BMW 7-series – A hint of rising German pride

Published on July 7th, 2009

Dresden has become renowned internationally for the agglomeration of centuries of magnificent architecture. In February 1945, 15 kilometers of this historic city centre fell into ash. Well it wasn’t Ned Aznir who mentioned the war. Among the weighty BMW international press material, he found a small road book filling in the background of Dresden, where it is the starting point of his extraordinary journey down to the south-east Germany. As he witness the premier of the latest 7-Series, it revealed more than a hint of rising German pride – it’s all magnificent with rich heritage and being rebuilt in its most impressive style as he invites you to join him for a plush escapade.

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Stunned silence greeted the all-new 7-Series saloon when BMW removed the covers at its international press launch in Dresden. There was some applause, but the initial response was a long moment of church-like hush. The next morning we saw the car on the road for the first time and it looked even better out here under the natural light.

So much of the new 7-Series’ personality rests upon its looks that we simply must discuss styling first, especially the exterior. The last time BMW dropped its flagship model on us, we stood there stunned and unsure of what to make of the strange new shape before us. Almost universally loathed by armchair critics who could no doubt ever afford one, the fourth-generation 7-Series that made its debut in 2001 would prove to be the most successful version to date. Furthermore, competitors have imitated its most controversial design elements, particularly the so-called “Bangle Bustle” trunkline.

Now, seven years later, they’re sending us an entirely fresh car, but this time they’ve gone without the shock and awe campaign. Instead, next year’s 7-series builds on the foundation its predecessor laid down with more graceful design details and cleverer. Strangely, “flame surfacing” doesn’t even exist in their design vocabulary or even mentioned in our 282-page Media’s guide on the 7-Series handout.

The new car is immediately recognizable not only as a BMW, but also as a 7-Series, thanks in large part to the game-changing styling of the last generation, from which it inherited its dominant stature. The shape and proportions shout “flagship” from every angle, guaranteeing that no one will confuse it for a mere 5-Series. Its superior presence is characterized by elements like the near-vertical nose, with massive grilles that plunge deep into the front bumper. The long, horizontal hood projects a sense of power, as it becomes the tall shoulders of the greenhouse.

Much of its design brilliance is simply lost in two dimensions; it must be seen in the flesh, even touched, to get a full sense of designer Karim Antoine Habib’s vision. There’s the interaction of light and shadow on the sculpted door panels, whose door-handle recesses are now seamlessly stamped into the metal. There’s the “shadowline” crease in the roof’s sheetmetal that parallels the classic BMW window line, subtly enhancing the Hofmeister kink. The headlights are now more expressive; a clever glowing “eyebrow” not only acts as a daytime running lamp, but also covers the tops of the headlamps just enough to give the car’s face an intense, focused expression.

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It’s a striking car. Just over five meters long and two meters wide, it covers a lot of ground. Easily the most impressive aspect is the rear end: it’s extremely powerful and weighty, with a substantial rear bumper. Integrated into the bottom edge of the bumper, on this 750Li, are two pairs of chrome tailpipes. Combine this with a big, intense glowed red light clusters and the result is commanding and very upmarket.

Like its predecessors, the new one also rewrites the rules by breaking new ground and this is a very important car for the company, and as such it called for radical solutions. They’re convinced that they have created what will soon be widely accepted as the undisputed leader of the pack. The F01 and F02 are both codenamed for the short and long wheelbase 7-Series is the latest models in a row of love it or hate it designs to come out from Munich. To be truthful, I am a huge fan of the outgoing 7-Series and despite its existence, it hasn’t dated at all. The new one on the other hand looks even more discreet and somehow unadventurous. BMW wants us to love the new 7-Series; it’s less bold and the car has grown mature and intellectually.

The company had the world’s best cockpit design before throwing it away in favour of an odd shape chest of drawers with truly awful light-over-dark orange instruments. The interior is conservative in the new car that marks a return to its well-off tradition by sticking close to its philosophy of studied ergonomic and simplicity. Like as before, the cockpit architecture swiveled towards the driver with plenty of rich materials, with the gear and handbrake back where they once belong.

Meticulous attention to detail is what this car is all about, see the doors for example: Rather than conventionally shaped door pulls mounted onto panels trimmed in metal or wood, the wood and metal elements are integrated into the pulls themselves. This design not only forces occupants to touch the metal, wood and leather, the sheer heft of the mechanism also delivers the sensation of closing something more substantial, almost vault-like.

The material selection itself reflects the clean, modern design of the car, with unconventional choices like matte-finish black wood. The use of real aluminum in conjunction with the wood is a subtle reminder of the car’s extensive use of the lightweight alloy in the bodywork, drawing together elements of both the interior and the exterior. Whether you like the design of the new 7-series or not, it should be clear that great thought has gone into the little things.

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Don’t worry, this is still very much a BMW where it is designed to be driven, distilling the best of both its brethren into something more distinctly more characterful. But when you climb behind the wheel and there’s a chance to get acquainted with the interior, a mix of laid-back and leather. Inside you are greeted with cow’s hide that is as soft as a supermodel’s buttocks while the doors pull themselves shut – how fitting.

The test car has power-operated memory seats with the control buttons back from where they were. They’re also heated, ventilated and equipped with adjustable side bolsters and a vibra-massage function. Nice to have, especially with the improved leg and headroom. Not that the old car was lacking. Perhaps we should, for a moment, forget the appearance and get straight with to the driving. Speaking of drive…

What about that iDrive feature, I hear you ask? Initially, one is tempted to ignore it, but it is still very much the heart of the car. When the last generation 7-Series came out, it was the first model to use BMW’s iDrive multi-function interface where the whole iDrive system amounts to more than the controller and screen.

More good thing. iDrive brings a clean and minimalist look to the interior design, a real alternative to the frantic cabins of its rivals. By sweeping so many buttons off the centre console has freed up a whole lot of real estate for extra storage. There’s just so many kit on modern luxury cars to use conventional controls. With iDrive, BMW simply gone a stage further.

Though often criticized for being user-unfriendly, the system has evolved since its release. Now, appropriately, the newest 7-Series and the improved 3-Series will be the first to use an entirely new iDrive controller, which now (finally) features a selection of direct-jump buttons for the most popular functions, as well as a “back” button and a separate one for dropdown menus. The dropdowns themselves are also easier to navigate, making it simple to do such tasks as cancel route guidance. It has simplified the part you touch, while adding the number if functions together with your personalised favorite buttons.

Now you could fiddle the iDrive with that little pressure-sensitive thumbwheels in the steering wheel spokes lets you adjust the songs you store in its multi gigabyte hard-drive and let you scroll through various menus. The navigation system is greatly improved, and now includes real 3D map views showing terrain features, as well as other data thanks to GoogleMaps and BMW ConnectedDrive. You can even access the Internet thanks to BMW’s ConnectedDrive system. Making all of this possible is a new rather luscious 10.2-inch high-resolution colour display screen.

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Used as intended, it’s clear, direct and almost fool-proof. It’s a revelation and anyone could master it in time. But I can’t help thinking that it can be unsafe for some – particularly to the non Apple iPhone, Blackberry legion.. Mainly during the lengthy learning process, when you eyes keep diverting from the road to the large in-dash monitor and it is more complicated than that, mainly because you are trying to nudge, push and twist this chrome-plated mushroom while driving the car, an activity that tends to require a certain amount of attention. Thankfully, starting the engine does not require any form of higher education.

Our initial drive in the flagship 750Li found us pouncing through the countryside of the former East Germany, where it’s still quite common to pass Trabants in traffic. Thanks to reunification, the roads are now the equal of those anywhere else in Germany, and the early-autumn scenery offered an idyllic backdrop for spirited driving. Thankfully, our debutante was up to the task, living up to the aspirations laid out before us in the previous evening’s briefing.

In and around the old city of Dresden, the big saloon glides across cobbled streets with the grace and composure of a world-class figure skater. Every input is met with silent, effortless response. When the road opens up, the 7-Series feels lighter and more agile than its bulk would suggest, carving country roads with ease. Only when the road narrows in the way that only old European roads seem to do, the car feel as wide as it actually is.

BMW engineers have put the car on a serious diet. It has emerged lighter, leaner and a whole lot fitter. Aluminum is the material of choice for all four doors; the front fenders, hood, and roof; as well as numerous mechanical structures like the strut housings and rear axle assembly. The net effect is 55 kilograms saved versus conventional materials. And the body beautiful carries a brain the size of a planet.

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One of the most technically advanced cars ever built, says BMW, and nothing we’ve seen or read so far would give cause to doubt them. With equal vehemence, BMW insists this is a sports limo. But for something that is sporty, technology don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. It has to look the part, and feel the part. It needs soul. Drum machines might be okay for luxury cars, but sports cars need natural rhythm.

Nevertheless, the 7-Series still feels every bit the driver’s car, delivering a tactile driving experience that is tough to trump in this class of saloon. The active steering sends enough feedback to the driver to make him a part of the system, with a proper heft to the wheel at every speed. Brakes are legendary BMW – a firm pedal gives excellent feedback and can always be counted on to do the job.

The new 7-Series is chock full of other electronic driving enhancements as well: Integrated Chassis Management, which modifies throttle response, shifting characteristics, steering response, stability-control response, and damping control based on the driver’s selection of either sport or normal modes; Active Cruise Control; Lane-change warning; front side-view cameras to aid at intersections; active headlights that move not only left and right, but also follow the contours of the road to raise and lower the beams accordingly; and night-vision technology that is able to detect people and raise a warning if you exceed the highway speed limit.

Fifty kilometers in, and it’s the second highway exit: entry point to roads that twist and curl and wind. This is the best test of a car for hundreds of kilometers around. The Beemer passes with an easy shrug. The first thing you notice is the astonishing grip. Apart from Munich’s famed perfect front 50 and rear 50 balance, there are basic geometric reasons: wider tracks, new suspension settings as well as big tyres.

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This chassis features BMW’s first use of a double-wishbone front suspension on a large saloon. Comprised largely of aluminum components, the new suspension setup is intended give this large car the kind of handling long associated with BMWs. The rear suspension is an evolution of the previous generation’s multi-link Integral V design. The bigger news is the availability of what BMW calls Integral Active Steering; everyone else calls it active four-wheel steering. They incorporated an electric motor to tilt the rear wheels and similar to other systems, the 7-series system directs the rear wheels in the opposite direction of the fronts at low speeds to enhance maneuverability for parking, and steers them in the same direction at high speeds for more efficient lane changes.

That aside, the 750Li excels on winding roads – the twistier and bumpier the better. That precise, meet steering relays exactly the right amount of information without ever being garrulous.. The well-balanced solid chassis has high reserves that you can call at any time without being punished in return. Despite its size and weight, the Seven feels almost as light-footed and agile as a 530i.

The 7-Series feels amazingly nimble and light-footed. It is precise and responsive, and it remains entertaining all the way to the limit, which is surprisingly high for something so Airbus. At times, the new 7-Series still drives more like a big car in true BMW way. Compare, for instance, the steering, which was previously a little light and passive. For a profound change of attitude, you need to dial in the sportier suspension setting and the sporty transmission calibration.

The 7-Series is transformed into something far more responsive, more aggressive, and more eager to display its potential. In ‘Sport’ mode if feels beefy and positive, and the car responds more briskly to its commands. In ‘Sport Plus’ position, the previous sluggish transmission reacts to kickdown orders almost before it receives them, when pushed hard it clings on to each gear until the redline beckons, and its throttle action is much quicker. And on their tauter setting, the dampers keep the wheels more firmly on the ground, reading the road in greater detail and with more accuracy.

The car rides well, remaining stable and composed at all times. It holds the road with aplomb, the setup puts the wheels even more firmly in contact with the ground, sharpens the chassis reflexes, and makes the engine shine by providing much quicker throttle response and letting it rev more freely, holding each gear a bit longer. Even with the tires screaming for mercy, the 7-Series remains totally committed and in charge.

The handling all the way to the Dynamic Stability Control-defined limit is incredibly neutral and benign. But be careful. It’s all a bit opaque. The classic warning signals like tyre squeal and body roll are deceptively subdued, so it may be a good idea to reprogram the black box in your head. You’re almost always going faster than you’d think. When the DSC is switched off, the 7-Series is liable to shed its composure and become a much more challenging car. Traction can suddenly be an issue and the rear tends to feel itchy and loose, especially on the wet fallen leaves or a damp and uneven surfaces.

Funny how standards have changed over the last decade. Back in that time, a neat powerslide even in a large car like this was considered the ultimate thrill at the wheel. In this day and age, smoothness, precision and perfect timing are the more important than driving skills. I mean look at what they’ve done to Formula One. But if you insist, the DSC-less BMW will still happily act the smoky power-oversteer performance. But somehow it’s more rewarding to drive the 7-Series fast with all the electronic watchdogs on alert. Ah, modern times.

Corners are fun in the 7-Series, let’s get that clear. The rear steering wheel helps while the straights are much more entertaining, thanks entirely to the opportunities they give you to unleash the very, very wonderful motor that resides behind the mouthy double kidney grille. In an age of automotive sensory recession, I can announce the arrival of one of the world’s greatest engines.

The 750Li powered by a 4.4-liter delivers 407bhp thanks to the unperturbed twin-turbocharger where it performs like a bigger capacity V12. It’s promising on paper, yet somehow greater on the road thanks to a raw, mechanical charisma, effortless enthusiasm and a willingness to go from waft to extreme whoosh at the shortest notice. Plus of course, that warbling mechanical sound. The V8 always seems to have enough power in reserve if you’re not afraid of reaching higher up the rev range.

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Anyone within a hundred meter can be in no doubt aware of its presence. Inside, the warm harmonics are a constant, and wailing according to throttle stimuli, rumbling like thunder on the overrun.

The only drivetrain configuration is a six-speed Steptronic transmission feeding the rear wheels but why is the 750Li not available with the paddleshift that’s standard in the 530i? At least the transmission’s shift points adapt to your driving points and your driving styles. In today’s case, this meant early downshifts, late upshifts and permission to let the engine spin to its 6,400rpm cut-out speed. Obviously.

We’re back on the open road in the speed unrestricted Autobahn, the pre-war section marked by jarred slabs of concrete. Just a shy of 150 kilometers close to destination and we’ve somewhere deep heading close back to Dresden. The prime virtue of a usefully fast car is impeccable stability at speed, when crosswinds and longitudinal grooves want to throw you off the line. The 7-Series does the job. It’s aerodynamically stable in whichever speed it carries. We found a long straights and it hits its top speed within seconds with ease. The spoiler-free body produces very little lift and roll, which is an important safety asset, especially on less than perfect roads, over crests and through dips.

The 7-Series feels totally relaxed, totally in command, totally unimpressed by what the road has store for it. In addiction, it rides rather well, although it doesn’t quite match the cushy Airmatic ride of the S-Class, but it manages to insert a thin but effective cushion between you and the road. This is a true whisperliner that acts as a big moving sound filter. You barely hear intrusions from the road or tyres. You don’t hear much wind noise either in this extremely decibel-sensitive environment. the stereo sounds brilliant and the car-phone has almost the same acoustic quality as a desktop phone while the double glazing glass keeps outside noise and heat away leaving its passengers cocooned inside.

Our drive was distinctly German. After a twisty section of route out from Prague, we then rush back on some very busy Autobahn. Now it’s stop-go traffic all the way in the outer ring road. We kill time pushing buttons, opening and closing the numerous cubbies, playing with the cupholders, turning knobs, fiddling and prodding at switches, making a phone call and trying to make the iDrive select a less jammed alternative route. A minute later, the synthetic voice says she’s sorry, we might better off considering a public transport. Thanks.

Handing back this car really hurts. Like its predecessors, the new 7-Series catches eyes and clings onto them. It remains a top-drawer status symbol. It’s still beautifully put together, with last-forever solidness in every part you touch. The new car is an evolution from where the last one left off. The previous 7-Series may be a blunder, perhaps it was ahead of its time.  Despite its virtues, it was not a case of love at first sight or love at first drive.

Germans will never admit that their product was anything wrong or at fault. Instead they prefer to use pleasant words like revolution to extinguish the critics. It may be a bit difficult to live with but most of its owners have grown and found that it is truly rewarding piece of kit. It has an inspiring chassis that outhandles the competition, a convincing driveline and a beautifully crafted interior. Furthermore it is quick, effortless, roomy and full of clever ideas. They could have selected a less controversial design theme or fitted a less uncompromising iDrive system or a more conservative interior on the old one. They chose to be cleverer than the competition; even this would occasionally mean being too clever for its own good. It believed in Chris Bangle. And its efforts did pay off, in more ways than one.

With the new one, they’ve toned down a little bit and listened to the angry Medias; it looks like they’re playing it safer than Durex this time. It’s a car that works beyond all expectations – an excellent no-excuses effort that, for the first time in a generation, fairly reflects the esoteric appeal that the BMW brand has always had.

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There are a lot of people who could afford a serious business mobile tool and a luxury tourer; now they simply don’t have to. The asking price in Malaysia isn’t settled yet, but RM650-850,000 should see your name on the list – unless you’re listed in the E! Forbes Celebrity 100 hotlist. But with recent global events seem to make this a deeply unfortunate time to be launching a top-end luxury car, but the 7-Series is a car deserves to succeed.

Unlike no other car in its class, the BMW is a compelling blend of sportiness and comfort, power and poise, smoothness and strength by bursting with technology with a dynamic chassis to match. They’ve done the impossible by successfully rolling luxury, sports saloon and grand tourer into one. It represents a whole new chapter for the company and also to the enthusiast on what they could expect in their future BMW car.

High-tech gizmos aside, is it superior to the S-Class? Yes in many ways. It represents a whole different temperament than the chauffeured-driven traditional Benz. The 7-Series is meant to be driven by a director to a business meeting and acts as his personal weekend car. It represents the anti-establishment of the three-pointer stars owners.

Some preferred the cloned Maybach as it feels more bespoke and more of Bentley Continental Flying Spur. No doubt that the 7-Series is competitive enough to go head-to-head with the pricier Maserati Quattroporte or the forthcoming Porsche Panamera. Looks like we just have to wait for BMW Group’s baby Rolls-Royce RR4 to answer our uncertainty.

The 7-Series is the best all rounder, such a pleasure to be in, exploring its clever features and discovering its ample abilities. The next few months will be an interesting time for peddlers of luxury goods, but for those who still have the means to indulge, the new 7-series is certainly an attractive option, combining progressive design with advanced technology. If the S-Class is classic luxury and the 7-Series alternative luxury. And that makes it worth thinking about.

It rewrites the rules by breaking new ground and we are convinced that they have created what will soon be widely accepted as the undisputed leader of the pack. It’s the sportiest and most overly dynamic executive express in the segment and will make its debut here next month and we’re convinced they have a winner.

text & pix: Ned Aznir

BMW 730d
Engine: 2979cc in-line six, turbodiesel
Horsepower: 245bhp at 4000rpm
Torque: 540Nm at 3000rpm
Transmission: 6-Speed automatic with Steptronic
Layout: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive
Weight: 1940 kilograms
Acceleration: 0-100km/h, 7.2 seconds
Max speed: 245 km/h
Fuel consumption: 7.2 liter/100 km on average

BMW 740Li
Engine: 2979cc in-line six, twin turbo
Horsepower: 326bhp at 5800rpm
Torque: 450Nm at 4500rpm
Transmission: 6-Speed automatic with Steptronic
Layout: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive
Weight: 1970 kilograms
Acceleration: 0-100km/h, 5.9 seconds
Max speed: 250 km/h, electronically limited
Fuel consumption: 9.9 liter/100 km on average

BMW 750Li
Engine: 4395cc V8, twin turbo
Horsepower: 407bhp at 6400rpm
Torque: 600Nm at 4500rpm
Transmission: 6-Speed automatic with Steptronic
Layout: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive
Weight: 2055 kilograms
Acceleration: 0-100km/h, 5.2 seconds
Max speed: 250 km/h, electronically limited
Fuel consumption: 11.4 liter/100 km on average

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