Doing good is never a far off feat. Doing well at something, however is. Fortunately, BMW’s 2013 5A ActiveHybrid excels in both these respects, though like any do-gooder it’s not completely devoid of wrong. But as they say, you just have to accept the good with the bad.
The BMW 5A is a complex creature that boasts a vast array of features and options. That said, acclimating to the 5A in a mere 7-days, even though I drove it hundreds of miles, was a tall order to fill. But make no mistake; the ActiveHybrid 5 is a pleasure to not only drive, but to just sit in. The interior is opulence at its best. BMW has taken an elegant approach that in my astute opinion has eluded most car manufacturers. Instead of trying to wow, and sway buyers with an extreme layout with over-the-top features and options, they’ve focused on a consistency and craftsmanship that is truly refreshing and almost timeless in nature.
A mix of wood and leather adorns the interior of my BMW 5A. The white leather seats are questionably not stain proof and one has to wonder what a pair of indigo colored jeans seated again and again would leave behind. But the cows that were sacrificed didn’t die in vain, as the leather is rich, supple, and soft enough so that it warrants a mid-day siesta, if such an experience can be had during waking hours.
Notably, trunk space has been significantly reduced in the ActiveHybrid 5 thanks to a battery pack that powers the 54-hp electric motor. So you’ll have to compromise with just 8 cubic feet of space vs. the 14 that is found in other 5-series BMWs.
The 5A Active Hybrid is discernible from its gas guzzling peers thanks to the “Active Hybrid” badging which surrounds the latter portion of the car. It can be found on the rear of the car, as well as on the exterior c-pillars. Aside from that it’s not that different, externally of course, compared to the other BMWs in the series. Though, the ActiveHybrid 5 comes with its own particular type of wheels that complement the car’s fuel conservative approach.
My test vehicle was finished in what BMW calls Blue Water Metallic. It’s an apt name for the color, and one that is very fitting given the 5A’s eco street cred. However, the average consumer is probably none the wiser that such a vehicle from BMW exists, and if pressed to recount the model number of the ActiveHybrid on looks alone, would more than likely recite every other 5-series model number under the sun. No one necessarily buys a hybrid for the admiration of strangers and peers, but nor is it something one shrugs off with regret.
BMW’s iDrive system plays a more integral part in the 5A than any other BMW model, with the exception of the 3-series ActiveHybrid. Utilizing GPS, the car’s brain automatically adjusts the system according to its location, based on terrain and presumably a myriad of other factors. It’s not something that I detected over the course of my test drive, leading me to believe its tweaks are more nuances. However, what is vastly evident is when the car is switched into Eco Pro mode. As the name suggests, this offers the greatest amount of fuel efficiency which in turn means the least amount of performance, though when demanded, it’s still available.
Other drive modes, which are accessible with the flick of a switch located next to the car’s gear selector, are Comfort +, Comfort, Sport, and Sport +. Cycling through the different modes while traversing a windy road exemplifies the different setting’s impact on the car’s chassis and acceleration. Needless to say, Comfort + offers the most comfortable and tame of settings, while the Sport + is the most aggressive, offering higher-revving gears, more accelerating power, a stiffer chassis, and limited traction control, which when on is possible to fish tail the 5A, as I did during a u-turn.
As with all BMW’s with the iDrive system, a select number of iOS apps are designed to work with the car’s built-in control knob. Currently MOG and Pandora are the only music apps compatible with the BMW’s iDrive and while the system is refreshingly speedy, there is no rationalizing why the music has to stop when the app is set to run in the background mode. I’m told that BMW plans to fix this in a future software iteration, as they’re said to somehow make the iPhone 5 fully compatible with Apple’s much maligned Lightning connector.
Despite being in SoCal, my test vehicle came with a cold winter package, which included some of the fastest and hottest heated seats that my back and butt have ever had the pleasure of soaking up. It’s debatable if I’d rather have air-cooled seats, but since they’re not mutually exclusive by way of custom order, it’s really a moot issue. That said, 5A owners can activate the car’s AC with the click of their remote or program it to periodically cool the interior of the car thanks to the on board batteries.
There are a head spinning amount of features and options hidden within the iDrive system. Pile that on top of the electric seats that are analogous to that of Gumby in terms of malleability, and there is enough things to switch, flip, and change to keep even the most keen of gear heads busy for weeks to come.
The term “hybrid” has long been associated with lackluster performance. You can thank Toyota’s Prius for that. Fortunately, BMW’s 5A has done and does do everything it could to negate that negative connotation. The car is spirited off the line thanks to the 54 hp electric engine that delivers instantaneous torque, though make no mistake the inline 6 cylinder with a dual-scroll turbo is nothing to snub your nose at. Combined horsepower peaks at 354, though much of the combustion engine’s power curve can be found after the 4,500 rpm mark, and in Comfort mode shifts are far less aggressive leaving the car in the latter gears for fuel efficiency purposes.
I would have liked to see a dual-clutch setup in a car like this, though to be candid I’m not sure what kind of technical hurdles would have to be hopped due to the hybrid setup. That said, the transmission, while decent, is not smooth through the first few gears and suffers from lurching when accelerating at a moderate pace from a full stop. Adding insult to injury is the infuriating and agonizing brakes that are anything but connected to the car towards the end of its stopping power – often I found myself lunging my passengers forward as a result of stopping short. It’s probably best excused by the regenerative braking system, which is a bit further exacerbated by the Eco Pro system, which turns the ActiveHybrid into a slower, heavier feeling sedan (it weighs 550 lbs more than the naturally aspirated 535i). The result is a feeling of duality; I craved the power and nimbleness of the ultimate driving machine, yet also felt the pressure to achieve a respectable MPG rating. I know, it’s a bit like saying you’re having a hard time choosing between caviar or lobster, but fortunately in this case you can indulge and have both, though the lobster, in this case, probably isn’t the sweetest.
To further reduce fuel consumption, the ActiveHybrid 5, much like many of BMW’s other naturally aspirated vehicles, has an auto stop/start function which defeats the engine when the car is idle at stop lights. At first it’s a somewhat jarring experience that is detectable, as I learned while sitting and tinkering with the car’s many features. Furthermore, the engine will drop off, or allow you to coast during a down hill coast, provided you don’t have it set in Sport mode, which can put a few more pennies back in your wallet.
Around town the ActiveHybrid 5 is able to use just electric power, provided of course the battery pack is charged, and you keep the car under 37 mph. On a full charge, as conveyed by the onscreen display, I was able to travel at about 35 mph on pure electric power for just under 2 miles driving along Olympic boulevard at 12am. Not normal driving conditions, as any sudden increase in acceleration can cause the fossil fuel powered engine to kick on – you have to ease off the line in order to stay in electric, something that is sure to annoy drivers at your rear. In all-electric mode the ActiveHybrid 5’s interior cabin is whisper quite and is as peaceful as the car’s Blue Water Metallic paint.
My ActiveHybrid 5 achieved on average 30 mpg on highway at a speed that averaged just over 70 mph (the pic below shows average). Not half bad for a turbo V6, and one that can achieve 0-60 in under 6 seconds. That said, the 5A’s iDrive system allows you to review your fuel consumption by viewing a MPG bar graph that depicts electric vs. gas consumption. It’s probably not the most succinct of representations – I prefer the growing tree concept which gamifies the process of fuel consumption. Arguably, the ActiveHybrid 5 isn’t eco-friendly enough to warrant such a game, so most will have to settle with the onscreen image that depicts when the car is using what power source. I became so obsessed with driving on electric, or at least striving for such a feat, that I found it to become a questionably unsafe distraction.
For a hybrid, the ActiveHybrid 5 sits at the top of luxury vehicles of its ilk. However, compared to BMWs other 5-series, or any of their other series, the 5A feels heavy, not fully baked, and missing that all-together perfection that I’ve come to expect from the German brand. That isn’t to say the ActiveHyrbid 5 isn’t a splendid car – it just suffers from a few drawbacks, such as an annoying brake pedal and lurchy transmission.
Bottom Line: accept that you’re an earlier adopter, wear the badge proud, and the 5A’s small caveats will transform into “character”.