2021 BMW 530e Review: A Persuasive Case for More Hybrid Sport Sedans
An excellent hybrid drivetrain, a solid chassis and a normal sized grille. What’s not to like?
Here's something you've probably heard before: the BMW 5 Series is one of the premier midsized luxury sports sedans. It has a reputation for feeling taut, comfortable, and alive. Here's something you probably haven't heard yet: The 2021 BMW 530e plug-in hybrid keeps that reputation going, but also adds a forward-thinking approach to internal combustion as well.
Some things for BMW are unavoidable. For a little while, those things have made the 5 Series worse to drive. Electrically assisted steering and smaller, quieter turbocharged engines are all in the name of saving fuel, but don't necessarily help the German automaker craft the latest and greatest ultimate driving machines.
For the non-M 5 Series, fixing this problem doesn't mean turning up the boost or playing a bit more synthesized engine through the speakers. It means embracing the future, and that's what BMW has finally done with the 530e. This car looks ahead. It's genuinely fun to drive, it wants to be toyed with, and the excellent hybrid system means more grunt when you want it and better fuel economy when you don't.
2021 BMW 530e Specs
- Base Price (as Tested): $58,195 ($70,485)
- Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder | one electric motor | eight-speed automatic transmission | all-wheel drive | 12 kWh lithium-ion battery
- Horsepower: 288 @ 3,800 to 6,500 rpm (combined)
- Torque: 310 lb-ft @ 1,450 to 3,600 rpm
- Curb Weight: 4,220 pounds
- 0-60 mph: 5.7 seconds (est.)
- EPA Fuel Economy: 64 mpge | 29 mpg combined
- Quick Take: Make the drivetrain of every sports sedan more like this one.
Hello Hybrid, Hello G30
Launched in 2017, the current 5 Series bears the G30 chassis code. Included with this new platform is the 530e, which is a much-improved version of the previous hybrid 5 Series. (The obscure Active Hybrid 5 was a strange vehicle from 2012 with a minuscule electric range of just 2.5 miles.) The 2021 530e is a lot more appealing in a few ways, primarily its much-improved 21 miles of all-electric range and conventional styling. In terms of price and performance, the 530e slots in between the 530i and the 540i and shares its drivetrain with the smaller 330e.
The hybrid system in this car is also rather sophisticated. It doesn't have a purely electric front or rear axle, but rather an electric motor geared into the vehicle's transmission. So wherever the transmission sends power from the gasoline engine, the electric power goes, too. In practice, I found the system worked so well that it was difficult to tell when it was actually going about its business, but the fuel economy numbers spoke for themselves.
The G30 5 is, also, thankfully far better than the outgoing F10 model in terms of driver engagement, too. I've driven several F10s but I've never really been impressed by them. They all somehow managed to feel less premium than an equivalent Mercedes and disconnected from the road. Nice cars, comfortable cars. Just not sporty cars.
That's not the case this time around. BMW didn't make the G30 any smaller than the F10, but it felt better. The chassis was far more communicative, the visibility was improved, and it felt like a tighter, more agile vehicle. The only bad carryover from the F10 was the inclusion of the dull steering. But the steering on every new BMW is unacceptable by the standards of the company's previous models, so it's a dead horse not worth beating. Plenty of other automakers like Mazda, Ford, and Kia seem like they've figured out good electric steering, but BMW hasn't. It's one area that the hybrid system, unfortunately, couldn't fix.
The hybrid system also did BMW another mitzvah. If, like me, you've found the compression braking action with BMW's Valvetronic engine tech to be lacking in recent years—at higher speeds, throttle lift-off or quick downshifts don't slow you all that much—you'll be glad to know the 530e's regenerative brakes have fixed that here. The hybrid system slows the car to recover energy in those moments, and its seamless programming means it feels a lot more like natural engine braking than anything else. The 530e will also engage regen while you're using the brake pedal, so it's always trying to find opportunities to get a little more juice.
And speaking of charging up the 12 kWh lithium-ion battery, it took a long time to do so from a conventional 120-volt outlet. If you plug it in after dinner, it will take until about 4 or 5 a.m. to get the job done, so around 10 to 12 hours. It can be recharged in about three hours at regular 240-volt public charge points, although home is really the best place to do it. Plus, being a hybrid and all, you're never really stranded if the battery is depleted. Just take it to a gas station.
BMW will sell you a more powerful wall-mounted charger as well. Since having that electric power is what makes this 5 Series interesting, it's a good thing to spring for if you buy this car. Say you're going to work, popping into town, or even just needing to move your car around the driveway. The electric-only mode could be a godsend. Just click "electric" on the center console and you now have a 107-horsepower, fully-electric 5 Series. Though I assure you that in this mode, those 107 horses are giving it absolutely everything they have to haul around a 4,200-pound sedan.
Ergo, when relying on battery-only mode on cold days, the range does drop a lot quicker and the car really doesn't want to accelerate until the batteries warm up. But when it's warm, or if you have the luxury of a climate-controlled garage, you can get in, pull out silently and never use a drop of fuel on your commute. Twenty-one miles of all-electric range can take you a lot further than you might think.
Plus, there's no range anxiety involved. Once the battery runs out, the gas engine kicks in—you will not notice this as it is shockingly quiet and seamless—and the car carries along like normal, finding charge where it can to assure you that you're getting the full 288-HP when you put your foot down.
The 530e Will Put a Smile on Your Face
And you will put your foot down, because you're a BMW driver, but also because the performance component of this hybrid system is really what brings the 5 Series back to being a fun car. The 530e is available with all-wheel drive, but my tester was not so equipped. It was instead a peel-happy, rear-wheel-drive sedan that was capable of getting its tail out, in part thanks to ever-available electric torque. That exciting sideways sensation is ruined shortly after by the steering telling you absolutely nothing about how to maintain such a maneuver, but at least the car's electric grunt and great chassis make it feel like it just wants to do that kind of thing.
Really, once I made use of XtraBoost mode—the only way to get the full 288 hp—I got the feeling that the electric motor and gasoline engine were really taking the weight off each other's shoulders. Punching the throttle resulted in an instant electric response, followed immediately by the gas engine turbocharging its way to peak power. These two powerplants working together gave the sensation of a torquey, naturally-aspirated powerband with plenty of piped-in engine noise, making you believe BMW's lowest-output 2.0-liter engine is punching well above its weight. Some of you will hate that. Frankly, I was having too much fun to care.
On the Inside
Though that sound is synthetic, it is at the very least being piped into an interior that does the job, whether you're trying to find an apex or just a place to pick up dinner. The seats cradle you well through corners, the headrests are soft and comfortable, and my test car's buckets were heated and ventilated. Vitally, if you're a little weird, both the heat and ventilation can be turned on at the same time. Don't knock it 'til you try it.
The latest iDrive system is also better than most on the market. Pairing your phone is a painless process, as is finding a place to charge the car if you're a bit far from home. Some of the switchgear feels a bit cheap—somewhat of a trend on newer BMWs—but at least there's great accent lighting. I wouldn't recommend the white interior unless you only wear white, never eat in your car, and live in a color-matched, hermetically-sealed house, but to each their own. There are several other colors available that won't make you feel like Oscar the Grouch after a few months of leaving your personal filth on the seats.
The driver-assist systems are also well-integrated into the interior, featuring lights on the steering wheel to get your attention if you get distracted, and interfaces on the dash and HUD to ensure you always know what the car is trying to do. That being said, while the radar cruise control part of this equation works as you would expect, the lane-keep and lane-centering systems aren't perfect.
The lane-keep system—if you decide to veer out of your bit of the road—will jolt you back the other direction, hard enough that you end up in the other lane if you don't correct it. When lanes separate or merge together, the car gets "sketched out" and spooked," for lack of better terms. When faced with the same situations, other systems can figure them out or shut off altogether so the driver gets back to steering by themselves.
BMW's system, on the other hand, will typically make an aggressive maneuver—steering very hard and very quickly—as it tries to pick a lane or not drive off the road. That won't exactly make you comfortable in the hands of the car. I never let it get far enough to put anyone in danger, but you must be more vigilant of this system than others from the likes of Hyundai, Acura, or Cadillac.
Back to That Whole Smile Thing, Though
The interior and the driver-assist features aren't the point of this car, however. The interior of any BMW is never going to be awful, and the driver-assist systems work fine in the vast majority of situations. The thing sets this machine apart is how a little bit of electric power lends to the driving experience.
Specifically, the 530e gives you as much as 37 mpg on the highway in Eco Pro mode; extremely impressive for a 4,200-pound sedan of this size. (I recorded that number on a 100-mile stretch of highway between upstate New York and New Jersey, too. Not an arrow-straight, flat-like-glass Kansas highway.) This puts it ahead of all of the 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Classes, with the most efficient ones returning 31 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA.
The 530e also—very refreshingly—gives you a little taste of the brand's old sports sedans. Minus the M-Sport suspension, which isn't available on the 530e, the chassis on this car was just a tad soft, but it felt extremely predictable. The drivetrain very nearly makes up for the numb steering, and the novelty of a performance-oriented hybrid system also made me not miss having a clutch pedal. Give me more control over how that electric power gets put to the wheels and I'll forget about H-patterns altogether.
Heck, give this car the 248-hp engine from a regular 530i, add another 50 horses on from the electric motor, and you'll have a no-nonsense, 400-hp hybrid that will spin the tires like an M car but use no gas when there's neither a time nor a place for a spirited drive. Don't get me wrong, the 530e is great as it sits, but hearts and minds are changed by tire smoke and zero-to-60 times. A future, higher-performance version of it from BMW would be a home run. Did somebody say 540e?
Even without 400 hp, though, this 5 Series hugged the inside line confidently even on winter tires, accelerated hard out of tight corners, and most importantly, put a smile on my face. It's sharp, it's precise, it's a real fun-to-be-had driving machine. A lot less can be said of cars that claim to be a lot more.
But it's not that simple. It's never that simple. The real shortcoming of the 530e is the price. At $58,195, it's both three grand more than the 530i and only $2,250 cheaper than a 540i; that car has a classic BMW inline-six, the same handling dynamics and a lot more power. There's not much buyer incentive to go for the environmentally conscious 5 Series when the more powerful, more stereotypically fun one is basically within reach. The reality is that while batteries are getting cheaper, the nature of PHEVs means you're paying for two separate drivetrains. As much as they clearly want to live together—and they make such a cute couple—they add up to an expensive proposition when bolted into the same car.
Is that enough to dissuade me from telling you to consider buying one of these things, though? No, it's not. As much as any car enthusiast likes to harp on BMW for losing its way, the 530e is an appealing package even for the money. It just needs a bit more power for there to be no asterisk after that statement. This car is not just a good BMW, it's a good sports sedan by any standard. More sports sedans ought to be hybrids, and we should make all their drivetrains more like this one.
Wanna talk some more about the 530e? Send me a message: firstname.lastname@example.org