The last time we tried a plug-in-hybrid version of the BMW 7 Series, the , we found it a little tough to justify the car's lofty price when it offered a paltry 14 miles of all-electric driving range. But things are much better in the refreshed 2020 BMW 745e, which has a bigger gasoline engine, a more powerful electric motor and a higher-capacity battery pack, delivering a much more interesting take on the plug-in luxury sedan. Based on an early drive in the car near Munich, Germany, we found it to be better in pretty much every way.
Improved hybrid architecture
Pretty much all the components in the car's plug-in hybrid powertrain have been revised. The lithium-ion battery pack now has great energy density, storing 12 kilowatt hours of energy compared with the prior model's 9.2 kWh. The electric drive motor, which is integrated with the eight-speed automatic transmission, is now rated for 113 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque, gains of 2 hp and 9 lb-ft. The motor and battery help improve EV driving range.
Though Europe will get several 7 Series plug-in hybrid variants, the US market will receive only one: the long-wheelbase, all-wheel-drive model, badged 745Le xDrive overseas. Its all-electric driving range is pegged at 31 to 36 miles under European testing. We'll have to wait some time to find out how US-market cars will be rated under the EPA's test cycle. Still, expect a significant improvement over the 740e's 14-mile range. But BMW says that our driving ranges will be lower, in part because the cars will not discharge their batteries as deeply as the Euro models do.
Combined fuel economy ratings are also set to improve, though, again, we'll have to wait a bit until EPA figures are available. The current 740e, for reference, is listed at 64 mpge, or 27 mpg combined when the battery is exhausted.
The other underhood change is an engine swap. Where the old 740e used a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine good for 255 horsepower, the 745e switches to a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six rated for 280 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. That brings total system output -- when the engine and motor work together -- up from the 740e's rating of 322 hp to a solid 389 hp in the new 745e.
Simplified drive modes
If you've been in one of BMW's older plug-ins, you'll recall that the cars' drive modes had names that only an engineer could love: Max eDrive, Auto eDrive, Save. To make things easier on drivers, the 745e swaps in three straightforward and self-explanatory buttons. Hybrid is the default and, unsurprisingly, lets the car pick for itself whether to use the engine, motor or both. In this mode, the 745e can run on electrical power at up 68 miles per hour. Electric forces all-electric operation, in which mode the car can travel at up to 87 mph -- in other words, fast enough for any market outside of Germany. Finally, Sport keeps the engine running at all times for optimum performance; in Sport mode the hybrid powertrain can summon as much as 442 lb-ft of torque.
There is also a Battery Control button that can be used if you want to save your battery charge for use later. The ideal use case, for instance, is to preserve the battery for use trundling around a city after a long highway journey. You can select at what percentage charge the battery is maintained; if it's too low, the gas engine is used to recharge the battery. That's less fuel-efficient overall, but with some European cities hinting at restricting certain streets to electric-only vehicles in the future, BMW sees Battery Control as an important function.
A standard 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster presents lots of information on the hybrid powertrain at a glance. In the bottom right, a gauge shows the battery's state of charge, accompanied by a readout of the remaining electric driving range. A blue bar on the digital speedometer shows at which speed ranges you can drive on battery power alone, while a second blue bar on the "power" gauge shows how much throttle input you can use while remaining in EV mode. More functions and setting are available by diving into the menus on the 10.2-inch touchscreen infotainment system.
No-nonsense driving experience
All those many modes and settings come together easily and simply on the road. Because you can now program the 745e to default to Electric mode when it starts (previously it always started in Auto eDrive), I slip away from BMW's staging location at a disused airfield with the gasoline engine shut off. Though it's obviously not as quick as when the gas engine is running, the 745e pulls smoothly and easily on battery power, with plentiful acceleration for driving around backroads and divided highways at about 65 mph.
Because it's so quiet, the 745e has a sound generator to warn pedestrians of its approach. The sound plays below 19 mph when operating in all-electric mode. It's standard in the US,, but optional in Europe.
One nice thing: If you demand more power than the motor can deliver, the gas engine will step in. When I pushed the throttle to the kickdown switch to pass a slow-moving truck, the straight-six would wake up and deliver some passing performance without me needing to swap drive modes. The BMW also has a natural and solid-feeling brake pedal, something that wasn't always the case in older hybrids.
Driven around in Hybrid mode, the BMW barely lets on when the 3.0-liter engine turns on and off. It's quiet and smooth, so it's really tough to tell you're using gasoline unless you keep an eye on the cluster (or the power flow menu that's available in the infotainment screen). BMW pegs 0-60-mph acceleration at a brisk 4.9 seconds (0.2 second quicker than the 740e) with a limited top speed of 155 mph, and there's no denying the 745e pulls readily. It hustled along a brief stretch of unrestricted (but busy) autobahn at 90 mph with no fuss at all, gobs of extra torque in reserve for when I switched lanes to blast past other traffic.
Advanced efficiency technologies
The most interesting driving of all, however, is in Eco Pro mode. A submode of the default Hybrid, it prioritizes settings for efficiency even further. When you have a navigation route set in the infotainment system, Eco Pro will even proactively adjust the hybrid powertrain's operation for maximum efficiency along the journey. The computer makes sure to save enough battery charge to cover the final few miles on electricity alone, for instance, and can expend battery power going up a hill and then regenerate power on the way down the other side. It'll also switch to EV operation in school zones and other urban areas.
"Intelligent Deceleration with Adaptive Recuperation" is the most advanced feature of this. Basically, the car's electronics decide whether to coast -- i.e. the engine and motor are disconnected -- or regenerate power based on which is more energy-efficient. Moreover, the system uses data on upcoming speed limits and intersections, and even adaptive cruise control info about other vehicles, to make these decisions.
One example: When approaching a lower speed limit zone, the 745e prompted me to lift my foot off the throttle and began regenerating power, slowing the car to the upcoming speed limit. When trailing another vehicle, the BMW would alternately coast or regen, depending on how close I was, to keep me a safe distance from the car ahead.
I asked how much fuel and energy the system can save in real-world driving, but BMW's officials said there's no specific answer because it depends on the type of driving you're doing. But the point is that, in Eco Pro mode at least, the 745e will do all it can to help you save both gasoline and electricity.
The 745e inherits all the many other. To wit, there are new designs for the rump and nose, the latter including a larger-than-ever grille that, despite what Internet commenters would have you believe, looks just fine in real life. There are fewer visual tweaks inside, though my test car's quilted brown leather was a lovely touch.
In terms of technology, the 7 Series adds the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant voice-recognition function; hybrid drivers can ask things like, "Hey, BMW, how far can I drive on electricity?" and "Where can I charge?" -- to say nothing of other, more quotidian prompts like, "Hey, BMW, I'm cold," or "Hey, BMW, look for the nearest fuel station on our route."
BMW also expects the 745e will be eligible for one of California's much-desired High-Occupancy Vehicle (carpool lane) stickers, which make plug-in cars even more appealing to Californians with stressful commutes.
The big BMW now offers a plug-in hybrid powertrain that requires fewer compromises than ever. The 745e slinks around silently and efficiently on electric power for longer distances, yet has more get-up-and-go than before thanks to the bigger engine and stronger motor. All that, without sacrificing the sublime ride and quietness of any other 7 Series.
The 2020 BMW 745e launches in the US this April. While we'll have to wait on an exact price, it's fair to expect an increase over the $92,245 (with destination) commanded by the outgoing 740e. It's certainly a fair bit of money, but all the upgrades make the plug-in-hybrid 7 Series seem more valuable than ever.
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