It’s now been about a decade since BMW first announced its plans to get into the hybrid game and it was another three years before any production models with electric drive assist hit the streets. A lot has changed since BMW launched the ActiveHybrid X6 and ActiveHybrid 7 essentially as experiments in 2009. Electrification is now becoming relatively mainstream with batteries and electric motors no longer limited to super-efficient cars like the Toyota Prius. After a week with the 2016 X5 xDrive40e, there’s no doubt that the future of the ultimate driving machine includes plugs across the board.
The X5 is now in its third-generation and like most vehicles over the past 20 years or so, has grown larger with each iteration and now stretches nine-inches longer than the original. Interestingly, most of the growth came from the first to the second generation and the latest version is only a bit more than one inch longer than its predecessor. Unlike some of BMW’s cars in the 21st century, BMW’s utilities haven’t strayed much in their styling with each iteration.
The X5 in particular would be instantly recognizable to anyone only familiar with the 1999 model. Aside from discrete fender vents and the headlamps that are now joined with the twin-kidney grilles in the current BMW style, none of the changes are dramatic. Even the split two-piece tailgate remains. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this design, but neither is there anything as controversial as the 2002 7 Series Bangle-butt. In the world of SUVs, the volume models like X5 tend to take a more conservative approach and that seems to suit the customer base just fine.
Inside the changes are a bit more substantial with the X5 adopting a similar style to other recent models. Rather than being embedded in the dashboard, the central display screen is perched on top looking more like a tablet. Despite, its appearance however, BMW continues to eschew touchscreens in favor of the latest iteration of iDrive. While iDrive with its central control knob got a lot of flack when it debuted 15 years ago, the system has matured over the years and I’ve come to prefer this type of main controller over touchscreens thanks to the precision it offers.
Like its premium segment competitors from Mercedes-Benz and Audi, the iDrive controller actually does feature a touch interface on its top surface. Unlike the Mercedes that let’s you navigate around the screen user interface like a touchpad, the BMW touch surface is limited to character input. While using your finger to write letters and numbers to enter an address works reliably enough, it’s too slow and requires too much attention. By comparison I can spin the iDrive controller around the rotary interface on the screen and enter the same information much more quickly.
Speaking of that UI, BMW hasn’t fundamentally changed it since the early days of iDrive and frankly it looks very dated and was never really that attractive. Navigating the UI is generally straightforward after a few minutes of practice although some elements can be cumbersome to uncover and it could definitely use a visual refresh.
That original hybrid X6 of 2009 was the product of a relatively short-lived joint development program between BMW, General Motors and what started as DaimlerChrysler before those companies divorced. The three/four automakers contributed engineering resources to commercialize the two-mode hybrid system originally conceived at GM’s Allison division for use on transit buses. GM manufactured hybrid transmissions for use in its own vehicles as well as those from Chrysler while Mercedes-Benz would build a variant for the German-branded models.
Given that the X6 began life as something of an odd-duck, it seems fitting that BMW took an unusual approach to its hybrid configuration by pairing the two-mode hybrid system with its lovely twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8. The combined total of the V8 and the electric motors could generate 480-horsepower and 575 lb.-ft. of torque and while it was a much faster hybrid than a Prius, its arrival during the depths of the recession did not bode well for its market success. By the time it was discontinued in 2012, BMW sold barely over 300 examples in the U.S.
Today, BMW has a homegrown hybrid powertrain that incorporates lessons from the development of the i3 and i8. The 3, 7 and X5 are all plug-in hybrids with a more reasonable balance of power, efficiency and electric driving range. The X6 could only get up up to about 24 mph on electricity alone. The X5 xDrive40e can run along at speeds of 75 mph with the engine off and the EPA rates its electric driving range at 14 miles when it’s 9.2-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery is fully charged.
Instead of a V8, the X5 uses BMW’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that generates an ample 240-hp and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. In combination with the electric drive, the powertrain can put out a maximum of 308-hp combined and 332 lb.-ft. That’s more than enough to push the 5,200-pound X5 to 60 mph in about 6.5-seconds.
Around town, when you don’t need the full performance capability, the 111-hp available from the electric motor alone when you switch the drive mode to Eco Pro is adequate for most needs. Trips to the grocery store or to drop the kids off at school can often be completed gas-free.
The X5 in anything but perhaps M guise certainly isn’t going to challenge a 2 or 3 series at the track or even on a country road. However, for a big, roomy two and a half ton beast, it does feel comparatively light on its feet. The ride quality is surprisingly good considering the 20-inch wheels it was equipped with. Compared to the 340i I drove recently, the front seats felt relatively flat so they won’t encourage any hard cornering, although they were comfortable.
Road trips in the X5 PHEV should be pleasurable for the family and you won’t break the bank at the pump. The original X6 hybrid was only rated at 18 mpg combined by the EPA. In addition to the 14-mile electric range, this X5 is rated at 24 mpg combined. Each time I returned to my garage, I plugged it in so I generally left with a full battery. In this mode, the combination of electric and blended hybrid driving yielded 30 mpg over the course of the week plus whatever electricity I soaked up from the standard 110-volt outlet in my garage, a very impressive result from a vehicle that no one would look at and accuse of being an eco-car.
Of course this kind of combination of luxury and technology doesn’t come cheap. The plug-in hybrid X5 starts at $63,095 which surprisingly is only about a $4,500 premium over the 300-hp six-cylinder gas version. As equipped, my tester came out to just shy of $74,000. This isn’t Clark Griswold’s family truckster but for the reasonably affluent family on the go, it’s cheaper than a Tesla Model X and the doors will likely be a lot more reliable along with an actual flat load floor when you fold the seats.