What is it?
Since the release of the revolutionary i8 back in 2014, BMW has been striving to remain at the forefront of both plug-in hybrid and pre-preg carbonfibre technology, and the BMW 740Le xDrive, as seen here, represents the vanguard of those developments thus far.
Designed for business tycoons looking to skirt restrictive emission legislations, the 740Le is essentially two cars in one: an electric car with an extended zero-emission range as well as a continent-crushing cruiser with searing straight-line performance. It’s a compelling combination that BMW hopes will be popular in the rapidly growing plug-in hybrid market.
In the name of downsizing, BMW has opted to base the drivetrain around its already excellent 2.0-litre, four-cylinder 'Twinpower' turbocharged petrol engine. However, to give the two-tonne saloon a bit more shove, the twin-turbocharged unit has been retuned to produce a whopping 265bhp and 295lb ft, making it the most powerful four-cylinder petrol engine ever used in a series-production BMW.
Mated to a specially developed eight-speed Steptronic automatic transmission, which is also fitted with a 111bhp electric motor, the combined reserves of 322bhp and 369lb ft are channelled to all four wheels, allowing this 7-Series to complete the run from 0-62mph in just 5.3sec.
It’s a clever powertrain, and one that also provides the driver with a choice of two eco-focused driving modes: Auto eDrive and Max eDrive. In the former mode, the car shuffles power between the petrol engine and battery like a traditional hybrid, while in the latter the car runs purely on electric power until it reaches 87mph.
In addition, three adaptive chassis settings also affect the way the hybrid transmission works. Comfort mode delivers a smooth power delivery by carefully balancing the outputs of both power units, Sport mode sees the electric motor and petrol engine work together to deliver maximum performance and Eco Pro mode is designed to maximise the car’s electric range.
Depending on the settings, the 740Le is claimed to be capable of a pure electric range of 29 miles and a combined economy figure of 113mpg.
What's it like?
Despite the multiple drive modes, the 740Le is no harder to drive than a diesel 7 Series. As long the car has charge, you simply press the starter button, drop the transmission into drive and pull away in complete silence. It’s a serene experience that feels perfectly in tune with a car of this type.
Depress the throttle pedal farther and the electric motor powers the BMW up to B-road speeds with minimal effort. It’s an impressively flexible electric unit and one that endows the 740Le with a level of low-speed refinement that its diesel-powered siblings can't hope to match. Air suspension fitted to both axles also does an impressive job of smoothing out undulating surfaces and isolating rear passengers from the outside world.
Switch the adaptive chassis settings from Comfort to Sport, and while the 740Le is far from being an engaging driver’s machine, there's fun to be had hustling it down a country road. The steering is direct enough, the four-wheel drive system provides heaps of traction and the chassis has an intrinsic balance that competitors such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class struggle to match. Combined with rapid straight-line pace, the ‘carbon core’ 7-Series is a well-polished and well-rounded machine – for most of the time.
Unfortunately, like all plug-in hybrids, the 740Le is not completely without fault. We’re pretty confident that you could get near the claimed 134mpg figure if you drove carefully and charged the BMW every time you stopped, but that’s not realistic, but on our recent journey from London to Paris, for example, we only averaged 34.2mpg. Ultimately, if you’re doing a lot of miles, a diesel still makes more sense.
Depleting the battery like we did on our trip also leads to another problem. With no electric motor to drive you away from the lights, what you’re left with is a two-tonne car powered by a rather gruff sounding 2.0-litre petrol engine. Granted, the active engine mounts do a good job of isolating the cabin from vibrations, but the aural harshness of the highly-strung four-pot is hard to ignore.
Thankfully, in this long-wheelbase version you escape from the noise up front by sitting in the well-appointed rear. With heated, massaging seats, twin screens and a snap-in tablet computer, it’s a relaxing place to sit, and the £4675 Bowers & Wilkins sound system fitted to our car sounded superb whether or not you see that as good value.
However, for any airport chauffeurs who are currently tempted by the idea of a luxurious cabin and low-cost city driving, just be aware that the 740Le’s 420-litre boot is 90 litres smaller than you get in the standard diesel or petrol 7 Series. That’s because the lithium ion battery pack now sits under the rear seats, forcing the fuel tank back and above the rear axle.
Should I buy one?
For hotels and businesses that operate within congested cities, the idea of running a fleet of low-emission 7 Series must be compelling. Its reduced boot space is unquestionably a limitation, but it’s a small price to pay for a vehicle that combines zero-emission running with strong real-world flexibility.
For private buyers, the 740Le xDrive is more of a niche prospect. If you’re covering lots of miles on a regular basis, you’ll rarely see the benefit of the electric motor. But then again, the fact that you don’t have to pay much of a premium for this plug-in over the diesel makes that pill significantly easier to swallow. The gap between a 740Le xDrive and 740Ld xDrive is just £130.
Ultimately, the 740Le xDrive is a truly brilliant technical achievement that provides almost all of the benefits of an electric vehicle with very few of the downsides. If this is the future of luxury travel, we’re ready for it.
2016 BMW 740Le xDrive
Location Paris; On sale Now; Price £74,880; Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc, twin-turbo, petrol, plus electric motor; System power 322bhp; System Torque 369lb ft; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight 2000kg; 0-62mph 5.3sec; Top speed 155mph (87mph in EV mode); Economy 134mpg (combined), 28 miles EV range; CO2 rating/tax band 49g/km, 11% Rivals Jaguar XJ 3.0 V6 Diesel LWB, Mercedes S300 h