Once the sedan for executives living out their touring car fantasies, the BMW 5 Series has quietly evolved into a showcase for the latest technology under development in Munich. Not only does it debut a suite of systems that serve as a stepping stone to autonomy, the mid-sizer is now home to the latest hybrid powertrain from the company's "i Division." New Atlas took a spin in the new 530e iPerformance plug-in hybrid to see if batteries make a better 5 Series.

Hybrid power used to be something to shout about, but 530e iPerformance doesn't exactly stand out in a crowd. Trainspotters – or hybrid spotters, if such people exist – will notice the flap protecting the charging port on the front flank, or recognize the unique detailing added to the grille, wheels and badges. The design team has kept its imagination in check, and the result is a car that looks largely like the rest of the 5 Series range.

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The real news here lies under the skin. Petrol power comes from a turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 180 hp (134 kW), while electric thrust is provided by a 95 hp (71 kW) motor drawing on a 9.2 kWh battery mounted where the fuel tank would otherwise sit. The fuel tank has been shifted to make room – it now sits above the rear axle, and has shrunk to hold 46 liters (12 gallons) instead of the 68 liters (18 gallons) you get in fossil fuel cars.

Luggage space also takes a hit in the move to hybrid power, thanks to a trunk floor that's been raised by 80 mm (3.15 in) to house the fuel tank. Whereas the 530i has over 500 liters (17.66 cu.ft) of space in to boot, the iPerformance will hold 410 liters (14.48 cu.ft). In other words, there are still a few compromises involved in going hybrid. But, and this is a big but, there's no compromise in the way the iPerformance drives.

The powertrain can be toggled through three modes: Max eDrive locks out the petrol engine, turning the car into a pure EV with around 30 km (18.6 mi) of driving range in the real world, while Auto eDrive works away in the background, blending electric and petrol power as the situation demands. Finally, Battery Control defaults to the petrol engine and replenishes the little battery pack while you drive.

We started our road loop in Max eDrive, enjoying the silken acceleration and near silence that comes with pure electric power. The car doesn't feel lightning quick in this mode, but you still get a top speed of 140 km/h (87 mph) and enough range to cover most commutes. If you didn't know there was an engine up front, the 530e does an excellent impersonation of a dedicated electric car.

Although the option to drive on battery power alone is nice, we spent most of our limited road time in (default) Auto eDrive. At low speeds and light throttle openings it feels just like a pure electric car, but the Intelligent petrol engine gets involved when the speedo needle flicks past 90 km/h (56 mph). And when the battery runs flat, you can just drive on petrol power until the next chance to plug in.

The gas engine is also on call when the driver dips the throttle past a certain point, as you might when overtaking. It all sounds pretty complicated, but the way BMW has integrated the power sources makes the combination seem like the most natural thing in the world. The engine cuts in smoothly and is quiet and refined when it does – it just feels totally normal to drive around town.

The interior is stunning. All the infotainment and climate controls feel classy, the in-dash display is almost big enough to mount on a wall and rich, soft leather abounds. The 5 Series offers almost all the luxury you could ever want in a big sedan – and more. It also has all the tech you could ever need, with adaptive cruise control and auto steering on highways with clearly marked lanes. Our route didn't really give us the opportunity to try the systems out in any great detail, but we found they're a capable stepping stone on the way to full autonomy when we tested the 5 Series range at launch.

The car is also available with some nice party tricks, including the ability to park itself while the driver stands outside and watches. BMW will be offering a wireless inductive charger for the 530e at some point in 2018, which will make it even easier to enjoy the car's full electric range without having to even think about plugging in.

So it makes sense on the road and the practicality payoff is minimal. Thanks to some seriously aggressive pricing from BMW, there's now no extra cost involved in going hybrid either. Just like the 530i, the 530e iPerformance will be priced from AU$108,900 at launch. Given Australia is a hostile market for electric vehicles, with no tax credits or rebates from the government to encourage adoption, pricing the car like a regular petrol model is a big step.

BMW clearly believes strongly in hybrids as a stepping stone to full electric motoring. The brand now offers nine partial or full electric models worldwide, from the little i3 to the plug-in 7 Series. Its partial and pure electric vehicle sales doubled that of rival Mercedes last year, and the i8 has actually outsold the Audi R8 since 2014.

With range to cover most commutes on battery power alone, the same compelling interior design as the petrol car and the allure of a BMW badge, the 530e iPerformance has all the right moves to win people over on the benefits of hybrid power.

The 530e iPerformance is priced from US$51,400 in the United States, but a Federal tax credit drops that to around $46,000 – and makes it the cheapest offering in the 5 Series range.

Take a look at the 530e in action in the video below.

Product page: BMW (Australia)

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