BMW has always endeavoured to make the 7 Series the most engaging car in its class to drive, often at the expense of outright comfort. For this sixth-generation model, however, the focus has shifted.
The agility and sportiness inherent in the previous versions remain at the core of the new model, and in certain cases is improved upon by the inclusion of a rear-wheel steer function in combination with the BMW’s xDrive four-wheel drive system. But it is now supported by additional levels of primary and secondary comfort, making this latest 7 Series more limousine-like in character than any of its predecessors.
This impression is apparent the moment you sit on the new seats, which are more softly cushioned and more substantial than those used by the fifth-generation 7 Series, both up front and in the rear. They are just one example of BMW’s efforts to instil greater levels of comfort. Another is its newly developed suspension system, which now boasts air springs front and rear, rather than just at the rear as before.
As a result, the new model adopts continuously variable damping control, automatic self-levelling and an ability to alter the 135mm ride height on the go. The driver can raise ground clearance by 20mm at speeds below 22mph, while in Sport mode the ride height is automatically reduced by 10mm at certain speeds.
The new 7 Series also comes with optional electro-hydraulically operated roll bars as part of an optional Executive Drive Pro function on most models. They replace the previous hydraulically operated roll bars, bringing what BMW describes as faster damper reaction times for improved ride comfort, a more progressive build-up of lean and reduced body roll.
In 730d guise, the new BMW is reassuringly muscular and satisfyingly refined. Its six-cylinder diesel engine provides lively off-the line acceleration and gathers speed in a wonderfully nonchalant manner on a pegged throttle. It can get a little vocal when you switch into manual mode and hold on to lower gears longer than is absolutely necessary, but in automatic mode the revised gearbox shifts up well before engine noise threatens to become an issue.
Unsurprisingly, the 730d feels most at home at a steady cruise on the motorway. The long-legged gearing and relatively strong reserves of low-end torque make it every bit as impressive from the driver’s seat as it is with your legs stretched out in the back. There is some light buffeting of wind around the door mirrors, although only at very high speeds.
The 7 Series now offers four differing modes via an optional Driver Experience Control function, including a new Comfort Plus mode. You can also dial up Comfort, Sport and Adaptive modes, the last of which is also new and seems the most logical choice in everyday driving.
There’s a new subtlety to the way the new saloon gets along, both around town and on the open road. In Comfort Plus mode the new BMW is much quieter and noticeably smoother than its predecessor. The suspension is far less sensitive to surface coarseness and has greater ability to sponge away bumps, making it more relaxing and unruffled to travel in over longer distances.
Crucially, the softer-riding traits of the new car do not compromise its handling when you switch to Sport. Superb damper tuning provides excellent body control and truly impressive B-road ability for such a big car. There are also impressive levels of grip.
As part of BMW’s weight saving efforts some 40kg has been pared from the suspension, bringing a 10kg reduction at each corner. As before, it also claims a perfect 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, while the efforts to trim weight within the roof have resulted in the centre of gravity being lowered slightly.
Allied to the new suspension is a new electro-mechanical steering system. It reverts to a fixed-ratio rack in place of the variable-ratio rack of the old model. As fitted to our test car, the new 7 Series also comes with an optional rear-wheel steer function, providing up to 3deg of countersteer for added manoeuvrability in town, or 2deg of parallel steer for greater agility on the open road.
Having initially praising the new steering following a brief run in a prototype version of the 740i, we’ve got some reservations after trying it on the road. The weighting is lighter and more accommodating than before, but it lacked the consistency of the earlier example we drove when turning from dead centre. It is fine at lower speeds around town, but the combination of increasing assistance and weighting often proves more of a hindrance than a benefit at higher speeds.
The interior receives an evolutionary update with a new dashboard that is finished in higher-grade materials that help provide a more luxurious feel than at any time in the model’s 38-year history. Among the highlights are new digital instrument graphics that change colour depending on the driving mode, a redesigned multi-function steering wheel, touch-sensitive air conditioning controls and revised switchgear.
There’s also a fifth-generation iDrive system with a new touchpad and touchscreen functions as part of an optional Navigation System Professional, allowing you to operate various functions in a similar style to that of a smartphone with pinch, point and swipe commands, or alternatively via the rotary dial on the centre console.
Optional gesture control is also offered for the first time. It uses a three-dimensional sensor mounted within the headlining to detect hand movements that control functions including the volume of the stereo and the acceptance or rejection of calls. If that’s not enough, an upgraded speech control system is also available.
Despite only incremental increases in exterior dimensions, there is a feeling of greater accommodation whether sitting up front or in the rear – the latter of which feels truly expansive in long-wheelbase guise.