2021 BMW X5 xDrive 45e Review: A Beautifully Competent Plug-In Hybrid
The driving experience transcends the oddly shaped grille and odder name in BMW’s plug-in SUV.
As BMW's second-strongest seller of both 2019 and 2020, the X5 luxury SUV is an important one to get right. It would certainly not be in BMW's best financial interest to turn buyers off something this popular in such a hot segment, which is probably why there are currently five different available flavors of X5. I'm here to tell you why the hybrid one—the 2021 BMW X5 xDrive 45e—deserves your attention.
There’s a '90s-era Shania Twain song that goes, “Oh-oo-oh, you think you're special. Oh-oo-oh, you think you're something else. That’s don’t impress me much.” Perhaps you aren't impressed by BMWs because you see them everywhere. Perhaps you think the “BMW X5 xDrive 45e” alphabet soup nomenclature is silly (it is) because it goes on and on (it does). Perhaps you don't love the kidney grilles and snicker at the rather bucktoothed look.
I get that because I felt similarly. But then I drove this thing for a week and all my misperceptions disappeared. Poof.
The 2021 BMW X5 xDrive 45e, By the Numbers
- Base price (as tested): $60,395 ($81,695)
- Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six | 24-kWh battery pack| 8-speed automatic transmission | all-wheel drive
- Combined horsepower: 389 @ 5,000 to 6,000 rpm
- Combined torque: 443 lb-ft @ 1,500 to 3,500 rpm
- Electric-only range: 30 miles
- Combined range: 400 miles
- Curb weight: 5,672 pounds
- Seating capacity: 5
- Cargo space: 33.1 cubic feet
- Ground clearance: 8.3 inches
- EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city/highway combined (gasoline only) | 50 mpge city/highway combined
- Quick take: This is a vehicle I could drive for the next ten years. The benefits transcend the ridiculous name.
What Is It?
BMW introduced the X5 luxury midsize SUV in the late '90s and its popularity ever since is undeniable. Now in its fourth generation, the current X5 maintains much of the original's proportions and looks—from the kidney-shaped grille to the tall windows and big wheel arches. Sitting between the smaller X3 and larger X7, the X5 maintains the boxier and more traditional SUV-look that the X6 "SUV-coupe" forgoes. And within the X5 lineup itself, the xDrive 45e plug-in hybrid slots above the sDrive40i and xDrive40i and below the X5 M50i.
Introduced in early 2019, the xDrive 45e is the successor to 2015's X5 xDrive40e. Under the hood, it has a 3.0-liter, turbocharged straight-six engine that makes a combined 389 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. Over the 40e's 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, this marks an 81-hp and 111 lb-ft improvement. All 45es are equipped with an eight-speed automatic transmission and a rear-biased all-wheel-drive system.
The hybrid system itself has also been upgraded. The battery, which sits in the SUV's underbody, now has a battery capacity of 24 kWh, up from the 40e's 12 kWh. That gives this X5 variant an EPA-estimated range of up to 30 miles of electric-only driving. That’s notably twice as much as what it used to be, which we reported as a "paltry" 14 miles in our 2018 review. The 45e's top speed when driving in electric-only mode also grows from 75 mph to 84 mph.
The X5 typically comes standard as a five-seater, though you can option it with a third row, albeit a small one. You can't get the optional third-row seat on the 45e, however. This is likely because of the battery's placement. There’s also an unnecessarily blingy crystal shifter knob and I feel fancy every time I drive it. Do I need a glass shifter? No. Do I love it all the same? Yes.
Driving the X5 xDrive 45e
What do you get when you combined a punchy straight-six with a hybrid powertrain? Something that gets going quickly and met my expectations while both merging on the highway and passing on country roads.
I gave the 45e a good workout, too, driving it from Austin, Texas, to Houston—162 miles away—to attend a Mecum auction the day after I got my second COVID-19 vaccination. (I woke up that morning, took stock and realized I felt fine and all of my body parts were intact, so I decided on a whim to take a drive.) A few days later, I zipped up to Dallas, 200 miles away. That amounted to hundreds of miles of highway driving, and the SUV performed beautifully.
Its three drive modes—Hybrid, Electric, and Sport—give you a chance to customize your ride. Hybrid is the mode you start up in, where the car figures out the most efficient way to use its two types of motors. In this mode, you can drive up to 68 mph in the car's electric-only setting. Electric mode, as its name suggests, is the gasoline-free mode, where you can reach emissions-free speeds of 84 mph. Sport mode is the most aggressive, where the system more actively draws regenerative energy from the engine and braking. This mode gives the 45e the chips to sprint from zero to 60 in an estimated 5.3 seconds (that’s quicker than the new Toyota GR 86 sports car). And, of course, adaptive and individual modes can be tuned to the way you drive the vehicle.
I piloted the X5 45e as much as I could in the span of a week, running it to the grocery store, picking up my son and his friends from school, and spooling it out on the highway to get a feel for the acceleration. Braking activates the SUV's hybrid regenerative systems, which gives it a somewhat spongy feel, but I felt confident that it was still going to stop quickly.
The X5 xDrive 45e is pleasantly quiet to drive. Inside the cabin, I didn't have any trouble listening to music, and the volume was calibrated to properly fill the space gradually. It's easy to enjoy the road manners of this SUV, which gets up to speed quickly with a tweak of torque boosted by the electric motor. Merging onto highways was seamless; driving onto I-35 is no joke and other drivers will plow you right under their wheels if you're not paying attention. Dimensionally, it feels substantial enough to hold its own but narrow enough that I didn't sweat the concrete barriers in the omnipresent construction zones between Austin and Dallas.
Both the back seat and trunk space are ample. My 11-year-old son and two of his buddies, who are nearly my height, lounged comfortably behind me and appreciated the USB ports in the seatback. The power liftgate is divided into two parts, which I like because that means it's not such a giant door opening in front of you with your hands full of groceries but two-thirds of the usual size. If you need more loading room, the bottom flaps out, too.
When you're traveling, stopping for gas can be an annoyance, but I was delighted that I drove 200 miles to the Dallas area and got almost all the way back without having to fill up. Candidly, the X5 45e has a slightly smaller tank than its non-plug-in sibling (18.2 gallons to 21.9 gallons) so that's why the 45e gets an estimated 400 miles of total range. However, it's worth noting the base, rear-wheel-drive X5 sDrive40i—which is cheaper—gets an estimated 504 miles of total range.
Of course, range isn't the whole story. The point of the 45e is to let you try out the electric life with 30 miles on electricity alone. For longer trips you still have the comfort and familiar option to stop at a gas station and fill up.
Pros and Cons
Let’s go ahead and address the buck-toothed elephant in the room: the grille. Before I knew the 45e personally, I would snicker at the giant grille on this thing. Now that we know each other better, I don't even notice it because the drive captures my attention and keeps me happy. As we discovered earlier this year, BMW doesn't really care what anyone thinks about its designs anyway. The company calls it "bold," we call it "over-grilled" and it comes down to personal taste whether you can live with it or not.
Use-wise, I was very satisfied with the car. Except, for some unknown reason, the 45e kept disconnecting Apple CarPlay at random intervals. This was more than a little annoying. The brakes were slightly squishy but not so much that it was distracting. Other than that, honestly, there wasn't much else to nitpick.
As soon as I slid behind the wheel, the first thing I noticed was that the leather seats were incredibly cushy and the headrest well-placed and soft. Not all headrests are created equal, and some are as uncomfortable as an airline seat in coach class. That's not true for the X5 45e; these are first-class. Walking around to the rear of the car, the top of the liftgate opens quickly while the bottom opens separately with one touch of a button, making it a simple matter to load heavier things into the back.
BMW does a great job with details. The "experience modes" change the temperature inside the cabin, open and close the sunroof, and adjust the lighting to match your mood. The stitching and placement of buttons and knobs are thoughtful, befitting an upscale brand.
Then we get to the price, because we've dinged the plug-in X5 for being expensive before. Base, non plug-in hybrid X5 models start at $60,395. Opting for the PHEV X5 automatically raises the price by $6,000, though you do get the more powerful hybrid engine and all-wheel drive as standard. Other standard features include 19-inch wheels, a 12.3-inch driver information gauge, a 12.3-inch center display, BMW's iDrive infotainment system, navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, and BMW's suite of standard safety features such as blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, and frontal collision warning.
As tested, the review vehicle rang in at $81,695, including the $995 destination charge. That’s with all of the proverbial bells and whistles, including some most people will find to be completely unnecessary. There are several ways to chisel down that top-level price if you like the SUV but don’t want to spend that much, starting with the potential $7,500 federal tax credit. Just make sure you first read the fine print and that you qualify for it.
BMW’s M Sport package—high gloss roof rails, aluminum trim, an M-steering wheel, an aerodynamic kit, Vernasca leather, and Shadowline exterior trim—jacks up the price by $5,500. Then BMW added in the 21-inch M-wheels for $950 and the M-Sport brakes with blue calipers for $650. Unless you feel very strongly about all the stuff the M Sport package adds, along with the big wheels and blue brakes, you could easily save $7,100. And unless you’re a heavy commuter and want to lean on the extended traffic jam assistant and semi-autonomous driver-assist system, that’s another $1,700 you also don’t need to spend.
As for options I’d keep in the cabin of the 45e, Vernasca leather can be a standalone option and it’s supple and comfortable, even in Texas heat. It’s easy to upgrade to heated front and rear seats at $350, and heated arm rests (ahhhh, so cozy) add another $250. If you want to tow a camper or boat, the 45e is equipped with a 5,952-pound tow rating, so the $550 tow hitch option is well worth the extra cost.
However, I’d highly recommend the $4,050 Executive Package, which includes rear window shades, four-zone climate control, a head-up display, onboard Wi-Fi, and some other niceties. What really makes the Executive Package worthwhile is the gesture control feature, which enables you to spin up and down the volume with a twirl of an index finger and mute the audio by quickly flicking a peace sign in an upward motion. If more vehicles are going to go with touchscreen controls, more of them should use gesture control, because it’s easy and fun to use. Several people, when I explained how it worked, said they probably wouldn’t like it because they use their hands a lot when speaking. I’m half Sicilian, so that’s what I do, too, and I didn’t find that it activated the system once. Hah.
The battle for dominance in the green market is on fire, and options are plentiful. The X5 can count the Mercedes-Benz GLE, Audi Q7, Volvo XC90, Land Rover Range Rover, and Porsche Cayenne among its competitors. Of those, only the Volvo, Land Rover, and Porsche appear to offer hybrid options at the time of this writing. (There is a Q5 hybrid, which we've tested before and very much liked.) Among the bunch, the BMW and the Volvo are priced most closely, though you could argue the XC90 Recharge has a nicer interior. Porsche's Cayenne E-Hybrid is quite a bit pricier starting at $86,000. It has more power and a quicker zero-to-60, but you're going to pay for it.
The 45e's all-electric range beats the XC90 and Q5 hybrids by a fair amount; the Audi and Volvo are rated for 19 and 21 all-electric miles, respectively. But all three vehicles are upscale and feel like a million bucks when you're driving them, so it comes down to personal style and preferences.
I didn’t think I’d care one way or another about the 45e, but when it left my driveway, it took a little piece of my jaded heart with it. I found it to be a highly capable and practical vehicle and the fact that it was a hybrid was a big plus for me. "Come back to me," I willed it in my mind, but that didn’t work. So I’ll keep hoping.
I like the idea of a plug-in hybrid because it suits my needs perfectly. I work from home and I don't have a regular commute outside of driving my son to and from school and soccer practice. Those trips fall well within the car's estimated 30 miles of all-electric range. And if I need to go anywhere further (Texas' charging infrastructure is nowhere near as robust as California's) I can always fall back on the inline-six and simply pop over to a garden-variety gas station.
Overall, the X5 xDrive 45e offers all the expected quality and practicality that's made the X5 so popular over the years. It's got plenty of features like a high-definition audio system as standard, 16-way (!) powered and heated front seats, and a panoramic moon roof to keep you happy. A few years down the road, you could easily pass this to a teen driver who would be absolutely thrilled to have it and save them some money at the pump. In the meantime, it is a pleasure to have in your garage.
BMW's been knocking it out of the park recently with its plug-in hybrids, as our own Peter Holderith really enjoyed his time behind the wheel of the 530e. The systems add a snippet of extra power for far less noise than a stompy, loud V8 (not that there is anything wrong with a stompy, loud V8) would bring. Hybrids might not grab the same enthusiast excitement that something with more cylinders and a supercharger might, but they've quietly become a great option for the practically minded driver who still wants zippy performance and fun wrapped up in their daily commute. The 2021 BMW X5 xDrive 45e pulls that off wonderfully.
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