• New, larger and more efficient sixth-generation 3-Series sedan
  • New 5-Series models including fuel-sipping ActiveHybrid 5 and more powerful M5
  • All-electric i3 and plug-in hybrid i8 concepts

As automakers scramble to meet increasingly stringent efficiency requirements both in the US and abroad, technologies like start-stop functions, regenerative braking and hybrid and electric drive systems are becoming widespread. Nearly every manufacturer is employing one or more of these strategies on concepts and production vehicles, and performance-oriented BMW is no exception. For the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, BMW will display three production cars and two concepts that showcase their efforts to create cars that yield better efficiency while maintaining the company's reputation for building engaging and high-performance automobiles.

One production model bowing at Detroit will be the sixth-generation 3-Series sedan, the newest incarnation of the world's best-selling premium vehicle. The longer, wider 3 Series is powered by a choice of turbocharged engines, including gasoline and diesel units. An economical four-cylinder joins the lineup for 2012, offering 245 horsepower while delivering fuel economy of around 37 mpg. But the venerable straight-six gas motor remains a choice, too.

Late next year, BMW will premiere the ActiveHybrid 3, a full hybrid 3-series. Until then, BMW is relying on a more traditional path to efficiency that includes reduced curb weight, a standard stop-start function, regenerative braking and an available eight-speed automatic transmission. A six-speed manual is standard.

The new 3-series sedan also benefits from newly available equipment like a full-color head-up display, parking assistance, active cruise and lane departure and collision warning systems.

 BMW's ActiveHybrid 5 joins the Detroit lineup as well, further reflecting BMW's commitment to achieve better efficiency without sacrificing performance. The gasoline-electric 5-series mates traditional power from an inline six-cylinder engine with a lithium-ion battery-powered 55-horsepower electric motor. This allows the ActiveHybrid 5 to deliver excellent combined output of 340 horsepower, yet it achieves fuel economy of around 34 mpg and can be driven several miles in zero-emission, electric-only mode. Special exterior details, like "ActiveHybrid 5" lettering on the C-pillars, set the hybrid apart from its conventional 5-series stable mates.

At the opposite end of the 5-series spectrum is BMW's fierce M5, the company's ultimate sports sedan. The new M5 cranks 560 horsepower from a high-revving, turbocharged V8, allowing the five-passenger car to dart to 60 mph in a sports car-like 4.4 seconds and on to a top speed of 155 mph, or a whopping 190 mph with the M Driver's Package. Yet even the track-ready M5 gets BMW's efficiency treatment. Regenerative braking and a start-stop function help the M5 to return about 24 mpg in typical driving. The new M5 offers instantaneous, massive power at the driver's whim, but new efficiencies mean lower operating cost and reduced emissions the rest of the time.

BMW's pair of concepts for the Detroit show includes the i3, an all-electric vehicle, and the i8, a plug-in hybrid. The four-seat i3 uses an electric motor positioned over the rear axle, architecture that BMW calls LifeDrive. The cabin is designed to feel spacious and includes natural and sustainable materials as well as advanced connectivity functions.

The i8 uses the same drive system found in the i3, but positions the electric motor over the front wheels and adds a small, three-cylinder gasoline unit at the rear. BMW says this gives the i8 sports car performance, 0-60 mph in under 5 seconds, while delivering excellent fuel economy of about 78 mpg. Further, the four-passenger i8 should have an emission-free, electric-only range of about 20 miles.

With efficiency and sporty performance, these BMW production cars and concepts will surely find plenty of admirers at NAIAS in Detroit.

What it means to you:

BMW's display at the Detroit auto show will include a new, more efficient 3-series sedan and two 5-series models. The ActiveHybrid 5 brings efficiency without sacrificing performance, while the M5 delivers acceptable efficiency and explosive performance.

author photo

Nick Palermo is an automotive writer and lifelong car nut. He follows new and late-model used vehicles for AutoTrader.com, writes about vintage cars for Hemmings Classic Wheels and blogs on all things automotive at LivingVroom. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and twins.

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