MARSEILLE, France – Secrecy is the watchword at the Miramas test track. This is clearly a different type of launch; engineers are under strict instructions to only disclose particular titbits of information about the 7 Series, which is not in production yet. The technical presenter was even obscuring the smart key from prying eyes like a seasoned poker player. As he walked up to the single garage the 740Li autonomously and slowly reversed out of the narrow opening – all by itself. After pressing another button on the fob the car stopped. To prove the authenticity of what we witnessed the engineer sent another command to the vehicle via the fob and the BMW slowly returned to the garage where it had been parked. No, this is not a scene from a James Bond film – just one of the new futuristic options you can expect in the new Seven.
Given the accomplishments of the contemporary Mercedes-Benz S-Class there was a lot of pressure on BMW to develop a benchmark new 7 Series. Not only does the Seven need to raise the bar as a technological tour de force for the Bavarian firm but it needs to take the fight to one of the finest grand saloons on the market. By allowing us to get up close and personal with the camouflaged prototypes, BMW has sent out a strong message: the technological battle is stacked in the Munich brand’s favour.
When I approached the 740Li to conduct my initial driving evaluation, it was difficult to get a sense of the saloon’s shape (the camouflage cladding certainly did its job). It appears “BMW generic ” with little in the way of extra body creases or unique styling features, but the nose definitely slopes more towards the famous kidney grille than before. We will reserve final judgement until the wrapping comes off. The size of the Seven is imposing in Limousine specification and this resulted in generous legroom for the rear occupants. Judging by the wide suspension turrets, the boot is deep, but narrow.
The dash, infotainment screens, and even the door panels were covered in dark blanket-type material (in keeping with BMW’s “you-are-not-allow-to-see” strategy). At least we got to play with the new touchscreen infotainment system that features gesture control and virtual instrument cluster in a mock-up model during one of the earlier technical workshops. This is a huge step up on the previous generation’s, but still combines the iDrive controller with touch pad to keep traditionalists happy. The climate-control screen is all-new and controlled by a combination of touch inputs and buttons. If you were wondering, yes, it has a button with a perfume bottle icon on it.
Does the gesture control work? Well, the engineer who demonstrated the system was well practiced, but I could change the volume setting by drawing circles in the air (direction of rotation determine louder or softer), but struggled with a good-natured two-finger salute to switch off the information screen. The swipe of the hand to kill an incoming call is a very useful/appropriate gesture when monster-in-law’s ringing you.
This evaluation marked the first time I experienced BMW’s latest generation 3,0-litre turbopetrol powerplant. It forms part of the new, modular engine range that includes the 1,5-litre, three-cylinder and 2,0-litre, four cylinder turbopetrol units. No performance figures are available at this stage. At idle the engine note was barely audible in the well-insulated cabin; I only got to hear the straight six wail a bit later.
First up was the evaluation of the Seven’s Comfort Plus, Comfort and Sport suspension modes on the test track, which has a variable road-surface quality. The new 7 Series also includes, inter alia, an Adaptive mode that dynamically adjusts the grand saloon’s damper settings according to the driver’s driving style. For the record, in Comfort Plus mode, the BMW’s standard air suspension delivered as cosseting a ride as I remember from its Stuttgart competitor and glided over any undulations. BMW employs a 3D camera to scan the road for major obstacles (such as speed bumps) and alters the suspension accordingly. My instructor assured me no “magic” was involved, however.
When we drove on the high-speed circuit, we got a chance to experience the BMW’s adaptive cruise control and lane-departure assist systems (which are now completely independent). Although they’re not new by industry standards, BMW took the systems to the next level. For example: if the driver passes a speed restriction sign while using adaptive cruise control, they can accept the new limit by pressing the speed up- or down button on the steering wheel; the vehicle will adjust its speed accordingly.
The lane-departure assist is now much more than a warning system – it can steer the vehicle precisely between lane markings as longs as the driver’s hands are touching the steering wheel. It felt strange to experience the system in action, but I soon became familiar with it and realised the function could aid relaxation on long distance journeys. The last party-trick of the system is to counter your steering operation during a lane change if a vehicle is detected in the blind spot. BMW made it clear that the driver is always in charge and can overrule the system at any point.
The final evaluation involved the handling track. Grand saloons are not renowned for their wieldiness, but I am not one to shy away from having fun behind the wheel… Sport mode was selected and the full vocal range of the 740 Li’s 3,0-litre engine was called upon. Power was available from low r/min and the gearshifts were rapid enough for the application. The slalom sections and lane change on the track showed that the BMW’s body roll could be held in check. Sport also resulted in a weightier steering feel.
The optional four-wheel-steer system made the vehicle feel more agile than expected and it was easy to place. When the engineer in the passenger seat kept quiet during some hard cornering on the previous lap I threw courtesy to the wind and attracted the last lap as if the fortunes of the stock market depended on it. The day ended with a big smile on my (and the engineer’s) face and the vehicle proved that it is has surfeit sporty potential.
In summary, the new 7 Series seems to offer the technical firepower to take the fight to the Three Pointed Star, but we will only be able to access the “sense of occasion” attribute when we evaluate the final product that will be launched later this year.
For a full technical insight get your hands on the June issue of CAR magazine.