The new BMW 5-Series is a car we already know to be talented. In our 5-star review of the upper-spec 530d, we said that, judged in isolation, it goes "straight to the top of the class". That's a class which includes the Mercedes E-Class, which when we tested it in 2016, felt like it had jumped forward two generations. So the 5-Series is good. Extremely good.
Problem is, if you're a company car driver - and many people looking to buy a 5-Series are - then the 530d is probably off limits. As a 40 per cent tax payer, despite its relative frugality, you're still looking at several grand a year going away from you to the tax man, for the benefit in kind (BIK) of your company providing you with a 530d. A 520d is the obvious place that many people end up as a result, because it attracts lower taxation. But what if BMW was to offer you the best of both worlds... or just an all-out better option?
Welcome the 530e. Yes, that's "e" for electricity - it's not a typo. But the 530e isn't a pure electric car; it's a plug-in hybrid, which pairs a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a 113hp electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack.
The on-paper facts speak for themselves: 252hp, 0-62mph in 6.2 seconds, 29 miles on electric range alone, and 46g/km of CO2. Which means it attracts a 9 per cent BIK tax rating. Or in bald terms, if you're a 40 per cent bracket tax payer then it saves you £1,700 per year compared to a 530d. Its list price is exactly the same as a 530d, too.
BMW 530 electric review: The new normal?
We're driving increasing numbers of so-called electrified cars, but let's take a step back a minute. If you're just coming out of a four year lease deal and you're not that into cars, you may be wondering what is going on and why we're reviewing a BMW 5-Series that has a load of batteries in it. Well, we can explain by saying that there's a perfect storm happening in the car industry right now.
Several car brands - notably Tesla, Renault/Nissan and BMW - went big on developing pure electric cars a few years back. But these cars haven't sold in huge numbers in the market (nor, to some extent, were they expected to). In BMW's case the company is now taking its knowledge - along with some of the technology that was developed for the BMW i3 and i8 - to feed into the regular BMW range and to create plug-in hybrids. The models that benefit are branded "i Performance".
On top of this, VW's diesel gate is making customers wary about diesel engines, particularly city dwellers. But the tax system in the UK prioritises CO2, and diesels generally produce less than petrol cars. Car manufacturers have realised that cars like this 530e - plug-in hybrids, with both an electric motor/battery and a petrol engine in tandem - do very well on the emissions and fuel economy tests and, therefore, mean less tax to pay for the owner.
Best of all, for those motorists who are wary about the range limitations of pure electric cars (that'll be 99 per cent of us, then), a plug-in hybrid like this offers a degree of comfort... run out battery charge and you simply keep driving on petrol. But that 29 miles of battery range will be enough to cover many people's daily commute on electric alone.
Wrap that lot together, and we're at a point where cars like the BMW 530e represent the new normal. Even price bugbears are disappearing. And because the 530e costs the same as a diesel to buy, has better performance and costs less to run than petrol, plus produces less emissions than either fuel type (in most circumstances), you start to wonder if it's too good to be true?
BMW 530e i Performance review: Too good to be true?
But there are some negatives.
One: you'll need at-home, off-road parking, so you can plug in and charge up the battery for it to make sense. The 530e is not going to be a perfect car for many Londoners, then.
Two: the battery pack, which sits at the back of the car, under the boot floor, means that boot capacity is reduced compared to a regular 5-series by over 100 litres - it's down to 410 litres.
Three: and this is conjecture, as governments are fickle, but bear in mind that the tax regime could change to penalise cars such as these as more of them flood the market. Although given what the government has committed to until 2020, take a 530e for three years from now and you're unlikely to be faced with significant unexpected tax rise.
Finally: you can't fast-charge the 530e on the motorway like you can its cousin the fully-electric BMW i3. So a full charge is going to take you three hours, best case scenario. Or more like five hours if you're on a three-pin plug at home. And our experience with other EVs suggests that 29 miles advertised electric-only range is likely to be difficult to achieve in certain circumstances. In winter, for instance, when you've got the heater on.
But based on our brief experience of the BMW 530e, those four points might well be it for negatives. If you're sold on the regular 5-Series, there's little else to get upset about here. And given it's a 5-Series, there's a whole lot to like. In fact, stepping across from a 520d, we really can't understand why, given a choice, anyone would choose the diesel car. We might be electric car converts, but even with rose-tinted spectacles firmly off, it's hard to make a case for the diesel other than its lower purchase price.
BMW 530e review: Like a 5-Series, with added goodness
Other than an extra button on the console, which allows you to cycle through the three drive modes, there's little to distinguish the electrified-nature of the 530e.
When driving you won't notice too much either. The default Auto EDrive keeps things electric up to 50mph but calls on the petrol if you get kiddy with the throttle. Max EDrive keeps things fully electric up to 87mph, and will only bring in petrol if you mash the throttle to the floor in a panic. Battery Control allows you to hold a state of given charge in the battery, meaning the car prioritises using the petrol motor - but in reality this mode actually charges the battery back up as you go, partly from the recuperated energy under braking.
Other electric clues you might notice include when pressing the start button: the 530e's digital gauge cluster replaces the combustion-only car's oil temp gauge with a battery charge level, while the rev-counter gets reformatted to show you thresholds for power usage (depending on mode), or where the petrol engine will kick in if you're in the Auto EDrive mode.
One annoyance for those wanting to max out their battery is that, by default, the car starts up in Auto EDrive mode - even if you've had it in the other modes the last time you switched off. That's more menu digging than you might want and we're surprised the car can't learn your habits.
Anyway, that blip aside, setting off in silence is always a slightly odd, but a special experience. The 530e drives just like a regular 5-Series except more quietly. But pick up speed and you can feel a bit of extra weight. Most of the time the car disguises this well, but you can just occasionally tell it's carrying a couple of hundred kilos of battery and motor extra over regular models.
Yet the overwhelming experience in the 530e is that of serenity, of refinement, of just how well integrated the electric and petrol motor are. There was an Active Hybrid version of the last 5-Series, but the smoothness and refined nature of the 530e is on a whole different level. The way that engine and electric drive blend together and the engine seamlessly shuffles in and out is mightily impressive - because you barely notice it, it never lurches, it's never uncouth and noisy.
Pick up the pace and the 5-Series can still entertain - just like any good BMW. Hustling the 530e through the back roads of Oxfordshire, we had nearly as much fun with it as in the last 530d that we drove. The 530e turns in well, feels keen and - on its 19-inch wheels - rides impeccably most of the time, with only the worst corrugated road sections showing up the big wheels and lack of adaptive dampers on our test model.
It feels quick, too. Mash the throttle and the car throws both electric and petrol motor at the situation, reminding you that 252hp is still a significant amount of power, even with 1,850kg to propel down the road.
It's a well equipped car, too, providing the same equipment as a 530d, including BMW's widescreen Pro-Navigation system and that digital instrument cluster as standard. Despite having undergone a round of feature-bloating in this latest model, the infotainment system and interface design is still probably the best in class. It now includes touchscreen functionality and (optional) gesture control, to supplement the already great iDrive control wheel.
BMW 530e M-Sport review: Pricing it up
Whether you pick the SE model, or this M-Sport, you slip underneath the magic 49g/km CO2 barrier, which puts you in that nine per cent BIK tax bracket.
Prices - at £44,765 for the 530e SE, and £48,065 for the 530e M-Sport - may look bold in isolation, but in reality are competitive. In particular they make the otherwise fine Volvo S90 T8 look rather expensive.
As ever with a BMW, those prices are just the starting point though. It's easy to add thousands of pounds onto the bill in additional options. But the 530e is well-equipped to start with: you don't need to pay extra for a better infotainment system, bigger wheels or leather.
However, the exterior design of the 5-Series in 2017 has much less of the athleticism and modernity than it once did. It's a full-on, luxe-barge cruiser now, not a bantam-weight sports sedan. Even so, it still does fun better than most of its rivals.
- Future electric cars: Upcoming battery-powered cars that will be on the roads within the next 5 years
To anyone sceptical about the increasingly electrified nature of cars, we'd say go and try a 530e. In many ways, it represents the best of all worlds.
However, if you live in London without a drive or garage, or if you're pounding through 30K miles of motorway a year then, yes, a 520 or 530d may suit you better than this electric hybrid. For everyone else, we defy you to pick a 520d over the 530e.
Wafting around in tailpipe-emission free silence is a truly enjoyably experience, as is the ability to still go all "ultimate driving machine" should the mood take you. No, the 530e isn't a junior M-car in the fun stakes, but it's far more entertaining than its Mercedes-Benz or Volvo rivals. It can go further on its battery-only range than either of those cars too.
So the 530e is truly having your cake and eating it. And an illustration that, in this sector of the car industry at least, we've never had it so good.