There are two main types of hybrid car in the world: those that are built from the ground up as hybrids, and those that are hybrid conversions of existing cars.
The well-known Toyota Prius is the former. The 2013 BMW ActiveHybrid 5 is the latter.
And that may be the biggest problem with the BMW ActiveHybrid 5: It feels like a car that has been somewhat reluctantly turned into a hybrid.
It's essentially a 5-Series sedan with fitted with a 3.3-liter straight-six and an 8-speed automatic transmission. But BMW has replaced the traditional automatic gearbox torque converter with a 40-kilowatt electric motor, powered by a lithium-ion battery pack.
Inside, there are the same comfortable leather seats, quad-zone air conditioning, and BMW iDrive infotainment system you’d find in any 5-Series.
In fact, apart from the external badges and a few trim coloring tweaks to highlight its green credentials, the ActiveHybrid 5 is a hybrid in disguise.
Like other BMWs, the ActiveHybrid 5 offers a variety of driving modes that adjust the car's throttle response, shift timing and suspension stiffness. Ranging from Sport + to Eco +, these modes allow the driver to prioritize performance, fuel economy, or comfortable handling.
For most of our test, we kept the ActiveHybrid 5 in Eco + mode. Designed to give the best fuel economy, this mode uses the electric motor wherever possible, and changes gears earlier to keep the engine within its most efficient power band.
Unlike the Toyota and Lexus system, which uses a pair of motor-generators that provide continuously variable torque, the BMW ActiveHybrid 5’s single-motor full hybrid system is reluctant to push the mid-size luxury sport sedan along.
In fact, after only a few hundred yards, anything more than the most gentle of acceleration caused the engine to howl into life, sending the car forward with a slight lurch.
2012 BMW ActiveHybrid 5 First Drive ReportEnlarge Photo
Time and time again, the ActiveHybrid 5’s acceleration away from stop lights was marred by the poor transition between all-electric and gasoline modes.
Around town, braking was similarly afflicted by the under-powered motor.
Brake lightly, and it was possible to very gradually slow the ActiveHybrid 5 down using just regenerative braking.
Put more than the lightest of touches on the brake pedal however, and the conventional friction brakes kicked in, slowing the car down much more quickly after a noticeable transition between the two.
Frankly, unlike the Toyota/Lexus system--which smoothly transitions between regenerative and friction brakes--the ActiveHybrid 5’s transition wasn't quite what you’d expect from a luxury sedan.
Move the ActiveHybrid 5 out of the city and onto the open highway, however, and it becomes everything you’d hope a BMW 5-Series sport sedan would be.
Thanks to its 8-speed automatic gearbox, the ActiveHybrid 5 behaved admirably on the freeway, eagerly sitting at the legal limit while its gasoline engine ticked over at an easy 1,500 rpm.
At higher speeds, its hybrid system works better too--smoothly switching between electric and gasoline operation as required, while the cabin remained calm, quiet, and civilized.
But at the end of our 150-mile test drive, we had averaged just 24 mpg combined, well below the 31 mpg combined BMW claimed. (As of this writing, the EPA had not released gas-mileage ratings for the 2013 BMW ActiveHybrid 5.)
The ActiveHybrid 5 is ideal for existing BMW drivers who want to go green and stay with the brand, but it's more pleasant at speed than around town.
Across the broad category of luxury hybrids, however, the $61,845 ActiveHybrid 5 can’t compete against the more efficient Lexus GS 450h, which carries a base price of a few thousand dollars less to boot.
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