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2013 BMW ActiveHybrid 5 First Drive

What It Is
BMW turbocharged muscle joins forces with Captain Planet's hybrid wholesomeness in the body of a 5 Series.
Best Thing
It still feels every bit like the BMW it is.
Worst Thing
Fuel economy gains aren't that great.
Snap Judgment
Turbocharged muscle and Captain Planet aren't BFFs. Your green conscience would be better eased elsewhere.


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At some point in the last decade, luxury automakers figured out that hybrids could be more than boring appliances. They could be status symbols, driven by the elite and seen as the next revolution in the automotive market. V-8 engines used to be the must-haves for those riding in posh style. But with the advent of the hybrid sports sedan, who would need a V-8 when a six-cylinder with an electric motor assisting it could deliver the same kind of performance with four-cylinder fuel economy?

At least that's the idea in theory.

For 2013, the BMW 5 Series joins the fray with the ActiveHybrid 5, competing against the Lexus GS 450h, Infiniti M35h, and upcoming Mercedes-Benz E400 Hybrid. At a starting price of $61,995, including $895, the ActiveHybrid 5, like its rivals, isn't exactly cheap. But with the added price -- $8,000 over a comparable 535i -- it's a car that supposedly ought to deliver on the promise of an Ultimate Driving Machine while returning outstanding fuel economy.

Following the ActiveHybrid 7 and defunct ActiveHybrid X6, and preceding the ActiveHybrid 3 that will share the same six-cylinder and electric propulsion system, we drove the ActiveHybrid 5 around the gently sweeping back roads of Monterey, California, to see if it could wear both the green hat and BMW's crown. With a long pedigree of performance cars, we know BMW knows how to make a decent ride. But could it possibly make a good hybrid?

Walkaround

On first sight, you don't notice anything much different with the 2013 ActiveHybrid 5 compared to any other 5 Series except for its color. Called Liquid Blue Metallic -- or baby blue to you and me -- it's an exclusive color to the ActiveHybrid series. The spindle wheels and ActiveHybrid badges that run along the rear pillars are the only other tipoffs that this car is something out of the ordinary. For an automaker like BMW that has recently made every one of its limited batch cars a bit more extroverted, the ActiveHybrid 5 comes off as too subtle.

BMW has some active aerodynamic bits in the car's grilles to reduce drag and boost fuel economy at speed. But one would never notice them without having had dinner with a bunch of BMW representatives or studied the bookish press releases of technical data the company distributes. Sure, outside of a Tesla Model S or the Lexus GS Hybrid none of the eco-minded midsizers have much pizzazz. But at least they have some. If you have money and want to show the world that you're saving it one mile per gallon at a time, the ActiveHybrid 5 is going to be a tough sell when it comes to getting the attention you rightfully deserve.

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Sitting Down

That said, Germans have always held functionality above style. At more than $60,000, the BMW ActiveHybrid 5 looks a bit spartan despite being jam-packed with technology through its iDrive infotainment system. Our car's plain-looking Oyster white and black leather interior didn't do it any favors. Along with wood tastefully adorning the dashboard and doors, you get the impression BMW went through a checklist of what luxury car buyers expect. But BMW didn't go out of its way to make the interior feel particularly special.

In the ActiveHybrid 5, its standard seats are comfortable and supportive without being plush. Its back bench can accommodate three passengers, but with a large driveshaft tunnel running down the middle we wouldn't recommend all the seats go filled for too long. While some hard plastics adorn the lower doors, most materials are high-quality soft-touch plastics or leather-covered.

Out back, roughly one-third of the 5 Series' trunk space has been eaten up by a 1.35 kilowatt-hour battery back, limiting it to a still very usable 13.2 cubic feet of space. That's the same as a Ford Focus sedan's cargo hold, which is on the smaller side of the compact segment. While the smaller trunk won't make much of a difference to most shoppers, the ActiveHybrid 5 unfortunately loses its split-folding functionality. If this is your biggest car, you're probably going to have to have your flatscreen TV delivered.

While not particularly flashy, the ActiveHybrid 5 feels like a solid, well-built sedan because, well, it is. Outward visibility is excellent, and it's easy to quickly learn iDrive's ins and outs -- and there are a lot of them -- within an hour. It's hardly an exciting-looking car, in or out. But inoffensive and user-friendly go a long way sometimes.

Driving

BMWs are defined by how they handle the road. While supple-riding yet buttoned-down, BMWs have always had just a tinge of vibration sent through the steering wheel that transmits even the smallest. It makes you feel like you're one with the car. And it's something very few automakers have been able to replicate well.

Even with all of the battery equipment and in a bigger, less sporty car than the previous-generation, the ActiveHybrid 5 still has that BMW feel to it. Despite having regenerative brakes, its pedal feels linear and natural. The car's power comes on without hesitation, letting you cruise along in Eco Pro mode or take on winding roads in Sport+ with little effort. Make no mistake, this car can still dance. Its eight-speed automatic transmission keeps up the pace, whether lurching in traffic or driving at highway speeds. Despite now having to manage between a 300-horsepower gas engine and a 55-horsepower electric horsepower that together deliver a maximum of 335 horsepower, the transmission never feels out of step.

While taking things a little slower, though, the hybrid system's electric motor can silently and harmoniously shuffle in and out of operation. Without looking at the 8.8-inch screen displaying the car's drive power, we'd challenge anyone to figure out which is running the car at any given time. We say that with a caveat, though. At low speeds, the engine's Start/Stop ignition is still harsher than it ought to be for a car in this price class.

That's a minor quibble when compared to the car's greatest fault.

Its hybrid technology, in and of itself, may be fantastic. But the 2013 BMW ActiveHybrid 5 is simply a lousy hybrid. Rated at 23 city/30 highway mpg, the BMW falls well behind the Lexus GS 450h (29 city/34 highway) and Infiniti M35h (27 city/32 highway). In fact, it trails the four-cylinder BMW 528i (24 city/34 highway) by a pretty significant margin, too. Worse still, the 528i undercuts the ActiveHybrid 5 by more than $10,000.

That's a lot of cash to think about when it comes to going green.

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Summary

The 2013 BMW ActiveHybrid 5 is hardly a bad car. But it's not a great one, either.

When it comes to a unique selling proposition, BMW has carried its cache a long way for some time, leveraging it into a successful line of crossovers, fuel-efficient diesel engines, and even all-wheel drive where once the brand touted anything more than rear-wheel drive to be heresy. We don't think BMW's hybrid systems will be another breakout hit. Not now at least. Not with merely a 30-mpg highway fuel economy rating. And not with as many other great engine options the 5 Series still has available.

Despite this, the BMW ActiveHybrid 5 retains the best parts of what makes a BMW a BMW. It can hustle with the best of them in its class, even given its gargantuan proportions and two-ton weight. Yet, when you want it, the 5 Series settles into its role as a quiet and refined luxury car, albeit you may want to turn Start/Stop off to get the full experience.

No, the ActiveHybrid 5 isn't a bad car. But the biggest problem with the car is that there's simply no reason to buy it.

At $61,995, it's overpriced given what is available elsewhere in the market and within the automaker's portfolio, like the nearly identically priced 400-horsepower 550i. Sure, that thing has a $1,000 gas-guzzler tax, but at least it has metallic paint as standard equipment, $550 extra on the ActiveHybrid. And it's a heckuva lot quicker and more sporting.

All we can think of is that the ActiveHybrid 5 is some sort of technology demonstration, an exercise for people who want a hybrid but just have to have a BMW. For them, we say it's a new boss -- pretty much the same as the old boss. Those shoppers will be elated with the ActiveHybrid, as they should be.

For everyone else, though, we're going to recommend you move on with your search. The 2013 BMW ActiveHybrid 5 simply isn't that compelling a car.

Basic Specs

3.0-liter inline-6 and electric motor, 8-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, 335-hp (net), $61,995, 23 mpg city/30 mpg hwy

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