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CAPE TOWN – The BMW 7 Series has for too long played second fiddle to Mercedes-Benz's S-Class in the highest end of the luxury grand saloon echelon. But the latest iteration of the BMW 730Ld will pose some serious questions of that long-accepted stance...  

Low-key limousine

If ever there were a candidate for the mandatory issue of a coronavirus-fighting face mask, the 7 Series, with its vast nostrils, is probably it. But that’s probably the sole criticism one can level at the aesthetic execution of BMW’s halo model. Despite accommodating a 3 210 mm wheelbase in a vast 5 260 mm frame, the 730Ld doesn’t look ungainly; rather elongate and athletic for a car of its particular station. Even those 20-inch alloys and swathes of satin chrome garnish are pleasingly executed and conspire to make the 730Ld appear both imposing and tastefully restrained; a trait that will no doubt endear itself to those of greater means wishing to waft along in sprawled-out luxury without attracting too much unwanted attention.

Business class cabin

Much like the exterior treatment, the 730Ld’s cabin is a luxurious but tastefully executed affair. Granted, the tan-nearing-pumpkin finish on the seats isn't to all tastes but the rest, from the vast acreage of stitched leather to the solid fixtures and subtle chrome banding, is classily done. What’s especially evident is the standard of the materials, fit and finish on display here; while the S-Class is largely seen as the standard against which large luxury sedans are set, it has to be said that perceived quality has slipped behind both Audi and BMW.

The car we sampled was outfitted with the R16 900 Executive lounge package, which ushers in a pair of independently adjustable rear seats divided by a centre console housing a seven-inch Android tablet, optional rear climate control panel and a host of charging points and drinks holders. It’s also an arrangement that affords rear occupants a sinew-stretching 819 mm of legroom, along with an electrically retractable footrest on the front passenger side. All of this while being kneaded and ventilated by the seats and taking in whatever entertainment can be streamed via the adjustable 10-inch TFT infotainment screens.

Things are similarly pleasing up front, with wonderfully supportive seats and a driving stance that’s eminently tailorable. 

The only aspects that disappoint somewhat are a boot that, although deep, is decidedly shallow and an infotainment interface that’s been somewhat over-egged; presenting you with the superfluous options of pressing at a touchscreen, playing with the iDrive dial, or throwing a number of questionable hand gestures to skip audio tracks or answer the phone.

Economy-class thirst, first-class performance

Say what you will of the juxtaposition of rolling gin palace and diesel powerplant, but the 730Ld’s 3,0-litre inline-six is an absolutely sublime motor, and an impressively frugal one, too. On our 100 km mixed-use fuel run the 730Ld returned a remarkable 6,7 L/100 km. And while it might not have the petrol V8’s velvety soundtrack – at least externally, as its vocals are muted to a distant, gentle growl in the cabin – this engine is no slouch. With its 195 kW, a hearty 620 N.m of peak torque arriving in a 2 000-2 500 r/min spike and impressive off-the-line traction, this unit managed to propel the 2 070 kg luxury sedan from 0-100 km/h in a hot hatch-shaming 6,56 seconds.

The driving experience is pure BMW, albeit on a grander scale. The steering is light but direct and responsive and the configurable air-suspension system means body control is taut but not unsettling. The ever-contentious subject of ride quality is a tough one to accurately gauge without driving the 7 back-to-back with its equivalent S-Class, but it’s fair to say only a princess and the pea-honed posterior would be able to ascertain whether the ride is ever so slightly firmer than the S’s. Even when rolling on relatively thin 40/35 fore-to-aft profile tyres it does the serene wafting thing with aplomb. In overall dynamic regards, though, the 7 feels appreciably more poised than the big Mercedes.

Cars such as the 7 Series are at best divisive. Their association with the well-heeled, high-end hotels and the politically connected does little to endear, while the majority of folks look at cars costing as much as a small house with little more than a spot of disdain.

Batting aside such easily reached conclusions, however, it becomes clear the 7 Series is a deeply impressive offering. While we were enamored with the petrol-engined model, the diesel does sterling service here, being not only refined but surprisingly punchy and frugal. The interior’s opulence – an all-important aspect of these cars – is impressive enough that the otherwise standard-setting S has to concede some ground.

It’s also a deeply satisfying thing to pilot, possessing just enough poise and punch to entertain (obviously when said celebrities have vacated their thrones in the rear) and ride quality that’s close enough to the S’s to render such comparisons as largely subjective.

It’s an impressive showing from BMW here, albeit one so low-key that it may undeservedly go unnoticed.
FARO, PortugalA status symbol, by definition, is a luxury item or possession purchased with the intention of denoting one’s social position or standing, as well as financial footing. A common theme among such symbols is the prominence within the packaging of the identifying label of the upmarket brand responsible for its existence. In most cases, the larger and shinier the logo, the better.   

That the roundel positioned above a 40 percent larger kidney grille on the updated BMW 7 Series has increased in its diameter by 13 mm to become the largest of its kind in the Munich-based manufacturer’s history is its maker's answer to a predominantly Chinese-based segment customer base (accounting for 44 percent of 7 Series sales in 2018) requesting ever grander levels of status and presence from their mobile trophies.

With BMW engineers freely admitting the larger grille – housed within a 50 mm taller nose – offers little added benefit in terms of increased performance or air flow through to the engine bay, it’s to the brand’s credit that the notable nose job has had minimal impact on the vehicle’s overall drag coefficient and, crucially, its model-for-model levels of efficiency.

While laser light-accommodating slimmer headlamp units offer a relatively successful counter to the enlarged grille, their shape also brings the updated 7’s front-end styling in line with this luxury sedan’s freshly launched X7 sibling. Offered in either Base, Design Pure Excellence or M Sport packaging, it’s the latter styling upgrade’s more imposing air intakes and sporty finishes that best complement the new nose, the (R5 100) middle option adding mainly chrome accents and colour-coded plastics.

While new 90-degree side outlets and standard 19-inch alloys on the Excellence package do an admirable job of accommodating the 5 260 mm-long profile of the updated long-wheelbase 7 Series (the only versions that will launch in South Africa in May), new slim taillamps linked via a fashionable LED light strip help to rein in the vehicle’s unaltered 1 902 mm-wide stance.

With a wheelbase that’s been stretched by 140 mm compared with the outgoing model, the most notable area of corresponding increased comfort within the updated car’s cabin is at the rear. It’s also here where BMW’s reconsidered attention to detail and use of materials is most obvious. From the plushness of even the standard Dakota leather upholstery (upgradable through Nappa to Merino finishes) to the feel of an Alcantara headliner and solid wood trim bits, the 7 Series remains very much the pinnacle of BMW luxury.

Before my stint behind the wheel of the 750Li, I spent an extended amount of travel time in the rear. With legroom in abundance and the ability to either heat or cool my electrically adjustable individual seat, I noted a still relatively tall default seating position. A consequence of this platform’s packaging potential (including accommodating a 745Le plugin hybrid derivative), I found this raised position favourable as it afforded me clear sight of the road ahead – undoubtedly helping to stave off the onset of motion sickness. If, however, there was one criticism in this regard it’s the fact the shaking motion of the unoccupied passenger seat’s backrest ahead of me created an unwelcome extra element within my peripheral (as first-world problems go).

While South Africans will have the option of five derivatives at launch (two rear-wheel-drives and three xDrive models), it’s the 750Li xDrive that’s likely to fulfil most orders. Here, the heavily reworked turbocharged V8 engine (complete with new crankcase and upgraded software) delivers an additional 60 kW of power and 100 N.m of torque compared with the previous 750Li, to all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. This newfound 390 kW and 750 N.m of torque is able to propel this 2 075 kg Bavarian limousine from standstill to 100 km/h in a scarcely believable 4,1 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 250 km/h.

On a splendidly twisty test route that would have been perfectly suited an M2 Competition, the stretched 750Li showed quite remarkable poise and balance as its integrated systems (including an optional Executive Drive Pro anti-roll system) fought to counter the potentially negative effects of so much weight being shifted from one plane to the next. With a front-end offering more grip than any vehicle in this segment ought to (certainly while an owner is trying to read a newspaper in the back), a heavy prod on the throttle mid-corner calls BMW’s brilliant xDrive all-wheel-drive system into action to transfer as much torque as is necessary between the front and rear axles for optimal traction, and a resultant slingshot action towards the horizon.  

And yet, while in true BMW style the 750Li is easily the best handling long-wheelbase limousine in the world, it’s on the open road where it ultimately needs to excel. Here, while resisting the urge to play around with any number of new infotainment technologies – including giving up on trying to get the new “Hey BMW” voice-activated personal assistant to understand my accent – I instead focussed on enjoying one of the quietest cabins I ever experienced. I don’t think I’ve ever heard rain drops so crisply making contact with a windshield as I did from an interior cocooned from the outside world via 5,1 mm thick glass all around.

I’ll wait until sampling this 7 on more familiar roads before making a final judgement on the car’s overall ride quality, but one thing to mention – and it pertains to other vehicles in this segment as well – is that there is an inherent danger with cars this clever that one system (standard or optional) designed to smooth out the road ahead ultimately ends up competing against other systems with a similar mandate. The result is potentially a ride quality that can at times feel ever-so-slightly fidgety and ultimately overly assisted where a more traditional (read less complicated) suspension setup might actually suffice.  

Like with the shaking passenger seat backrest, however, these are observations that might sound trivial a potential 750Li xDrive owner and, indeed, nit-picky. In the grander scheme of things, short of including the brand’s new crystal transmission lever (it simply doesn’t fit into the 7s relatively dated packaging), BMW will see its updated 7 Series as a triumph, not only in terms of delivering an altogether bolder, more stately shape to an ever-demanding audience but also for using the occasion of a mid-life model refresh to further enhance the functional and emotional appeal of its flagship model.

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