BMW was ahead of its time when it stunned show goers at the 2001 Frankfurt Motor Show with the revealing of the radical fourth generation 7-series. In spite of the motoring media's best efforts this car has gone on to be the best selling 7-series to date with a significant 8% increase in sales over the previous model. In the UK, the 7-series takes 20% of its market segment, against 40% for the sales leading Jaguar XJ
. BMW hopes to consolidate that position with the revised model tested here in preparation for the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz S-class replacement.
The changes to the revised BMW 7-series, though myriad, are subtle. Even trained spotters will struggle to notice any major changes to the sheet metal, though BMW claims that no exterior panel has been retained. Most noticeable are the 'happier' looking headlights. They flank a wider kidney grille and behind that is a slightly larger bonnet incorporating a sportier power bulge. The front bumper has been redesigned too, to complement the newly creased flanks - in an attempt to hide the vertical visual bulk no doubt. At the rear is another new bumper, with more subtle changes to the tapered boot lid and the replacement of the dodgy red strip between the lights with a much classier chrome item. Other than the option of three new alloy wheel designs, that's your lot.
Inside, there are even less changes. Apparently the steering wheel has been reshaped for greater tactility, but we are pretty sure it is still round, and yes it does feel rather nice to hold, though would scare away a technophobe with its plethora of buttons. Speaking of which, the much-maligned I-drive system has had some changes to the menu layout and the addition of extra buttons in an attempt to make it easier to use. As we've said before, if you own this car you will soon get used to it. Either way, we have no problems with the system. Adding more tactility to the I-drive dial is a new leather insert. Elsewhere there is slightly more chrome; the car is also now fully compatible with MP3 and digital television technology.
Details aside, the largest changes to the 7-series concern the range itself. Most engines have seen improvements, or replacing with larger versions. Entry to the 7-series club doesn't come cheap, at £48,925 for the most basic 730i, but all models are well equipped and utterly capable so you are unlikely to feel shortchanged. In brief, the 735i has been replaced by a 740i and the 745i by a 750i. The range-topping V12-engined 760i is relatively unchanged. In Britain, 60% of 7-series sales are of the 730d, which has had a significant upgrade. For an unexplained reason there are no plans to build a 735d (utilising the twin-turbo engine we tested in the incredible 535d
). The rest of Europe receives a range topping 745d, but a right-hand drive version will not be made.
Of the cars available at launch, we sampled a 760Li, a 730d (the long wheelbase version of the 730d arrives later in the year) and we also had a bit of fun on an old airfield in a 745i Security Car. First up was the top of the range 760Li. At most car launches, the journalists are keen to jump into the driver's seat and get going, but BMW had kindly supplied chauffeurs for the first 15 miles or so, giving us a chance to sample life as the other half live... There is an acre of room in the back of the long-wheelbase version, and fit and finish were superb. Our car was fitted with a rear screen on which DVDs can be played. The screen itself is quite small, but the sound quality was very impressive, certainly loud enough to drown out a boring conference call. Apparently, most buyers of the 7-series like to drive for themselves, so I was quite eager to take the wheel.
The first thing I did was to check the setting of the electronically controlled dampers. The ride was not uncomfortable, but as I suspected, the Sport setting was selected, allowing more of the road's imperfections through to the cabin. The test route through Oxfordshire allowed me to try both settings quite extensively and as we found on the 735i
we tested last year, the system works very well. However, getting into the (admittedly lighter) 730d later on, I was more impressed by the all-round ability of the standard suspension. Bump absorption is first-rate (better than Jaguar's XJ), yet body roll is contained enough to make the 7-series fun to push. Understandably, there is little feedback through the steering, but it is direct and well weighted.
There is little aural difference between the 730d and 760i. At a cruise, neither engine is audible, and wind noise is kept to a minimum. The suppression of road noise is quite remarkable given the size of the rubber fitted too. Putting your foot down in the V12 car is undoubtedly the more rewarding experience, with a restrain, but evocative noise emitted, accompanied by a seriously quick turn of speed. The benchmark 0-62mph time is an entirely credible 5.6 seconds, though in-gear acceleration is this engine's strong point, allowing fuss-free overtaking or sustained high-speed driving. The 730d's engine is no less impressive, and perhaps even more so given its fuel of choice. It is a torquey unit, with little revs ever needed, though when it is revved it retains its refinement.
An unexpected part of the launch was the chance to drive the 7-series back to back with a Security Car version, as produced by BMW in-house, for those of you that need that little more security than side impact beams and airbags. The heavens opened as we arrived at an old airfield. On the runway was a complicated looking layout of traffic cones. The short test involved following the instructor (in a 3-litre X3) through the course twice, followed by a 180-degree turn to drive back down the runway at high speed. I first of all drove a 760i, and as much fun as it would have been, I opted to leave the traction control turned on. Keeping up with the supposedly more agile, but less powerful X3 was an eye-opener in itself. With the suspension set to Sport, the 7 flowed from apex to apex, allowing the rear to slide a little before intervening, but allowing the power to come back on quickly.
Approaching the High Security version, there are few clues to its role in life, but you soon get the idea when you try to open one of the doors; you'll need muscular minders just to take their weight, stuffed as they are with armour, and packing thick panes of bullet-resistant glass. There are a few other clues inside. Apparently the car tested was about a tonne heavier than the regular 760i. It felt it too. Acceleration was distinctly stunted, and the car rolled around a lot more too. Cornering speeds were still impressive, with more rear end slip allowed for some reason, but it was not possible to stick to the tail of the X3 this time.
As fun as this exercise was, I don't think it did the High Security car justice, as the standard car is so much better. However, the standard car wouldn't be much good in an assassination attempt, and its performance and handling should compare favourably with other such specialised vehicles.
It was a joy to get back into the 730d for the remainder of the day. To be honest, we can't see why you'd bother with any other model in the range. Sure, it still sounds like a diesel, well from outside the car it does anyway, but its abilities are unquestioned, performance included. Is this the new face of luxury car ownership?