First Drive: BMW X5 eDrive Plug-in Hybrid Prototype

“Welcome to Checkpoint Charlie” our chauffeur jokes when we arrive at BMW’s test facility in the South of France. At the gate stickers are placed on the lenses of our phones. Yes, they’re being very secretive, but today is the day we’re going to drive a car that isn’t coming for another year or so: the X5 eDrive plug-in hybrid.

The eDrive looks like any other X5. The only difference on the outside is a small flap on the left of the car where you can connect the charging cable. The rest of the changes are under the skin. BMW has binned all the existing engine options for this model and replaced them with a little 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, despite the car weighing in at over 2,000kg.

This differentiates the German brand from Land Rover, who has just released Hybrid versions of their Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, but using a big diesel V6.

Since the car is still a prototype, BMW was being scarce with the details. According to several engineers the battery pack should be ‘somewhere around 9kWh’, which means it’s actually smaller than the battery pack of a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, and that’s a lighter and smaller car. According to BMW it’s enough for almost 21 miles of pure electric driving. That’s not a lot, but their research shows that 80 percent of X5 drivers make trips of 20 miles or less, so it should be enough for most of their buyers.

The petrol engine part of things is a known quantity, as the X5 eDrive takes the 2.0-litre twin turbo unit from the 328i, producing 241bhp (245PS) and delivering 258lb-ft (350Nm) of torque. The electric motor assists with a credible 70kW (94bhp) and an impressive 184lb-ft (250Nm) of torque, but is powerful enough to drive the X5 using purely electric power.

In pure EV mode the X5 can reach speeds of up to 75mph. It does take quite a while though, as the mode is really intended for driving through town, but it works.

Part of that sluggishness could be put down to the increased weight of the system, despite BMW claiming it’ll be the lightest in its class. BMW didn’t want to comment on the specific weight of the battery pack, but it should be anywhere around 150kg. With an electric motor under the bonnet, weight gain could be up to 200kg, but that’s still a small increase on what started out as a 2.1 tonne car.

However, the X5 eDrive will only come as a five-seater as the battery pack takes up the space where the sixth and seventh seats used to be. Boot space will apparently be exactly the same as a normal model, so you won’t notice it in your daily use.

Out on the road the x5 eDrive handles like any other X5, which means it’s excellent. There’s a bit of extra weight in the back, but we hardly noticed it when we threw it around BMW’s test track, mainly thanks to the smart weight distribution.

BMW has put the four-cylinder petrol engine just behind the front axle and has mounted the battery pack right on top of the rear axle. Since the engine is smaller and lighter than any engine on offer in the X5 so far, and there’s the clever four-wheel drive system to spread power around to different wheels, you’ll be unlikely to notice that there’s any significant change from, say, the X5 xDrive35i. It’s not a featherweight, but it is quite a bit lighter than the Range Rover Sport Hybrid.

You’ll have the choice of three driving modes in the eDrive; Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport. The labels may be familiar to any BMW driver, but the engineers have changed how each mode works.

Eco Pro uses as much electrical energy as possible, but instead of recuperating energy when you’re not on the throttle, it simply lets you coast. Counter intuitive perhaps, the engineers found this is a more fuel efficient way of driving.

Comfort is the new normal, switching on the petrol engine when you need it such as for overtaking manoeuvres while also using regenerative braking to charge the battery as you lift off the throttle.

In Sport mode, the car uses both engines all the time to extract maximum performance. In this mode it feels as fast as the 35i, which is definitely a good thing. The combination of the petrol engine and electric motor means you’ll have 302bhp (306PS) to hand, enough to propel the X5 eDrive to 60mph in less than seven seconds.

The sound takes some getting used to, as you expect to hear the howl of the in-line six or the bellow of the V8, but as long as you get the promised 74mpg that BMW is aiming for, we guess you won’t mind too much.

That also means CO2 emissions will be under 90g/km, which means it falls into road tax band A, avoiding any annual charge. For company car drivers that spells good news, with a Benefit in Kind burden of just 11%.

Put a destination into the GPS system and the car becomes more efficient as it decides which mode to use on what section of the route. In town driving will mostly be on electric power, saving the petrol engine for the motorways and out-of-town bits.

Impressively, it reads the road ahead via the GPS to make even more micro-decisions. As you climb a hill, for example, the system may decide to use more battery power than usual as the inevitable downhill section following will allow the vehicle to recuperate what it used. It’s actually pretty smart and should work well in Britain, especially when combined with live traffic monitoring.

All in all the car we drove was pretty much ready for production, but the Munich’s experts say it’s going to take another year or so to fine-tune the car.

If it’s this good now, we can’t wait for next year. Prices and specification won’t be announced for some time, but we’re told that it should be priced close to the X5 xDrive40d, which means a little over £50,000.

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Wouter Spanjaart

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