It’s not often that we get to drive a new car almost year before its introduction.
It’s an even rarer occasion when we’re able to test it on public roads rather than in isolation on a test track behind closed doors so long before a planned start of sales. But this is what BMW has invited us to do with its new X7 - the up-market SUV that will slot into its line-up above the second-generation X6 as a luxurious seven-seat rival to the Mercedes-Benz GLS and standard wheelbase Range Rover.
Some twelve months before it is set to reach UK showrooms a team of BMW engineers are busy carrying out a round of validation tests of the new X7, known internally under its codename G07, on a route around the company’s sprawling Spartanburg manufacturing facility in the USA, where it will be produced alongside the X3, X4, X5 and X6. Our test featured a fleet of five prototypes running a range of different engines and chassis set-ups as well as varying interiors set-ups.
Originally previewed in concept car form at last year’s Frankfurt motor show, the X7 is the seventh SUV model to join the BMW line-up, and at launch it is the X7 M50d M-Performance that will initially act as the performance flagship of the range. Other new X7 models planned to be offered from the start of sales being tested by BMW that we get to drive include the xDrive40i, xDrive50i and xDrive30d.
Together with the resurrected 8-series, the X7 forms an integral part of a plan to move BMW further upmarket from its premium positioning today.
“It’s much more than just a long wheelbase X5,” says X7 project leader Joerg Wunder. “We set out to create an SUV that offers the same level of luxury and comfort as the 7 series. At the same time, a great deal of effort has gone into insuring it delivers the sort of driving dynamics and on-road characteristics traditional BMW buyers expect.”
The basis for the X7 is BMW’s CLAR (Cluster Architecture) platform. The body structure uses a combination of aluminium and high-strength steel while the electrical architecture used by the launch models we’re driving are set to use a conventional 12-volt system despite plans to provide the new BMW model with the same driver assistant systems as the 7 Series.
The X7 prototypes we drove in South Carolina are all covered in camouflage wrap, which disguises some detailed styling elements - but don't hide its upright stance and taut surfacing treatment, which BMW says is its take on a modern luxury aesthetic.
It’s a bold looking SUV, with an oversized kidney grille, a heavily structured bumper housing various radar and camera sensors, horizontal headlamps with technical looking LED internal graphics (optional with BMW’s laser light projectors) dominating its front end. There are clear visual links with the X5, notably within the contoured surface of its bonnet, fake air breather element behind the front wheel houses, the glasshouse, split tailgate and OLED tail lamps.
The X7's dimensions position it at the head of BMW’s SUV line-up. At around 5100mm in length, 2020mm in width and 1800mm in height, it is nearly 200mm longer, 80mm wider and 40mm higher than the X5. Its wheelbase is 76mm longer than the X5 at 3010mm, and it comes with a choice of either 19, 20, 21 or 22in wheels.
The interior of the X7 prototypes we’re driving are largely covered up, but we’re permitted a look at the standard 12.3-inch digital instrument display and 12.3-inch touch control infotainment monitor, which both use BMW’s latest ID7 interface. There's also a new multi-function steering wheel and other controls. Everything is on a par with key luxury class SUV rivals.
Other options fitted to the prototypes we saw included a multi-colour head-up display unit, voice control, M Sport seats and steering wheel, a glass topped gear lever and rotary controller within a broad centre console.
The new X7 is set to be sold as standard in the UK and other global markets with seven seats. Access to the third row seat is via an electronic mechanism. It motors the outer part of the second row seat forward before tilting it to provide a generous space through which to climb. BMW has not revealed boot capacity details, though Wunder says it offers greater capacity than the Mercedes-Benz GLS, in both five- and seven seat forms. A six-seat option will also be offered.
While official details are yet to be revealed, Autocar can confirm the X7 will be available from the start of sales with a similar line-up of turbocharged engines to the X5. Included will be 335bhp 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder and 456bhp 4.4-litre V8 petrol units, and a 3.0-litre six-cylinder diesel offering either 261bhp or 394bhp. All engines are mated as standard to BMW’s eight-speed torque converter equipped automatic gearbox. There are four driving modes and BMW’s permanent xDrive four-wheel drive system.
Due in late 2019 is a range-topping M variant running the 592bhp twin-turbocharged 4.4-litre V8 petrol engine as the latest M5.
The X7 will be offered with a petrol-electric plug-in hybrid system, combining s a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a gearbox mounted electric motor. It is claimed to deliver a combined 255bhp and 295lb ft as well as an electric range of up to 62 miles and average CO2 emissions of less than 50g/km.
The X7 uses double wishbones front suspension and a five link set-up at the rear, with standard air springs at each end. The nominal ground clearance is put at 183mm, which can be raised to 243mm. Buyers will be able to choose between a standard electronic steering system or an optional active rear steer system.
BMW has yet to confirm details of the top M50d M Performance model. It will have the same quad-turbocharged 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder engine as the M550d M Performance, and should match the 394bhp at 4400rpm and 561lb ft of torque at 2000rpm as its rapid four-door stablemate.
The X7 protoype starts with a raspy blare that becomes harder and even more prominent in sport mode. As with all of BMW’s more recent M Performance models, it is a combination of proper exhaust roar and synthetically generated acoustics via the speakers. That said, it sounds genuine, its deep tone increasing and subsiding in intensity as revs rise and fall without upsetting its inherent refinement.
The commanding seating position is described by Wunder as a “good deal higher” than any other BMW, but there’s a reassuring familiarity to both it and the weighting of the controls. Forward vision is excellent, though the view out back is compromised by the second row seat headrests and shallow rake of the rear screen.
The steering initially feels light and lacks feedback but the electrically assisted set-up instantly gains weight and provides more response as our speed rises, when the M-Sport air suspension and its adaptive damping qualities combine to provide a nicely controlled and refined ride even on 21-inch wheels.
Through challenging corners there’s impressive fluidity and poise given the SUV's size. The electronically controlled adaptive drive roll bars and adaptive rear steering help to suppress roll and provide truly impressive agility. Sharp changes in direction are achieved with engaging eagerness. Pitch and dive are also well controlled, allowing you to push hard on entry and at the exit without disturbing the excellent cornering composure.
You occasionally sense the 2300kg kerb weight but with outstanding grip delivered by BMW’s xDrive four-wheel drive system, you can continue to push hard over winding sections of bitumen without the front end running wide. Switch into manual mode and the gearbox holds gears up to the redline, increasing the response and further heightening the performance.
Strong flexibility from the engine and hushed cruising qualities brought on by tall gearing help to provide the X7 M50d M Performance with effortless qualities in comfort mode on the highway.
The X7 prototype also excelled in rugged off-road conditions. With over 100mm of wheel travel, the ability to apportion up to 100 per cent of drive to either the front or rear wheels dependent on traction and selective braking for spinning wheels, it tackles tough tracks, steep inclines and declines and deep ruts with real authority.
We going to have to wait until closer to its UK introduction planned before full details to the production version of the new X7 M50d M Performance are revealed, though on early impressions it certainly appears to be a very capable and highly functional SUV with heady performance and a level of comfort not offered by any other BMW SUV.