MONTICELLO, NY – Packed with high-tech content, bulging with luxury touches – and a pretty good driver to boot, BMW’s sixth-generation 7-Series strikes a competitive blow at the top of the luxury-sedan segment.
The new model might not be a Rolls-Royce exactly, but it comes pretty close for much less. And when it comes to the user experience, the technology-laden ’16 7-Series offers a lot the BMW ultra-luxury sibling brand does not.
Let’s start with the less-than-stellars on this car, because there’s only really one, and it is subjective at that: exterior styling.
It’s not that the new 7-Series doesn’t have road presence; it does. The car’s aggressive, upsized new kidney grille (equipped with active shutters), combined with its adaptive LED headlamps, presents a strong face.
The sweeping hockey-stick-shaped slash along the side provides a sense of motion even when the car is standing still, and the stacked, fender-to-fender horizontal lines at the rear present the illusion of a wider stance, even though width is relatively unchanged from the outgoing model.
Overall it’s a clean-but-conservative update that probably will appeal to its customer base, but leaves the high-end luxury-sedan sector still running low on pizzazz.
Inside, however, the new 7-Series is all cutting-edge and high quality.
Here’s the short list of groundbreakers in the ’16 model: gesture controls to operate certain functions, the ability to autonomously steer away from a potential collision at speeds up to 130 mph (209 km/h), innovative interior lighting, the industry’s largest head-up display and, drumbeat here, it can park itself in the garage while the driver heads into the house (a Europe-only feature for now that awaits U.S. regulatory approval).
Test drives here at and around the private Monticello Motor Club prove that despite the emphasis on backseat amenities, the new 7-Series doesn’t forget the driver. In the U.S., only the long-wheelbase version of the car will be offered for ’16, measuring in at 206.6 ins. (5,248 mm) overall. Still, the sedan is anything but clumsy through the turns on the track or public roads.
Steering is precise and direct, acceleration responsive, the ride quiet and stopping power impressive, plus the car feels much smaller and lighter than it really is. Much of the credit for that goes to the new body-in-white, an amalgam of ultra-high-strength steel, aluminum and carbon fiber that has helped cut overall weight 290 lbs. (132 kg), though BMW admits about 100 lbs. (45 kg) of that savings is put back into the car by way of additional content.
Driving Dynamics Control settings also have an impact on the sedan’s handling, and new for ’16 is an automatic setting that reads the road ahead and inputs from the driver to switch from comfort to sport settings as needed.
Four-wheel steering is available, even with the all-wheel-drive model, a first for ’16. It’s another factor in the car’s high-speed handling prowess, but also cuts nearly 3 ft. (0.9 m) off the sedan’s turning circle during low-speed maneuvers.
It's What's Inside That Counts
Engines are largely carryover, though BMW switches to twin-scroll for the two turbos on the 4.4L 445-hp V-8 paired with the xDrive system to improve boost-response time. The entry-level engine is BMW’s 320-hp 3.0L straight-6. A stop/start system is standard with both engines.
The 7-Series also borrows the intelligent 8-speed automatic transmission first seen in Rolls models that draws on route information to shift into the proper gear ahead of a change in elevation or curve in the road, depending on the driving mode selected. Paddle shifters and a Launch Control function are included.
Set to arrive next year is a plug-in hybrid option that will mate a 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. with lithium-ion battery power. It will be capable of running on electric power for up to 23 miles (37 km) and at speeds up to 75 mph (121 km/h). That powertrain appears first in the X5 CUV due at U.S. dealers later this year.
However, the real emphasis in the car’s redesign is on the inside. Although the horizontal layout will be familiar to BMW buyers, materials are top-notch, from the galvanized metal and wood trim to the fine-grain Merino leather trim and Alcantara headliner.
Ambiant lighting, in six different colors, flows through the foot wells and along door inners to the front seatbacks and continues on to the standard 2-section panoramic glass roof, which can be ordered with special etching that when lit by LEDs at night creates a starry-sky effect, borrowing another Rolls design cue.
A unique touch-sensitive light panel area further illuminates the rear compartment and helps mask some of the B-pillar.
But what really separates the 7-Series from the pack is the car’s human-machine interface. It starts with the next-gen iDrive5 System that includes both the console-mounted control dial and completely redundant touchscreen controls, plus voice-command and gesture-based operation.
The redundancy is nice, because in some situations, such as when parked, it can be easier to use a touchscreen than a dial. And because every function can be accessed either way, there’s no need to guess what can be done on screen and what can’t. The screen also features smartphone-like pinch and zoom that easily lets you zero in or out or search for a specific spot on the map.
Gesture-based controls are limited to just radio volume and incoming phone calls, plus two programmable options of your choice. They take some getting used to, because the driver’s hand must be in the right location to be picked up by the sensor mounted over the center console, and in some cases the gestures call for relative precision. But once learned, they can be rather effective and even cut down on driver distraction. Answering an incoming phone call, for example, requires only pointing to the center display screen, and rejecting the call takes a simple swipe of the hand.
Top-Notch Safety Tech, Back Seat Comfort
Info displays cover a lot of ground and are incredibly detailed. For instance, adjust the seat and a picture appears on the center console showing precisely what you’re doing. It’s one of those surprise-and-delight, if superfluous and sometimes intrusive, features that leave you convinced these guys thought of everything.
Instrumentation is all digital and therefore a bit cartoony. Displays change according to drive mode. In additional to the routine speedometer readings, the head-up display – 75% larger – shows speed limit, status messages, turn-by-turn navigation and telephone and entertainment menus.
Then there’s the optional Display Key, which features a 2.2-in. (5.6-cm) LCD color screen of its own that is operated via swipe and touch gestures. It allows the driver to activate the climate-control system and retrieve information on the car’s status and security remotely.
Things get serious in the back, where BMW includes a 7-in. (18-cm) Android-based removable tablet that locks into the center console and can control all the car’s features from the rear seat. Rear seats recline up to 42.5 degrees, and there’s a footrest that folds down from the front passenger seat for maximum comfort.
Amenities include dual 10-in. (25-cm) entertainment screens in the rear seats, air freshener (with eight BMW-exclusive fragrances, of course), heated armrests, massaging seats, Wi-Fi, wireless charging and optional Bowers & Wilkins 16-speaker sound system.
Smart cruise control, perpendicular and parallel parking assist, night vision, automatic braking, lane keeping and a host of other driver-assist and accident-avoidance features also can be had.
Learning how to use all this stuff could take some time, so the automaker is offering an optional BMW Encore delivery in which dealership personnel will conduct a second delivery to re-explain features after the owner has driven the car for a time. The second session can be scheduled any time up to three months after purchase.
A recent J.D. Power survey suggests buyers aren’t that enamored with in-vehicle technology, so the new 7-Series will put that to a severe test. BMW says plans are to filter these features down to the rest of its lineup over time.
The flagship 7-Series sedan hits the U.S. Oct. 24. Base prices run from $81,300 for the 740i to $97,400 for the 750i xDrive (not including destination and handling), and buyers will be able to spend a lot more if they absolutely must.
What they’ll get for their money is a technological tour de force with top-of-the-class driving dynamics, competitive quality and materials and a few innovative touches to point out to their friends.
It easily should satisfy the faithful and maybe send a few competitors back to the drawing board.
'16 BMW 750i xDrive Specifications
|Vehicle type||4-passenger luxury sedan|
|Engine||4.4L TwinPower Turbo DOHC, all-aluminum V-8|
|Power (SAE net)||445 hp @ 5,500-6,000 rpm|
|Torque||480 lb.-ft (651 Nm) @ 1,800-4,500 rpm|
|Bore x stroke (mm)||89.0 x 88.3|
|Wheelbase||126.4 ins. (3,211 mm)|
|Overall length||206.6 ins. (5,248 mm)|
|Overall width||74.9 ins. (1,902 mm)|
|Overall height||58.2 ins. (1,478 mm)|
|Curb weight||4,610 lbs. (2,091 kg)|
|Fuel economy||16/25 mpg (14.7-9.4 L/100 km) city/highway|
|Competition||Mercedes S-Class, Audi A8, Lexus LS, Jaguar XJ, Porsche Panamera|
|Technology bonanza||Conservative style|
|Attention to detail||Learning curve to operate|
|Driving dynamics||Do we need gesture control?|