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Aside from price, there's no drawback to this hybrid over a 535i. Newspress
Aside from price, there's no drawback to this hybrid over a 535i. Newspress

BMW's ActiveHybrid 5 is a first - smart, eco-friendly and fun to drive

Road Test BMW produces the best hybrid car yet, one that is just as good as its combustion-engine compatriot.

The route is 150km long and we have two and a half hours to get to the end where lunch is awaiting us. So a brief stop to photograph BMW's new ActiveHybrid 5 seems like an innocuous request, and one my co-driver is happy to indulge.

A location only yards off the prescribed route is previously familiar to both myself and my SLR's lens. In minutes the shots are taken and we're back on the sat/nav's yellow brick road.

It is while discussing the excellence with which this full-hybrid swaps between its power sources that I notice a familiar-looking Labrador. It's fear of being branded a mad man that sees me remark that the road - not the canine - looks familiar, but still my colleague looks puzzled by my revelation. And then we stop at the same road works we did not 30 minutes earlier.

A quick glance at the sat/nav confirms that, yes; somehow we're taking part in what seems to be circular route. And no, it doesn't end up at the Portuguese fish restaurant we hoped for.

Fumbling with the road book reveals the correct plan, and furious twirling of the iDrive controller reconfigures our helpful guide. Except our estimated time of arrival puts us pulling up not only after the last course is cleared away, but also perilously close to mistiming the scheduled airport shuttle, too. And I really like my food.

Normally, behind the wheel of a hybrid, we'd have admitted defeat, eschewing the glorious scenery for a direct but dull beeline to our local charcuterie. But this is, according to its makers, a BMW among hybrids: more concerned with dynamics than saving the planet.

Based on the 306hp 535i, the ultimate driving machine should be up to the challenge, boasting an additional 54hp from the electric motor nestling neatly within the eight-speed automatic transmission. There's more weight (about 140kg more thanks to the motor and batteries over the rear wheels), but the boost in power counteracts this.

So with the chef's table in my crosshair, a squeeze of the throttle sees the ActiveHybrid 5 lift its nose, squat at the rear and hurl itself down the road with real vibrancy. The distinctive howl from the straight-six engine masks my grumbling digestive system, and progress feels seamless. Only the hybrid-specific information screens give any real indication of the helping hand from the electric supply.

In Sport+ mode the ActiveHybrid 5 covers 0 to 100kph in less than six seconds, helped by the smooth-shifting automatic gearbox.

Weight distribution is clearly well-judged and, save for the slight squeal from the low-rolling resistance rubber, there's little to distinguish this car from the most capable of the 5 Series models.

Progressing well, our ETA getting closer to coinciding with the main course, we head inland from the coast. Up front there are some serious mountains to climb, but the electric motor's happy to lend a hand. Not only does the sophisticated sat/nav prepare the powertrain for changing speed limits and traffic, but also for topography - happily depleting reserves on the way up in the knowledge that the downhill stretch will allow a recharge.

Edging ever closer to starter time, it's a relief to see a sign for the AutoRoute, where we can indulge in some high-speed running. Like a regular 5 Series, the ActiveHybrid 5 remains smooth and refined at speed and then the cabin descends into silence.

At speeds of up to 161kph this 5 Series can decouple its engine from the driveshafts, shut down all of its cylinders and coast along, unfettered by any engine braking - all the while recharging its electric powerplant. Gliding down the gentle decline of this three-lane motorway, the freewheeling proves curiously satisfying, knowing that you're travelling at serious speed with less environmental impact than the eco-car struggling to keep up in the adjacent lane.

A single junction to go, time is getting cut fine, but as we round the off-ramp the 5 remains flat and grips hard before we slow. A couple of clicks away, our throttle inputs more gentle, the ActiveHybrid slips into EV mode, the sat/nav already prepared for us reaching our final destination. It's a neat trick, and one that can be pulled off at up to 60kph for around 4km - it'll even keep the cabin cool thanks to the Stationary Climate Control taking its power from the batteries when the engine is idle.

Silently gliding into the car park, it looks like we've not only made it in time for the airport shuttle, but we're also going to be fully fed and watered. A simple read of the specs reveals the ActiveHybrid 5 is more efficient than the 535i it's based on, but what isn't obvious until you drive it is how much fun it is.

Certainly based on our cross-country lunch mission it looks like there is no penalty for purchasing it (save for the inflated list price) over the 535i, which is food for thought.

Base price N/A

Engine 3.0L turbocharged V6 with electric motor

Gearbox Eight-speed automatic

Power 340hp @ 5,800rpm

Torque 450Nm @ 1,200rpm

Fuel economy, combined 6.4L/100km

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