The BMW i5 is a 5 Series first and an EV second. And that's a good thing.
When BMW invites you to the South of France to drive a prototype version of its upcoming i5 electric sedan, you say yes. Like the i4 and i7 that preceded it, the i5 is the all-electric variant of the eighth-generation BMW 5 Series. Production begins this summer at BMW's Plant Dingolfing in Bavaria, which also builds the i7, 7 Series, 8 Series, and iX on the same assembly line.
But CarBuzz had an early chance to drive the car before its full reveal and before development had even been completed. Naturally, this means there's still some work to be done and potential flaws to be fixed, but it also gives us an early indication of what to expect and BMW a chance to gauge the responses of those who will criticize a new model most.
The i5 follows the same philosophy as the i4 and i7, using a convergence platform that will enable gas, diesel, plug-in hybrid, and all-electric powertrains. Though the gas-powered BMW 5 Series will debut at the same time as the i5, we were only able to sample the latter at BMW's top-secret Miramas Proving Grounds. From our brief drive of the prototype, we can tell BMW is learning from its past EVs and improving with each new model.
BMW wasn't ready to give us every juicy detail about the i5's powertrains, but it did let us in on a few secrets. The i5 will be available in two flavors in the US: the eDrive40 and M60 xDrive. The former offers a single electric motor on the rear axle delivering around 340 horsepower, while the latter adds a second motor on the front axle to produce around 600 hp total (final outputs may vary).
BMW wouldn't reveal the battery size, but it's safe to assume the i5's pack will be smaller than the i7's gargantuan 105.7 kWh unit. BMW is targeting 295 miles of range on the EPA cycle, but given Bimmer's history of being conservative, 300 miles should be in the cards. BMW also hinted a slightly faster peak charge speed in the i5, which we predict will be around 200 kW. A new MaxRange Mode increases the range by up to 25% by dialing back the power, reducing the top speed to 56 mph, and reducing the climate control. This mode will be rolled out to other BMW EVs through an over-the-air update.
Our seat time in the i5 started on French backroads in the single-motor eDrive40 variant. With "only" 340 hp on tap, this version doesn't pin occupants into their seats and blur their vision, but it's on par with the last inline-six-powered 5 Series we drove. Pulling the "Boost" paddle on the steering wheel provides maximum output for a few seconds. Acceleration is available instantly without the lag time of a turbocharger or transmission downshifting, so even the base i5 feels quicker than its gas-powered contemporaries. BMW's Hans Zimmer-composed Iconic Sounds make a comeback here, offering a futuristic noise when accelerating for drivers who don't want a silent driving experience.
BMW said it focused on making the i5 feel like a true 5 Series despite its electric powertrain, and we think the engineers have succeeded. The steering doesn't offer much feedback, as most executive sedans no longer do, but it responds quickly, meaning the i5 never feels sloppy. BMW tuned the suspension part way between a 3 Series and a 7 Series; it's not as firm as the former nor as soft as the latter; it's just right. A basic steel suspension with adaptive dampers will be the default on the 5 Series, but this electric version will get rear air suspension as a standard upgrade. Additionally, customers can opt for the active roll stabilization that debuted on the XM, which we were able to sample on the M60.
BMW was keen to have us test out an updated version of its Highway Assistant Level 2+ driver assistance technology that first debuted in the 7 Series. It may not offer Level 3 driving like Mercedes Drive Pilot, but Highway Assistant may have overtaken Super Cruise as our favorite hands-free system. BMW focused heavily on making the system easy to engage, requiring a single button on the steering wheel to activate. From there, the system is seamless, meaning you can remove your hands and return them as you please.
Unlike Super Cruise, BlueCruise, or Full Self-Driving, the BMW system works with you rather than against you. The same lane-keeping assist that works on local roads stays active on the highway, meaning you can let it gently keep you centered while applying your own corrections. We much prefer this approach to the all-or-nothing implementation found elsewhere. The i5 can even detect red lights and come to a complete stop while adaptive cruise control is engaged, though this feature won't be offered in the US, at least not immediately.
Highway Assistant also has some of the best automatic lane changing we've sampled. When it's ready to overtake slower traffic or move right after an overtaking maneuver, the car will beep, and you can turn your head left or right to initiate the lane change. This procedure feels natural, or you can manually trigger a lane change using the turn signals.
Things got more lively when we hopped into the i5 M60 xDrive, and not just because BMW sent us out on its secret test track (with an engineer riding in the back seat) in their priceless prototype. With around 600 hp on tap, we never struggled to keep up with the performance test driver in front of us in an M4. The track was extremely narrow, which gave us a great opportunity to test out the i5's rear-axle steering. This system felt natural and unnoticeable, making the i5 handle like a smaller car than it is. The M60 also gets the same active roll stabilization that debuted in the XM. It's tuned a little softer here, allowing just enough body motion without being too sloppy.
The handling course did not have perfectly smooth asphalt, choosing instead to simulate a real road. Over the torn-up portions, the i5 rode beautifully, almost like its larger sibling, the i7. The suspension gets a little firmer in Sport mode, but it's still smoother than the Mercedes-AMG EQE.
Like other BMW cars we've driven, the steering gets a little heavy for our taste in Sport. This setting also makes the rear steering more prominent, which doesn't feel natural and requires mid-corner adjustments we'd prefer to do without. We doubt anyone would notice this phenomenon off-track, but it confirms our opinion that BMW's lighter steering mode feels more natural.
Since we had the track to ourselves, the engineer told us to stop and try out the launch control function. It's easy to engage: just press the brake with your left foot and the throttle with your right. The i5 doesn't deliver a gut punch but a smooth shove off the line. We didn't have any testing equipment on-hand, but we imagine the 0-60 mph time is under four seconds. Spending time in the i5 M60 got us excited for when BMW releases its first pure electric M product.
BMW hasn't revealed the i5's final design yet, but even covered in camouflage, we can draw some conclusions about the car's design. Unlike rival automaker Mercedes, BMW didn't obsess over aerodynamics to the point where the product looks more like a jellybean than a car. That's not to say BMW just ignored aero completely because the i5 still boasts some clever optimization such as air performance wheels and a closed-off underbody. BMW says it targeted a .23 drag coefficient, admittedly higher than the EQE, but it yielded a far more conventionally attractive shape.
The i5 sticks with a three-box shape, just like the standard 5 Series. BMW wanted it to be a 5 Series first and an EV second, an approach we prefer over Mercedes' philosophy that EVs must be standalone models. Angry internet commenters should be unusually quiet when the i5 is fully revealed because the kidney grilles appear normal-sized under that camouflage. BMW is also working on a more practical i5 wagon, but that body style is unlikely to reach the US market.
The interior was mostly covered during our drive, so we can't comment on the final design. Spy shots of the interior show exactly what you would expect, the newer steering wheel design from the i7, the smaller shifter from recent BMW models, and two screens hosting an updated iDrive 8.5 software.
The updated iDrive version will be more user-friendly than before with a new zero-layer principle that puts the navigation map in the background and quick select elements for functions like phone, audio, and weather. BMW also promises useful features such as improved route mapping with charging stops, augmented reality in the gauge cluster, traffic light recognition for the adaptive cruise control, and an improved Highway Assistant.
The BMW i5 takes the best of what we loved from the i4 and i7, then combines them into one package that might be more widely appealing than both of them. It likely won't deliver on the i4's extremely reasonable price or the i7's sheer opulence, but the i5 will hit a middle ground that's more likely to resonate with a larger audience. From our brief stint in the prototype, we can tell the i5 feels like a conventional 5 Series that just happens to be electric.
"Each customer who wants a 5 Series gets one," said Marco Schmidt, head of functional integration for the BMW 5 Series. "First, you choose the car you want; then you choose the drivetrain with no compromise." For BMW loyalists who are looking to buy their first EV, this is a compelling way to offer something familiar that's also unique.
We'll have to see how BMW prices both i5 variants, but we imagine it will start in the mid-$70,000 range, pitting it directly against the Mercedes-Benz EQE but well below the more expensive Lucid Air and Tesla Model S. If you've been holding out for a conventionally-styled luxury EV with great tech and a smooth but fun driving experience, the BMW i5 seems like it will be worth the wait. Stay tuned to see the i5 late May.
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