 turned into an average of 24 across several full battery charges. That’s no disgrace but it’s a weakness given that you can spend £10,000 less on a plugin option from any one of several brands and get more than 40 miles of achievable electric autonomy.

As for fuel economy, the 545e does reasonably well, but it doesn’t stand out. Our car averaged nearly 50mpg across road driving and track testing, having done a little under 500 miles during the course of several days and been charged four times in the same period.

Used values are forecast to be very similar to its nearest rival from Audi and to beat the Peugeot 508 PSE over the longer term

The car’s 46-litre fuel tank seems somewhat small, though, and grants a touring range of only a little over 400 miles once the batteries have been drained and the car is running on piston power at a UK-motorway typical 40.4mpg touring-test fuel economy average.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - BMW 5 Series

VERDICT

Whenever the history of the modern electrified passenger car is written, it’s likely to dwell for only a sentence or two on the BMW 545e. It’s worth more than a footnote, but much less than a chapter of its own.

This is a very complete and versatile luxury saloon with several convincing sides to its character, but much of what it does well is done just as well by other 5 Series derivatives. It is spacious and classy; well stocked with technology; refined and slick in operation; and capable enough as a short-range EV to meet the short-hop needs of a great many owners.

Spec advice? If you’re a fleet driver or want to boost electric range, go for SE trim and 18in rims. But if you’re a private buyer, get M Sport with the Pro Pack.

So much could also be said of a 530e. The 545e’s opportunity was to add some richness, and to bring extra performance, dynamism and driver reward to the table; and, while it sets out assertively enough, it doesn’t quite secure every target on that list without caveat.

Few cars within the current PHEV set combine what feels like a muscular, characterful piston engine with zero-emissions-running potential, though. That the 5 Series now does should go down well with traditional BMW customers who don’t want to be considered quite so traditional forever.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - BMW 5 Series

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering.