A Powerful Sedan for the Electric Age
I have long been a fan of big, fast sedans. There’s something about a powerful, sleek four-door that’s just inherently more exciting than an admittedly more versatile SUV packing the same amount of power and performance. Some of the best cars I’ve driven and owned have been big, fast sedans from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and BMW – often powered by big V8 or V10 engines, stacked with luxury and speed, and subtle enough to fly under the radar, should you choose.
These days, the best big, fast sedans are increasingly electric: vehicles like the Tesla Model S, Porsche Taycan, and Audi E-Tron GT offer even more performance and an even smoother ride with the benefit of zero tailpipe emissions, stacks of technology, and silent running for even more luxury. BMW’s flagship i7 is spectacularly spacious and swift, but with a giant rear cinema screen and limo-like accommodations, it’s more focused on passengers than drivers. But the new i5 electric performance sedan, especially in i5 M60 form, is a driver’s delight, and at its price point, one of the finest driving experiences you can have – gas or electric.
BMW i5 Range and Performance
As you would expect from a BMW packing two electric motors and wearing M performance badges on its flanks and trunk lid, the headline performance figures are awesome. Under the floor, an 84-kWh battery sends power to one motor on each axle, which provide a combined 593 hp and 586 lb-ft of torque – numbers that equal or exceed the current gasoline M5, which has a turbocharged eight-cylinder engine. Thanks to the instantaneous torque delivery of EV motors, there’s also no waiting for the performance: plant your foot to the pedal, and the i5 rockets off the line, dashing to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds – not quite as quick as the lighter M5, but still enough to leave most sports cars in the dust, and paint a huge grin on your face.
Like all EVs, the i5 is heavy. At just over 4,900 pounds, it’s about 600 pounds heavier than the equivalent gasoline 5 Series sedan. But it certainly hides its bulk well. BMW has done a masterful job setting up the i5’s steering and suspension: no matter what the situation or the speed, you can guide it swiftly and confidently around corners with unbelievable precision. The nicely-weighted steering and sophisticated multi-link suspension aren’t upset by pavement imperfections or surface changes, and the electric all-wheel drive system can reapportion torque to the wheels that have the most traction much faster than the differentials in a gas car could ever do.
As for range, when equipped with 20-inch wheels, the EPA estimates that the i5 M60 will do 256 miles on a full charge (the single-motor eDrive40 will do 295 miles). On the one hand, that’s not very impressive compared to the 405 miles that Tesla claims for the Model S. On the other hand, the BMW’s range computer is eerily accurate, and its in-dash display actually gives you a sense of how your driving habits can affect range – by presenting a “range of ranges,” so to speak.
Low Running Costs and Digital Engine Sound
It's also worth noting that, if you do a lot of driving in the city, that 250-odd miles is as much as you’d get out of a powerful, V8-powered gasoline sedan, and charging costs are significantly cheaper than the equivalent gasoline costs for the same distance driven. I charged the i5 overnight from nearly empty – less than 20 miles showing – to 100 percent for less than $20 on a public Level 2 charger, which is a fraction of what I would have spent on a full tank of premium fuel. The more miles you drive, so long as you have access to convenient charging, the more you’ll save compared to gasoline.
On a road trip, with a suitable Level 3 public charger, the i5 will charge at up to 205 kW – which makes it one of the faster-charging EVs on the road today. (You'll of course pay more to charge at high speed, but get more convenience.)
Of course, the one thing you won’t get in the i5 is the rumble of a big V8, but it does have a surprisingly engaging “IconicSounds” function that pipes an engine noise of sorts through the audio system, created by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. Surprisingly, the function really does make the driving experience a bit more interactive, and I found myself leaving it on, where I’d turn off the fake noise in most cars. I did find some of the i5’s other high-tech functions, particularly the lane-keeping assist and automatic emergency braking, more intrusive than I would like, but they can be adjusted or turned off if you spend enough time digging through the vehicle’s various menus.
Technology in the BMW i5
Speaking of which, behind the wheel, you’re confronted by a huge amount of screen acerage in this BMW. There’s a curved screen in front of the steering wheel with endlessly-configurable instruments, which is connected to a second touchscreen that houses the climate and infotainment controls. The climate controls are operated solely through the touch screen, which I didn’t like: selecting a different vent setting or activating the seat or steering wheel heaters now takes a couple of taps, and a glance away from the road, instead of just pushing a button.
On the other hand, BMW has retained its circular iDrive control knob, which makes it much easier to work all of the infotainment functions than using the touchscreen. Once the car is configured to your liking, everything works easily and seamlessly, but getting to that point can take a while. The home screen is a mess of app icons, each of which has its own set of menus and adjustments. It’s time for BMW to streamline and simplify the options to make them easier to use – which is the whole point of iDrive, after all.
Tech aside, there’s a lot to love about the i5’s interior, which is beautifully finished out of premium materials. The seats are wonderfully comfortable even for long stints behind the wheel, and feature a huge array of adjustments. There’s plenty of leg-, head-, and elbow-room in the front and rear seats, although there’s still a “transmission tunnel” down the middle, because you can actually buy a gasoline 5 Series sedan built from the same modular platform. The Bowers and Wilkins stereo has amazing clarity, enhanced by the quiet electric drivetrain, and the backlit “interaction bar” on the dashboard gives the interior a high-tech feel. What’s nice, too, is that the i5’s interior feels like a car interior, with car-like controls, and not a space that’s been outfitted by a manufacturer of glossy touchscreens.
BMW i5: The Verdict
Back in the days before electric, the BMW 5 Series was always one of the best sedans, effortlessly balancing luxury, style, and an immersive, impressive driving experience. The fastest 5 Series models like the M5 and more recently M550i, added stupendous performance to that mix. While the latest 5 Series is indeed available as a gasoline 530i, 540i and plug-in hybrid 550e trims, the all-electric i5 is really where it’s at. The electric models give you everything you always got from the 5 Series, with zero emissions, and enough range to slot into most lifestyles, should you be able to charge at home.
While the $84,100 (starting MSRP) i5 M60 that I drove is definitely the most exciting model – and not bad value compared to the gasoline M5, or compared to the Mercedes-AMG EQE sedan – I suspect that the i5 eDrive40, with rear-wheel drive and a starting MSRP of $66,800, would meet most drivers’ needs with performance to spare. The rear-wheel drive eDrive40 also gives you substantially more range, and offers all of the same creature comforts and technology that make the i5 M60 so good. Whichever version you choose, it’s proof that the big, fast sedan isn’t dead. In fact, the big fast sedan is better than ever in the electric age.