BMW 7-Series: Prime stake relies on technology edge

Some cars are to drive – some cars are to be driven in. BMW’s new Seven-Series has a foot in each camp. But how relevant is a lavishly-equipped mega sedan that promises a million dollar feel?


SUCH is the diminished status of large luxury sedans that, when talking of its intention to achieve 100 sales for the new 7-Series, BMW New Zealand isn’t estimating per annum but whole-of-life – conceivably that century score will therefore take six or seven years.

Even though the annual average is actually right on par with how the last model performed and also enough to keep BMW honest against rivals’ flagship sedans, you might well still wonder why they bother.

The official answer, carefully expressed, suggests corporate pride is a most powerful force. Basically, reading between the lines, it seems that so long as Germany makes this car, then its distributors are expected to strive to sell it.

Speaking of ... BMW here is of course most pleased that the latest Seven is following two previous generations of the car in being set to serve the state on ministerial and VIP duty. This time around the Wellington crowd has signed up for 33 examples; having previously had two stints with 35 units.

Interestingly, the latest cars being prepared right now for Beehive buzzing are not considered in the predicted sales count, largely because the model going into state service is quite different to the editions now entering the showroom.

Those who are opposed to seeing MPs swanning around in high-end German metal might want to know that those elected officials are not getting the same experience I enjoyed this week.

The Government fleet consists of 730d long-wheelbase turbodiesel models, which have more legroom but shorter legs. The taxpayer-funded cars have the same 3.0-litre six-cylinder diesel offered to private buyers, but with a single turbocharger, rather than the dual set-up on the private sector model, so are considerably less powerful with 190kW and 560Nm. They’re also potentially less well-specified, though that part of the deal – like the price – is a state secret.

That doesn’t mean our elected servants of democracy are travelling in poor style; but it does suggest that it’s more prudent to look to the $199,000 740d and $235,900 750i than those silver grey Beehive taxis when thinking about why the Seven holds status as BMW’s heavyweight technology standard-bearer.

True, in some ways that’s a title shared with the i8, given that the pricier sports coupe has a hybrid drivetrain and a fancy carbon composite construct, whereas the Seven – while now employing that super-strong and light material in it structure – is still mainly a steel-bodied model.

Yet it’s still one of the most sophisticated cars currently on sale and there is a lot of ‘tomorrow today’ to brag about, particularly within the cabin.

Gesture control technology is a category-unique function that going to be gloated about. This allows the front seat occupants to control the stereo, answer incoming calls and set the navigation by simple hand gestures. Twirling your finger one way increases audio volume, the other has opposite effect; swipe one way to accept an incoming call and the other to reject. Pointing two fingers in an inverted V-sign changes stations.

The 750i is also just the world’s third production model (behind the i8 and Audi’s R8 LMX) to have laser headlight modules, which as well as being smaller and more energy-efficient than the 740d’s LED headlamps have twice the high beam reach, illuminating up to 600 metres. How impressive is that? Though our overnighting spot provided perfect conditions for demonstration, it didn’t happen.

While the car cannot entertain even partially hands-free driving as the latest Mercedes’ cars can, both versions use cameras to help keep steering within a lane (handy on motorways but ultimately annoying anywhere else) when it senses a driver is troubled doing so and, from mid-year, the 750i will have the smarts to park itself in some spots while the owner is out of the car and holding the key fob, a special type with its own display screen. Yes, an expensive extravagance and not something you’d want to lose.

Luxury and refinement are also top notch, with seats trimmed in plush Nappa leather and wood, brushed aluminum and Alcantara used everywhere else. BMW designers are rightly proud they’ve not used a single piece of black plastic in the cabin.

All three cars on our excursion were demonstrators laden with extras. Lots of extras: The 740d carried $36,700 worth – a rear sunblind, a leather finish dash ($3500) and 20 inch alloys ($3000) I can understand, but ceramic control knobs, a $2750 ‘climate comfort’ windscreen and $1000 for a different kind of headlining seemed examples of unnecessary garnishing. The pair of 750i cars were respectively enhanced by $12,950 and $38,950, the latter thus presenting as a $278,450 buy-in.

Mind you, the more expensive V8 also reinforced that to make the most of BMW’s flagship requires getting someone to drive it for you. Equipped with individual rear chairs with full electric adjust plus massaging, it also offered the premium $11,000 Bowers and Wilkins ‘diamond’ sound system and a rear-seat entertainment system featuring two HD displays offering access to online services and movies (plus on-board wifi that allows you to stream or download directly from the web, via a separate tablet hidden in the centre armrest that detaches for external use). All good fun until my colleague at the wheel began to hit the bends at uncomfortable pace – that’s when I realized that perhaps I’d taken the chauffeur jokes a bit too far.

All this to ensure it can achieve the in-house expectation of it being a trendsetter capable, as BMW NZ managing director Florian Renndorfer puts it, “of reshaping perceptions of automotive luxury.“

To hammer home what kind of car it is, BMW here designed a two-day launch programme tailored to showcase how easily it slips into a lifestyle environment that it believes customers enjoy - albeit one only a few could afford.

After taking an executive helicopter from the Onehunga heliport to the Mahurangi River vineyard at Matekana for lunch, we drove to the Bay of Islands to overnight The Landing, an upmarket retreat for the super-rich potentially beyond even a Prime Minister’s pay rate.

Fine wines, a meal prepared by our personal chef in an open-air eating area overlooking a beautiful bay, after-dinner drinks and Cuban cigars (for those who smoke) at the owners’ home before slipping away to our accommodations – the property has four, no-cost-spared architecturally-designed homes – and being reminded to keep an eye out for the kiwi that roam the property … it really was a night like no other, not .so much an example of how the other half live as “the other half a percent”. I’d think $1500 per head per night might be a reasonable guess-timate.

Guests have included Mick Jagger who, apparently, reckoned it to be the best such place he’d ever experienced.

The car also pampered positively, though two of the three examples did raise question about this product being quite as seamlessly perfect as the maker would like to portray.

The biggest bugbear of the preceding generation cars, the complexity of the iDrive operation is largely resolved but not wholly. First time use of a touch-sensitive display screen is a big positive, moreso than the gesture control – even if it is a bit of a hoot - but tracking through the sub-menus remains a challenge.

All who drove the diesel car were perplexed why the sat nav auto-zoomed back to a 20km display – basically showing the whole top part of NZ, as if from the space station - no matter how carefully it was set to provide much closer examination.

More seriously, barely 30 minutes into the drive, an engine warning light flashed up in the 750i I was steering. All systems were okay and since the lamp was orange (a precautionary alert) rather than ‘stop now!’ red, we all figured – after discussion with the distributor’s chief technical whizz (who’d lunched with us but then headed south) – it was nothing truly troublesome. Yet it remained unsettling, not least because every kilometre north was putting more distance between us and the closest dealership, back in Auckland.

These niggles aside, the car was just as the Seven has always been: A car that travels with great authority in smooth and relaxing manner yet is also deceptively quick as it’s so quiet; you pick up speed very quickly without realising you’re doing so. With 350kW and 650Nm to push it along, the 750i is more alert off the line and the more assertive powerhouse, but though it gives away 125kW in power output, that diesel is just 30Nm shy on torque, so also has a lot of muscularity and, assuming this kind of thing matters, it’s also a lot thriftier, with a claimed 5.3 litres per 100km optimum against 8.1.

The stylish is smart if a touch understated; clearly the memory of how the big-bummed Chris Bangle offer of two generations ago still sits uncomfortably with Munich’s high-ups. Yet it’s hardly going to run under the radar and seems to deliver a nice balance between ‘elite’ and ‘egalitarian’.

The dynamics aren’t as barge-like as you might think, especially if you option up to the  Executive Drive Pro active anti-roll technology.

For sure, it’s not going to put up a fight against an of Munich’s M machines, but diverting the suspension from its comfort setting to sport leaves it feeling surprisingly fit for this purpose, given the size and substance.

Even when the body is tied down, the standard air suspension doesn’t lose its ability to provide a reasonable ride, either, though on anything but smooth seal you do notice a small degree of surface texture feedback coming through. It’s more about noise than feel, but potentially reminds – yet again – about the greatest drawback of having run-flat rubber.

One feature offered overseas that doesn’t make the cut here - a special ‘adaptive’ mode for the suspension which uses the car’s navigation to set the car up for the road and terrain that’s coming up ahead – might have been useful on a second day route that favoured winding rural roads over the main highways of the day prior, but all in any ill-effect felt by our crew was more due to the alcoholic excesses of the night before.

Still, even though it acquitted well on the gravel roads that provided sole access to our overnight accommodation – the diesel, with its xDrive four-wheel-drive, understandably feeling even more settled than the rear-drive petrol – this occasion especially raised consideration about where the change of consumer taste for cars such as this leaves the Seven.

As good as this car is, you have to imagine it would be all the tastier if it was to one day be re-wrapped in a sports utility shape, given that crossovers and other high-standing vehicles are simply capturing far greater consumer interest now.

That’s not just a New Zealand issue: Worldwide, the Seven and its kind keep slipping into the background. BMW sold 48,519 examples of this model globally in 2014, a three percent share of its overall total.

What if BMW was ever to kit out the X5 – its best-selling car here for years – with the appointments it presently restricts to this sedan, or determined to create an upsized item?

Talk of an 'X7' has always previously come to nothing but peer pressure from another BMW bauble brand might change things. Rolls-Royce cars are now based on Seven Series underpinnings but a plush off-road machine to match or trump the Bentley Bentayga now seems possible. This would demand BMW to proffer a product of its own – the development dollars don’t make sense otherwise.

Such a car would certainly look good at The Landing.