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New-generation luxury saloon is a technological tour de force, but competing luxury saloons like the Mercedes S-Class and Tesla Model S have set a high bar

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Four decades is a long time for any car to linger in the shadow of its nearest rival, let alone a car so closely linked with its maker’s latest technologies and engineering efforts as the BMW 7 Series.

But that, we’d argue, is what has happened. Originally launched in 1977, five years after the first limo that rival Mercedes officially called a Mercedes S-Class, the 7 Series has been through five full model generations and yet has never quite managed to move out of the wake of its Stuttgart rival and leave its mark in the way of its smaller siblings.

The 7 Series can be traced back to 1977, but this new model ushers in a new chapter for BMW

Last year Mercedes sold two S-Classes for every 7 Series that rolled off the production line. While Daimler’s luxury icon has become a sub-brand in its own right, BMW’s has seen its flagship status impinged upon by hybrid supercars and 600bhp BMW M6 four-door super-coupés.

Without the 7 Series, you wonder if BMW’s custodianship of Rolls-Royce would have been half as successful – and yet where’s the recognition?

Right here. The car you’re looking at represents BMW’s most committed attempt yet to finally crack the tough nut that is the global luxury saloon market.

Sinking big bucks into an all-new platform, new construction principles and materials, an adaptive, fully air-sprung chassis and pioneering infotainment and convenience features, BMW has baked the best of all it knows into this car.

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It’s a clear attempt to return the Seven to the state-of-the-art status it enjoyed when it pioneered in-car navigation and communication features in the late 1990s.

A petrol-electric plug-in hybrid version of the car, combining a 2.0-litre turbo four-pot engine with a powerful electric motor and emitting less than 50g/km of CO2, will clearly play its part in that ascendant narrative, while the 6.6-litre V12 M760Li will set out to rival the Mercedes-AMG S-Class limos.

UK buyers, then, have a range of petrol and diesel engines to choose between, as well as two wheelbases and both rear and four-wheel drive configurations.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

BMW 7 Series rear

Open the driver’s door and you’ll find a badge on the BMW 7 Series’ inner B-pillar proclaiming something BMW calls a ‘carbon core’.

This is nothing like a carbonfibre tub of the sort that Munich designed for the BMW i8 or that McLaren uses for its models, but it does allow BMW to rightfully claim to be using machine-manufactured carbonfibre-reinforced polymer (CFRP) as a structural ingredient.

Despite the long wheelbase, BMW has shortened the turning circle by offering optional four-wheel steer

The car’s body-in-white is predominantly a mix of aluminium and high-strength steel. It differs from type where BMW grafts long fillets of CFRP to the skeleton, notably along the pillars, roof rails, sills and transmission tunnel.

Being both light and strong under torsion and compression, CFRP allows BMW to reduce the gauge of the metalwork to which it’s bonded, all while making it more rigid. The upshot is a superstructure that’s stiffer and 40kg lighter than that of the previous model, despite being larger.

Elsewhere, new near-source thermal and acoustic shielding saves a considerable amount of weight on NVH insulation. Underneath, a lightweight, aluminium-rich suspension design makes for 15 per cent less unsprung mass, with double wishbones fitted up front and multi-links at the rear, cradling the weight via all-corner air suspension and adaptive dampers as standard. Model for model, the new 7 Series is up to 130kg lighter than its forebear.

An Integral Active Steering set-up, working through a new variable-ratio power steering system and rear-axle steering, is an option, as is an electromechanical active anti-roll bar set-up called Executive Drive Pro.

The latter operates through the new Adaptive mode on the Drive Performance Control, armed with data from the sat-nav, a stereo camera and analysis of your driving style, to keep the 7 Series’ ride as smooth as possible on a predictive basis.

Our test car came with both the Integral Active Steering and Executive Drive Pro options. It also had BMW’s entry-level engine, the 3.0-litre diesel – making 261bhp and 457lb ft – and the long-wheelbase body, stretched by 140mm compared with the standard car.

As for the other engine choices, there is the 315bhp 740d (which uses a different tune of the engine in our test car), while there are four petrol options including, the 321bhp 740Li, the 444bhp V8 750i and the four-cylinder hybrid 740e. Heading the range is the 592bhp 6.6-litre V12 M760Li, which is apparently capable of 205mph.

In light of all that tech, BMW might have been bolder with the styling. Evidently the company decided that 7 Series buyers like a familiar face and a formal aesthetic.

Perhaps the memory of Chris Bangle’s ‘flame-surfaced’ E65 7 Series, and the criticism it attracted more than a decade ago, is still too fresh for BMW to take a risk with the look of this car – but it seems a shame.

INTERIOR

BMW 7 Series display key

It’s here more than anywhere that the BMW 7 Series needs to excel. Outstanding refinement, rolling comfort and isolation are expected of any full-sized luxury saloon, and we’ll come on to those. But before dynamic factors enter the equation, the BMW cockpit has to feel like an inviting, luxurious and well-appointed place in which to travel – and in the all-important back seats, at least, it does.

The car passes hurdle number one by a nose, matching the long-wheelbase Mercedes S-Class precisely on rear leg room (860mm by our typical measure) and beating it on head room by a clear 30mm. The Mercedes offers its driver marginally more maximum leg room, but both cars are more than competitive on that score, while the BMW scores with the taller, longer boot. The boot of our test car was partially filled with a removable drinks chiller, which was securely mounted yet fairly easy to detach, leaving more than enough space for daily or touring use.

The extra-large pillar lights for rear occupants give just enough light to read by, without needing a ceiling light on

Two options are key to maximising the richness of your passenger experience in the 7 Series: BMW’s Executive Package (£2850) and the Rear Seat Comfort Package (£4815). Our test car had both and therefore came with heated and massaging comfort seats, multimedia screens hanging from both front seatbacks and a tablet PC with which to control just about everything you might want to control from the back seat, from the ferocity of your seat massage to changing the channel of the in-car digital television. It also doubles as a web browser and can be removed if necessary.

Up front, the 7 Series’ designers have gone to impressive lengths to conjure a sense of integrity, effortless usability and well-being. The silver switchgear, though plain looking, feels solid under your fingertips, the head-up display is 75 per cent larger than on other BMWs and the colour-selectable ambient lighting is a lavish treat after dark. But the fascia layout looks too similar to those of BMW’s other saloons to feel really special, and the absence of genuinely exotic material finishes is disappointing.

You’d expect nothing short of the kitchen sink here — but somehow the car spectacularly over-delivers. All cars get the BMW Professional Multimedia and Navigation system, operating via a larger display than other BMWs enjoy. And for the first time on a BMW, you can control it three different ways: through the familiar iDrive controller, through a touchscreen interface or, as an option, through gesture control.

As for the respected trim levels, equipment is based on the engine you choose. 730ds will come with 18in alloys, LED head and rear lights, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, and BMW's display key. Inside along the all-singing-and-dancing iDrive system the 730d gets quad-zone climate control, DAB radio, wireless phone charging and heated front and rear seats.

Opt for the long-wheelbase 730d, 740Li or 740Ld and you get a panoramic sunroof and rear roller blind, while upgrading to the Exclusive trim ensures you get gesture control, soft close doors and BMW's comfort rear seats.

The hybrid 7 Series get a few additions which include predominantly a charging cable and a multitude of eDrive apps and settings, while the M Sport models get plenty of M badges, a sporty bodykit and 19in alloys all included. The range-topping M760Li gets numerous M Division changes including an aggressive bodykit, a rear spoiler and quad-pipe exhaust system, among other small tweaks.

The system recognises up to six gestures through a 3D sensor at the base of the control display. Rotate an outstretched finger in a circular motion to adjust audio volume; jab at the screen and you can answer a call. The idea is that these gestures can be performed without taking your eyes off the road — and after a bit of practice, the theory holds water.

BMW’s Bowers & Wilkins 1400W Diamond audio system, with its 10-channel amp and 16 speakers, sounds very good, although perhaps not as good with low frequencies as Mercedes’ ‘Frontbass’ system.

In the long-wheelbase car, rear-seat passengers can use an optional 7.0in tablet computer to control the entertainment system or browse the internet. 

 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW 7 Series's 3.0-litre diesel engine

You could bank on the BMW 7 Series scoring well with its engines. The 730d’s is in a class-leading position in all kinds of ways. Quiet, powerful, flexible and efficient, it lends the car the distinguishing air of assuredness you expect from something so large and expensive – but often fail to get in entry-level mechanical spec.

BMW’s ‘near-source’ NVH control measures certainly do the trick. At idle, you’d hardly know that the straight six was even running, with engine noise registering just 40dB on our noise meter. And when the car gets under way, the engine’s relative smoothness and good manners continue to impress. There’s very little thrash or grumble in evidence at all – just a soft-edged and industrious thrum in the audible background.

Flexible diesel engine revs beyond 5000rpm and surges up steep inclines with ease

BMW has always intended for the 7 Series to occupy a pseudo-sporting position in the limousine market, making the car faster and more interesting to drive than the luxury norm without compromising comfort levels adversely.

It has enjoyed mixed success with that approach over the years, for reasons we’ll get to. But, for the owner-drivers who may care, this new version remains fleet-footed enough still to justify that billing.

Our test car came with BMW’s ‘sport automatic’ transmission fitted and also, we were surprised to find, standard launch control. Subjected to extremes of throttle and braking, the 730Ld kept decent control of its mass, gripping hard and generally responding well – and shunning the extremes of squat and dive you see in other comfort-orientated saloons. The 60mph mark came up from rest in 6.4sec – almost a full second quicker than a like-for-like Mercedes S-Class – while it also stopped from 70mph more quickly than the Mercedes.

Of much greater importance to most owners will be the car’s demeanour on more discreet, gentle throttle openings, of course. And in that mode, the powertrain serves the car just as well, always operating quietly, shifting imperceptibly, responding precisely to small pedal adjustments and offering lots of torque to keep the car’s mass effortlessly motivated.

The quantity of tyre noise produced and conducted by the suspension is the only bugbear – a minor one, but nonetheless a demerit for a luxury saloon. We recorded 63dB of road roar at a 50mph cruise, whereas an S-Class produces just 57dB. It is a result upon which BMW should seek to improve.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW 7 Series cornering

There’s plenty of success to celebrate here – and only one serious criticism of the BMW 7 Series, at which we’ve already hinted.

The 730Ld’s ride isn’t quite as well isolated as you’d like it to be. The chassis can thump ever so slightly over raised ironwork and through drains at low speeds, and its bushing doesn’t seem to protect the cabin from the intrusive rumbles of coarser surfaces as well as some. It’s a relative criticism only, and you’ll need a Mercedes S-Class, a Range Rover or something else very skilled at cosseting its occupants to know much better ride comfort than the 7 Series grants. Still, cars like this must be judged by the toughest standards on refinement – and the big BMW, like its forebears, leaves a little to be desired.

The ride is cosseting buy not as well isolated as that of an S-Class

At higher speeds, there’s some complexity for the 730Ld’s driver to contend with in selecting the best drive mode for the road, the conditions and the prevailing speed. The softest suspension setting – Comfort Plus – allows the car’s body to waft along agreeably enough for passengers, but it permits too much vertical body movement and steering-corrupting body roll to be much use above 40mph. Sport mode exacerbates the slightly fussy ride you sometimes encounter around town and should probably also be ruled out whenever well-heeled passengers are aboard.

BMW’s Adaptive mode ought to offer the perfect compromise. It works well enough, keeping closer control of the 7 Series’ body than its rivals manage while being quite supple. However, as predictive chassis settings go, the Adaptive mode isn’t quite as effective as Mercedes Magic Ride Control; it doesn’t allow you to roll over sleeping policemen with the same sense of imperviousness, for example.

For its driver, though, the 730Ld does have marginally more poised and precise handling than its more softly sprung rivals. Those active anti-roll bars, active steering systems and adaptive dampers do an excellent job of keeping the body level and on track and maximising grip levels as you stretch the big BMW’s legs. What’s even more pleasing to find is that they operate imperceptibly, without filtering unwanted hysteresis into the car’s steering – which is light at all times and short on feedback, but at least consistent. 

Unless they’re carrying someone very important away from someone very unscrupulous indeed, the 7 Series driver is unlikely to need to explore his car’s dynamic outer limits. Still, should he need to, they’ll find the car pleasingly accurate, balanced and manageable — both up to and beyond the point at which the tyres run out of grip.

In Sport mode, the car tackles sharp bends keenly for something so big. It rolls a little but soon settles on its outside contact patches, staying true to your intended cornering line and even tolerating early applications of throttle on exit without deteriorating into understeer.

At high speeds, the car’s suspension firms up and ultimately keeps laudable control of its body through testing compressions, minimising pitching after-effects better than its rivals.

The BMW’s electronic stability controls are subtle but effective and can be fully disabled — although we’re not sure why you’d want to in this case.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 7 Series

We’ve already mentioned some of our BMW 7 Series test car’s fitted options, which are priced at a level that would make most of us wince. However, anyone used to spending upwards of £60,000 on a car these days will be used to being shaken down to the tune of another five figures on options and probably won’t consider it much of an imposition to splash the necessary cash to configure their car as they choose. 

We would recommend anybody investing in a 7 Series to opt for the Integral Active Steering to cut down on the turning circle of the BMW, along with the Executive Package and Rear Seat Comfort packs. For those looking to add a tad more luxury to their big BMW, there is the Pure Excellence interior option, which lavishly attires the cabin with deep-pile carpets.

BMW’s surround-view camera system looks as if it was taken from a 360deg periscope just above the roof

Those same 7 Series owners will be pleased that their cars beat their competitors on CO2 emissions by enough to fall a couple of percentage points lower on benefit-in-kind taxation – and a couple of per cent of list price on a £70k car is plenty.

However, they may be less impressed by the BMW’s projected residual values, which may lag behind those of the soundest buys in the class, according to our sources, in turn unavoidably impacting upon business contract hire rates.

The 7 Series hits back with very creditable real-world fuel economy, returning almost 40mpg over our road test procedure – including the usual punishing track session. 

 

VERDICT

4 star BMW 7 Series

The BMW 7 Series is a car defined by both BMW’s acknowledged strengths and its weaknesses; that it feels much like a facsimile of a BMW sports saloon blown up by 150 per cent says everything that most will need to know.

There’s much better material quality, luxury and refinement here than that simplification would suggest, of course, not to mention impressive in-car technology and outstanding performance, handling and efficiency. But most of those are traditional BMW virtues.

Outstanding is some ways but lacking the gravitas of a true luxury great

Where the firm has tended to fall down of late is when zeroing in on dynamic qualities specific to vehicle class and in failing to venture forth with genuinely imaginative design.

Predictably, then, the 7 Series is a surprisingly good driver’s car but could be a better luxury conveyance. Although it’s immutably built, the BMW doesn’t feel as rich, desirable or special as some of its rivals.

Instead, the 7 Series struggles to cast off the bland, pedestrian flavour of a lesser saloon, and while it has some impressive constituent parts, it never feels greater than the sum of them.

As a result the big BMW falls behind equivalent other luxury cars including the class-leading Mercedes S-Class, Range Rover and Tesla Model S, however the 7 Series does, in our eyes, is a better option than the Jaguar XJ.

 

BMW 7 Series (2015-2022) First drives