BMW X5 xDrive40e review: plug-in or plug out?

15 March 2016

BMW X5 xDrive40e plug-in from the front

BMW X5 xDrive40e
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Good: quick, highly refined, up to 75mph in EV mode
Bad: heavy, no plug-in grant, 19-mile EV range
Price: from £52,105
Today, nobody is surprised by off-road cars that never go off road. BMW’s first X model, the X5 of 1999, was part of the generation that cemented that trend. It prioritised road manners over the ability to clamber across rocks, and the company has not had much reason to regret that decision ever since.

The rubber lawn-rollers fitted to each corner of today’s car, a third generation X5 in M-Sport trim, underscore that tarmac traction remains the core goal. This particular vehicle weighs 2.2 tonnes, seems the size of a small house, and doesn’t feel like the kind of transport you might select if you care about fuel economy. It is, however, a proper plug-in car.

So I wonder whether the X5 xDrive40e might embody a new genre: plug-in cars that never plug in.

After all, a plug-in X5 might easily be selected purely for the tax advantages of its 77g/km CO2 rating, rather than its ability to travel up to 19 miles on electricity alone. Just look at the numbers. A 40% taxpayer can save about £3,300 per year in company car tax if they chose an X5 40e over a diesel X5 40d, which offers similar performance and costs roughly the same to buy. The difference is enough to pay for at least 16,000 miles’ worth of petrol, even at the middle-20s economy you’d likely get from the 40e if you never plugged it in.

BMW X5 xDrive40e charging socket

The potential to ignore the socket on the X5’s flank is underscored by the fact it just misses out on the plug-in car grant – by 2g/km and one mile of range. As far as the government is concerned, this is not a plug-in car.

But it would be a great shame to never plug the X5 in, because even 19 miles on electricity matter. As BMW argues, this seemingly small range is sufficient to cover the majority of daily trips made by typical European drivers. However, as every electric-car detractor who ever dribbled over a keyboard has pointed out, lots of people don’t have a garage or driveway where they can install a charger. Those people might persuade themselves that an X5 40e ticks a lot of boxes even without a wallbox.

BMW X5 xDrive40e front interior

The plug-in X5 is certainly an impressive car. It offers ample amounts of those qualities that buyers seem to look for in big off-roaders: space, style, perceived safety and prestige. It is also quick, luxurious, comfortable and extremely well put together. There seems very little not to like, assuming you can stretch to the asking price. In SE guise, the X5 xDrive40e costs from £52,105 on the road.

The X5 40e can run on its engine, its electric motor, or both combined. Peak power overall is 308bhp (230kW), with the electric motor accounting for up to 83kW (111bhp) in short bursts, or 55kW (74bhp) during sustained running. The motor sits between the engine and the 8-speed automatic gearbox, allowing the 40e to provide permanent four-wheel drive no matter which form of propulsion is pushing it along.

BMW X5 xDrive40e boot

A lithium ion battery has been bolted into the back of the car, immediately behind the rear seats. It eats into luggage space – there’s only a slim sliver of storage under the flip-up boot floor, and alas the battery also robs the X5 of its seven-seat option. There remains a useful 500 litres of capacity in the boot before dropping the seats, accessed via the handily split tailgate.

The battery weighs about 150kg, stores 9kWh of energy, and BMW says it should provide 14 to 19 miles of real-world range. Top speed on electricity alone is 75mph, though I suspect at that kind of pace, range would slip below 10 miles.

For long-range running there’s a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, twin-turbo petrol engine under the bonnet. It can rustle up 241bhp as well as 350Nm of torque, to add to the motor’s 250Nm peak. Sprinting to 62mph takes 6.8 seconds. By way of comparison, the X5 40d has the same overall power but 40% more torque and 120kg less heft, allowing it to get to 62mph in just 5.9 seconds.

BMW X5 xDrive40e centre console with buttons

As you might imagine there are a gaggle of different driving modes to juggle in the plug-in X5. The car wakes up in Auto eDrive mode – assuming the battery is charged – and left to its own devices will drive as a hybrid, smoothly mixing electric and petrol power as different needs arise. Low speed travel will mostly be done on battery, speeds above 44mph mostly on petrol. You can also prod the car into Max eDrive mode, which will keep the car in electric-only mode for as long as the battery charge lasts.

A separate button scrolls through the usual BMW mode options of Sport, Comfort and Eco Pro, which affect a range of settings including steering weight, throttle response, gear change aggression and the active suspension that comes as standard with the plug-in car.

In Sport mode, the X5 40e will seize on moments of light throttle to burn a bit of extra petrol, running the motor as a generator to stuff electricity back into the battery. While lousy for fuel economy, this tactic is there to provide full motor-plus-engine potential for the next bout of hard acceleration.

BMW X5 xDrive40e drivers view

Whichever mode it’s in, the 40e will also grab back as much energy from the car’s momentum as it can when slowing down, using up to 20kW of regenerative braking. Thankfully, the X5 does not adopt the i3 electric car’s over-enthusiasm for regeneration – step off the throttle in the X5 and you’ll gently lose pace as per normal, whereas in the i3 you’ll slow down as if you’ve accidentally stepped on the brake.

There is also a “Save Charge” option among the buttons, which will let you keep a mains charge in reserve if there’s a low-speed stretch at the far end of your journey, for example. Cleverly, as long as you’re not in Sport mode, the X5 40e will also take account of your satnav destination, reserving battery power for use during any urban sections of the route ahead.

BMW X5 xDrive40e rear side view

I did explore the various menus of the BMW iDrive screen looking for a map showing how far the car might travel on battery reserves, like the one you can bring up in an i3, but if it’s there I couldn’t find it. Perhaps BMW will add the option. The company now fits mobile network SIM cards as standard (to enable the in-car SOS system), so over-the-air software upgrades are now a possibility. Connectivity also allows owners to use a smartphone app to control charging, heating and air conditioning of the car remotely, whenever it’s plugged in.

Behind the wheel, you will need bat-like ears to tell whether you’re running in electric or petrol mode – the engine is librarian quiet and cocktail-waiter smooth.

BMW X5 xDrive40e side view, driving

I’m surprised by how easy it is to adjust to the car’s bulk. It feels much smaller and more wieldy than you’d expect from the outside, and there’s no shortage of grip from the aforementioned wide tyres – which are 55% profile, 255mm wide and on 18-inch alloys as standard. Bigger wheels will bump up the CO2 rating, but only by a sliver to 78g/km.

Recharging the battery from zero to 80% takes 2.5 hours using a BMW wallbox, which charges at 16 amps. A standard household socket, supplying 10 amps, will take 3.5 hours to do the same, BMW says.

The electrified X5 is BMW’s first plug-in car outside the dedicated BMWi range (the logo of which nonetheless features on the X5’s charging cable bag). It’s easy to see why this car doesn’t fit the BMWi message, being big, heavy and not especially clever compared with the carbon-fibre oddness of the i8 and i3. But the X5 40e provides a persuasive alternative to diesel, if this is the shape and size of car you’re after. As long as you remember to plug it in.

BMW X5 xDrive40e battery gauge

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