2023 BMW 545e xDrive Review: Let the Hybrid Save the Sports Sedan

All-electric enthusiast cars aren’t as fun as their pure ICE rivals. Hybrids are a better time than both of them.

byPeter Holderith|
Peter Holderith
Peter Holderith.

My first meal in Italy came out of a bag. It happened behind the wheel of a rented Lancia Ypsilon—a 68-horsepower hatchback that didn't deserve any better, saddled with a mediocre hybrid system that just didn't cut it. Ever read the story about the electric go-kart I built? Its battery was even smaller than that. So many hybrid drivetrains are like this. Practical, economizing, but ultimately impotent. It’s a shame because electric power has the potential to turn a combustion-powered car up to 11. The 2023 BMW 545e is a prime example of this capability.

I also ate my first meal in Germany out of a bag—it was a long vacation—but it was on the Autobahn, driving the aforementioned Bavarian sedan. I'll use the word "preferable" to describe this snack.

The 545e xDrive, unlike the Lancia, has a big battery and let me decide a lot about how it was charged and discharged. And with a combined output of nearly 400 hp thanks to a 286-hp straight-six and a 109-hp electric motor, the most powerful plug-in hybrid 5 Series positively freight-trained. It's not sold stateside, which is why I had to be across the pond to enjoy it, but it was such an irresistible car that I would strongly consider buying one if I could. 

Peter Holderith

We need more hybrid performance cars, and the 545e is proof that despite all of the complexity and shortcomings of having two drivetrains in one vehicle, the thrill of a pair of powerful propulsion systems ultimately wins.

2023 BMW 545e xDrive Specs

  • Base price (as tested): €72,050 (€94,660)
  • Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbocharged straight-six | one electric motor | 8-speed automatic transmission | all-wheel drive | 12-kWh lithium-ion battery
  • Horsepower: 394 total (286 hp engine, 109 hp electric motor)
  • Torque: 443 lb-ft
  • Curb weight: 4,287 pounds
  • 0-60 mph: 4.6 seconds
  • Fuel economy: 33 mpg observed
  • Score: 9/10
  • Quick take: Two drivetrains do mean twice the fun.

Two years ago, I drove the version of this car we get in the United States, the 530e. That car has 288 hp thanks to a detuned version of the turbocharged four-cylinder found in the normal 530i combined with the same 109-hp hybrid system found here. I liked it a lot, but I wanted more. 

The 545e is similar to the 530e in several ways. Like the 530e, you should think of this car like its closest combustion-powered sibling but with a hybrid system. That means inside and out, it's going to be very similar in terms of options to a 540i, so we won't be focusing on that part much.

The 545e gets a detuned version of the 540i's B58 straight-six which produces just 286 hp as compared to its normal 335. A little napkin math reveals why the 545e gets a detuned six. Keep in mind the B58 in the 540i is already nerfed. The hotter version, found in the M340i, is capable of 382 hp. If BMW decided to combine that motor with the 109-hp hybrid system, the total output would be 491 hp in a car that weighs less than the M5. A little too close for comfort, perhaps, considering that the current M5 produces 600 hp, and the next M5 will be a hybrid.

It's not as simple as just bolting in a new combustion engine, though, and it all has to do with how the hybrid system works. In a nutshell, the car's electric motor is mounted inside the transmission case, effectively delivering its grunt to the crank before it interacts with any of the transmission’s eight speeds. There are a lot of pros to this. The system can be added to almost any engine with little modification, whether it has three cylinders or eight. It can also use all of the car's forward gears to maximize the electric motor’s efficiency and performance in any driving situation. Likewise, a regular transfer case can be tacked on to provide all-wheel drive, like this car has.

The big negative of this layout is that all of the car’s combined power gets sent through the transmission. As such, installing electric power is not quite simple horsepower addition as it is in the Chevy Corvette E-Ray, for instance. In that case, the electric motor on the front axle does not interact mechanically with the car’s engine in any way, so the transmission doesn’t need any extra beef. 

I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I was driving the 545e, though, because it was just so much fun. The various drive modes apply power in different ways. Hybrid mode, for instance, won’t give you electric power unless the engine is approaching redline at high throttle positions. This makes it feel very natural. Sport, however, will give you instant electric power whenever you step on it. Before the boost even has a chance to build, the electric power gives you an initial jolt followed quickly by a rising turbocharged tide. Both modes are very interesting and very quick. This thing feels like a turbocharged car with an aftermarket tune—one that really turns up the boost. 

It just gets better from here. Compared to the previous generation, this 5 Series feels lighter and more nimble. The steering is just communicative enough, and the ride is damn near perfect. Never jarring, not too much roll, but plenty of stiffness to inspire confidence when transferring weight corner-to-corner. It is a little big for European streets—it made me want a 345e—but in the U.S., it’s a perfect fit. 

Peter Holderith

And the hybrid system offers the best of both worlds. The 545e's all-electric range is officially bumped up to 30 miles versus the 530e's 21 miles, although this is likely just a difference between the EPA and WLTP rating scales. This amount of range is very usable, despite what you might think. Running errands, driving in parking garages, or just moving the car around a driveway was made much easier by the electric power. It also makes the car more efficient in terms of fuel usage. I was able to get 33 mpg without trying, driving over 700 miles on a combination of unrestricted Autobahn and tight city streets. I never charged the car’s battery, either, opting to let the car do that with its battery hold feature. The 545e is capable of simply charging the battery as you drive along with the combustion engine if you want electric range. This costs efficiency, of course, and if I had charged the battery, I would’ve been able to achieve even higher figures. All of this being said, I still consider 33 mpg in mixed driving impressive for a large 400-hp sedan that weighs 4,287 pounds. 

Pretty much everything I didn’t like about the 545e had to do with not getting enough information about the state of the hybrid system or the car not letting me make enough decisions about how to use/harvest its electric power. It would enable regenerative braking when I coasted, for instance, but I couldn’t choose the level of regeneration. It would regen more when I depressed the brake pedal and the blending between that and the mechanical brakes was good, but it did not allow for one-pedal driving. I also couldn’t choose how much electric power was applied and when. If I wanted to move the electric boost lower in the rev range, I should’ve been able to. I also couldn’t change gears in electric mode, which is honestly just something I thought would be fun, but the motor has 109 hp. What am I gonna do, hurt the car?

Peter Holderith

The biggest thing I wish the 545e would’ve made clear is that I did not have the full 394 hp unless the battery was fully charged. As any lithium battery discharges, its voltage drops, and the power a pack can provide is just a function of current and voltage. At lower states of charge, the car is not producing its peak power. This is part of the reason why it had the battery hold feature, so it can be juiced up to provide maximum output. Still, though, a display showing me how much power I actually had would’ve been nice. 

What I’m trying to say is, for God’s sake, let people get interested in these cars. Stop locking all of this information up behind a slick-looking user interface. I get the 5 Series is perhaps not the best place to start, but as I’ve said before, electric cars are very interesting to many enthusiasts, but not very exciting. They all deliver power the same, just at different levels. When you combine this technology with a combustion engine, though, all sorts of exciting things can happen. I want to play with this stuff. I want to choose how two separate drivetrains in one car interact. Cars like the new Corvette E-Ray have so much potential, even with small batteries

We need more of these cars to find out which configurations work best, which are the most exciting, and what’s the best way to make them lighter and cheaper. It is, of course, not as simple as I’m saying it is, but the technology needs more development, and more people need to be open to trying it. Get the old Prius out of your mind. These cars have all the potential in the world to be more fun than what we have now. Not just as good, and definitely not less. How many times do I have to play a clip of the Cadillac V-LMDH bump starting to make that clear? Hybrid performance cars are worth loving, and the BMW 545e is proof of that.

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: peter@thedrive.com.

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