Technology-laden BMW 7 Series looks better than its predecessors, but is ultimately disappointing

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You are looking at the fifth-generation BMW 7 Series, and if you’re surprised by how similar to the previous model it appears then you are quite clearly not alone.

So close in feel visually is the new Seven to its predecessor – the first BMW to boast Chris Bangle’s controversial flame-surface styling, remember – you could easily mistake it for a mid-life revamp model.

This BMW 7 Series features brake energy regeneration as standard

In reality, of course, it’s a brand new car featuring a brand new platform and an entirely new bodyshell, which just happens to look remarkably like the one before. A very broad range spreads from the cheapest 730d SE, which carries a mid-£50k price tag right up to the 760Li M Sport (an unlikely combination of attributes) that costs almost double the entry-level car.

The 7 Series started life, as so many of BMW's headline models did, in the mid-1980s. And although it has gained weight, size and technical sophistication across the four different models that have followed, the fundamental template has remained virtually unchanged.

Just as the very first versions were, the latest car is rear-wheel drive and features a range of straight-six engines, the vast majority of which were petrol to begin with but have now been superseded by turbodiesel units. In the second-generation car a V12 option was added. A series of V8s have since joined the mix and there have been numerous long-wheelbase models as well.

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BMW 7 Series front kidney grille

The previous BMW 7 Series was controversial for all sorts of reasons but none more so than for its styling. This was the first production BMW to feature what BMW’s then chief designer, Chris Bangle, described as flame surfacing – and it kicked off a fiery debate that lasted for years.

Now, though, the all-new 7 Series has calmed down in its appearance and seems almost plain, which proves how easily we get used to things if we’re subjected to them for long enough.

The iDrive system functions in a more intuitive fashion

The big difference between new and old Sevens visually is around the higher, more vertical nose, which thrusts its way out of the bonnet with even more authority than before. But if you look closely the whole shape has been subtly reworked to be softer and better looking, even if the profile still seems strongly familiar.

It’s not a gorgeous-looking car, but neither is it one that makes you recoil in shock as the previous version did when launched. Beneath the skin it makes several strides forward and, as ever, is a showcase for BMW’s various new technologies. The platform may well be brand new but the basic features are familiar: strut suspension at the front and multi-link at the rear, with power going to the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic ’box.

But for the new model BMW has introduced a whole range of electronic elements to make the chassis as sophisticated as possible. Inside the new Seven, BMW’s designers have performed a subtle but admirably restrained rework of the cabin, with a new dashboard and centre console housing numerous switches without managing to look or feel overly complex.

They have also, at long last, redesigned the iDrive system to function in a more intuitive fashion, even though there are more buttons to play with around the console itself. The big news is that the air-con now functions separately from iDrive, but just about wherever you look the cabin has been improved, or simplified, and the results speak for themselves.

So how do you distinguish those range-topping V12 7 Series from the lesser versions? Other than the badges there are a few tell-tale exterior signs, the most obvious being the quad exhausts, but also V12 labels next to indicator repeaters, and additional chrome detailing.


BMW 7 Series interior

The rationalisation of BMW's iDrive system is a welcome feature of the BMW 7 Series' cabin, but in the event it’s just one of many improvements inside. The electric switches for the two amply supportive front seats have also been simplified, as has the entire dashboard, and there’s more space in every direction for all occupants. Even the boot is bigger than before and is capable of swallowing vast amounts of luggage.

Having said that, the interior is far from perfect, even if it has been redesigned to be more appealing to look at and more intuitive to use. The new door handles, hidden within the doorcaps, are especially baffling at first.

Magnetic-stop doors hold fast at whatever point you open them to

Same goes for the new gearlever, although you get used to it eventually in the same way you get used to driving a left-hand drive car. But you shouldn’t have to: flicking between reverse, forwards and/or Park should be entirely natural right from the word go.

On the other hand, there can be few complaints about the fundamental quality of the cabin, or its lavish specification. As standard you get full Dakota leather upholstery, climate control, sat-nav, iDrive, Bluetooth connectivity and voice control of the multimedia system. Options include a six-pack DVD changer and various finishes for the wood trim including high gloss Anthracite, otherwise what you see is what you get.

Impressively opulent it all feels, too. More options are a lane departure warning system and a head-up display unit. All of which might point to how many 7 Series owners like to drive, rather than be driven in, their own cars.


BMW 7 Series diesel engine

Under the bonnet of the majority of BMW 7 Series models out on real roads is a bespoke version of BMW’s already excellent 3.0-litre straight six turbo-diesel. In this instance it’s been tuned to deliver as much torque as possible – an impressive 398lb ft between 1750-3000rpm – with as much refinement as you’ll find in any BMW on sale.

Power is 242bhp at 4000rpm, yet the stats also include a claimed 39.2mpg on the official combined cycle. The 730d also produces the least CO2 of any car in its class at just 192g/km.

The straight-six has been tuned to deliver massive torque

No matter how many times you experience the low-down pulling power of a high torque turbo-diesel, there is still something spooky about being able to summon so much acceleration with so few revs on board.

This is the defining factor in the 730d’s extraordinary performance repertoire; you put your foot down at anything above 1500rpm and instantly you accelerate hard towards the horizon, the turbo-diesel engine all but inaudible above the gentle rush of the wind and the increasingly loud rumble from the tyres.

Ultimately you can gun this the car from a standstill to 60mph in 6.9sec and to 100mph in 17.7sec – about the same as a VW Golf GTI at maximum attack, in other words. Yet, because the 730d is so refined as it delivers its performance, it somehow feels faster than that because you don’t expect so much thrust from such a large, seemingly cumbersome machine. Top speed, for the record, is 153mph.

What also adds to the effect is the excellent relationship the diesel engine shares with the six-speed automatic gearbox. Left in D and with the dampers/throttle mapping/gearchange modes in Regular, the transmission seems to find the perfect gear for every occasion, even if it does hang on to a gear too low occasionally in Sport.

All told, there seems little reason to choose any other 7 Series engine option, although the more powerful 740d has virtually the same CO2 score despite its extra 59bhp.

For maximum profligacy, there's always the mighty 760Li with a 6.0-litre petrol V12, 544bhp and a cringeworthy 303g/km. BMW claims 4.6 seconds to 62mph, which seems completely believable. Top speed is as usual limited to 155mph, and as a measure of the performance when the limiter kicks in, even doing so gradually, the reduction in acceleration is marked.

For the most part the BMW’s V12 remains almost completely silent, whether at idle or low to mid range revs, and unless you have an awful amount of space available, you will rarely get the engine spinning much beyond 4000rpm.

Such is the effectiveness of the turbochargers – peak torque is available from 1500rpm onwards and doesn’t let up until 5000rpm – that unless you use the manual mode to lock the gearbox in an unnaturally low ratio, trying to exercise the engine results in so much speed that you are forced to back off before the engine gets even remotely vocal. And for a turbo-charged engine the response is extremely clean and immediate, the only real sign of forced induction the faintest distant hiss.

There is little wrong with the way a 7 Series stops, either, thanks to its fine all-round ventilated disc braking system. Although there’s a fair bit of movement under a big stop, pedal power and feel is beyond fault and there’s a pleasingly unintrusive ABD system as well should you get into really big trouble.


BMW 7 Series cornering

As standard on a BMW 7 Series you now get three-stage electronic dampers with a switchable program that also ties in with the throttle mapping and gearchange speeds. Optional are four-wheel steering and BMW's Dynamic Drive roll control.

With most BMWs you expect the emphasis to be more on handling than ride, but in this instance shouldn't it be the other way round? Correct, but that still doesn’t mean the 7 Series hits the bullseye.

Some dynamic functions lie hidden within iDrive menus

The main problem is that the Seven doesn’t quite know what it wants to be on the road – ultra-luxurious cruiser or surprisingly sporty big saloon – and in the event it ends up being neither.

On most surfaces the ride comfort is almost very good, if oddly unresolved over lumpier town roads. But problems emerge when you drive it faster across undulating single carriageway roads, when the Seven feels too big, too heavy and not especially well controlled at the front in such circumstances.

Without the optional Dynamic Drive roll control system fitted its body simply moves around too much under even quite mild cornering loads. Its steering, too, feels peculiarly vague and lifeless, even though it is ultimately accurate to use.

That said, the Seven is every bit as smooth and refined as you’d expect when cruising along the average UK motorway. This is its best environment, tempered by the wind noise it develops at speed. It’s not a major issue but it’s enough of a problem to irritate the occupants.


BMW 7 Series

There’s no question that the BMW 7 Series, particularly in 730d SE guise, is an awful lot of car for the money even if the pricier 7 Series models fare less well in this regard.

The entry-level car has virtually every goodie you could ever want as standard, and when it comes to fuel consumption, range and emissions it’s just about unbeatable at the price.

The 7 Series is uncommonly frugal for a luxury car

What really sets the 730d’s performance apart is the fact that it achieves all this while returning a genuine 40mpg in the real world, making it one of the few cars easily able to nudge its official combined-cycle figure (41.5mpg).

With a CO2 figure of just 178g/km, this is an uncommonly frugal luxury car to run. Mate that to sub-seven second 0-60mph acceleration and you end up with a nigh-on unbeatable combination.

It’s likely that the very few people who will buy the 760Li will have already decided to do so. Other than the marginal extra refinement, objectively the 760Li doesn’t do a great deal that the 750Li, or for that matter that the 740d lower down in the range doesn't. What the 760Li does do rather well though, is fill the role of flagship, and for a certain type of buyer that will be reason enough to have one.

But in the current climate there’s one aspect that could kill this car stone dead – and that’s depreciation.

Even in the good times the 7 Series has tended to suffer horrendously from the dreaded D-word; in a recession it’s hard to imagine how fast this car will fall in value the moment you park it on your drive. You have been warned.


3.5 star BMW 7 Series

In so many ways the new BMW 7 Series is a very impressive car, especially in 730d SE guise with its near-unbeatable combination of performance and economy mated to a level of equipment that appears unusually generous considering the price.

That’s before you even consider how much technology is simmering away beneath the skin.

Apart from the remarkable diesel engine, the 7 Series is mediocre

But no matter how superb its on-paper credentials, it fails to tread new ground when it comes to luxury transport. Without its excellent engine and gearbox the 7 Series would feel much like any other 7 Series from the last 10 years, except that the edge of driver appeal – vital in a credible BMW – has gone missing.

Ignoring your USP is never a wise route to take at any point in time, but right now it does the 7 Series very few favours. Despite being an excellent car technically and on paper, it is a curiously disappointing one in reality.

BMW 7 Series 2008-2015 First drives