Sunday, September 9, 2012

More for less: Driving the BMW ActiveHybrid 5.

In recent years, in order to please the green brigade, automobile manufacturers have begun introducing "eco" models to the range of cars they sell. Some tout themselves to be more eco-friendly, to produce less emissions and to bring you further on a litre of fuel. But let's be honest, these "eco" cars might look attractive to tree hugging folk but to petrolheads like you and me. We wouldn't bat an eyelid at anything with a "Hybrid" badge on it right? We want our engines like how we like our steaks. Full flavored and meaty. What we want is, like a famous television presenter always says, is Powarrrrrrr!!! The more the merrier. So what am i doing testing BMW's offering to the Hybrid party, the "ActiveHybrid 5"? Well, the introduction of the Hybrid 5 on our local shores has brought forth an interesting conundrum to would be buyers of the 535i. For starters, it doesn't exactly tout itself to be a small-engined unit with the power figure your granny would laugh at. It's a Hybrid, but on the petrol side of things, the ActiveHybrid 5 has pretty much the same engine as the 535i. That car produces a little over 300 horses, 306 to be exact. Couple the 535i engine with an electric motor, this car churns out 340 horses. 40 more then the already meaty 535i. What this means, is even with the added weight of the batteries over the rear wheels, the "eco" 5 powers up to 100km/h in 5.9 seconds. 0.2 seconds quicker then the 535i. So i'm guessing that covers all the bases with regards to the need for speed. The best part of all this is when you want to tone things down and cruise home, the Hybrid 5 rewards you with some pretty decent mileage too. Official figures state 15.38 kilometers on a litre of fuel. I doubt local drivers will be able to experience this on their day-to-day commutes but you won't be too far off. On the styling front, there are a number of visual cues to differentiate the ActiveHybrid from the other cars in the same range. Other then the rather generous application of "ActiveHybrid" badges, the front grilles and lights have a slightly bluish-silverish tint to them. Something i have noticed on other manufacturers' Hybrid offerings as well. To be honest, i don't really like them. The wheels on this car are also unique to this model. Looking like a throwback to the E34 M5's throwing stars, but not quite as good looking. These 17 inch wheels are aimed at improving aerodynamics but at the expense of aesthetics. When you are gunning for top efficiency, function prevails over form i guess. This attention to improving the car's aerodynamic properties even extends into the bits behind the grille, where specially designed louvers work their magic to improve the airflow. Inside, the Hybrid 5 has pretty much all the toys you get from the 535i. Everything from the heads up display, to the extremely well executed overhead camera views when parking, it's all within reach of your finger tips. If driving in "Eco" mode makes you sleepy, the steering wheel can rumble your senses up by vibrating if you start to meander out of your lane. The iDrive screen in the Hybrid sports some interesting graphics to inform you when the electric motor is being used to run the car and when it's petrol comrade kicks in. Over the time i had driving the ActiveHybrid, i tried my best to keep driving it with the electric motor. Not because i was pretending to be a tree hugger, but it was actually rather interesting experience to run solely on electricity, it felt rather smooth and was eerily quiet. The transition from electric to petrol was almost seemless and the only difference other then the sound, was the added juice from the torquey engine waking up and taking orders from your right foot. At carpark speeds, running entirely on electricity was possible and makes for some interesting moments as you creep up behind unsuspecting pedestrians. Then watch as they shuffle away and look perplexed as the almost silent machine glides across. I feel almost guilty not driving this car the same way i would a 535i, it might have more power on tap but strangely, i just didn't really want to indulge in all that power. I just kept trying to coax the electric motor out of it's battery-charging slumber and let me play stealth mode again. How does this car handle? Well, pretty good though somewhat weighty. It's a rather big car so you don't really dive it into corners as and when you see them, you sort of need to plan ahead before going in and let the car work it's mojo. On normal public streets there was really not much space for me to hustle this machine, the way it gets up to license losing speeds (even in the bends) is just ridiculous. Let's just say, most drivers (me included) will run out of chutzpah before the car runs out of talent. So this brings us to the conundrum i mentioned earlier. Why did i bring in the 535i as it's direct competitor in the BMW stable? They might share a similar engine, but the main reason is, the ActiveHybrid 5, with all it's hightech drivetrain gizmos and advanced computer wizardry, is cheaper then the 535i. Yes, that's right, because of the way our cars are being taxed and with the rebates given for "eco" cars, what usually goes for a premium over the regular "non-eco" cars has turned out to be the cheaper option. S$18,000 cheaper in fact. The only compromise here, the slightly smaller boot. With the ActiveHybrid, you are in fact getting more for less. Something you'd rarely get in our local car buying context. Think about that before you sign on the dotted line for a 535i. I reckon S$18,000 is more then enough to get yourself a better looking set of alloys.


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