Overall rating: 4.5/5
BMW's new flagship saloon has taken a leaf from the BMW i brand book and utilised its carbon fibre know-how to make a lighter and more advanced car. Luxury will of course remain one of the core principles, but driving it proves every bit as engaging.
In the Metal:
The light camouflage does little to hide the fact that the new BMW 7 Series will feature a much leaner exterior design than ever before. In what appears to be an evolution of the existing model, the new car's headlights will join up with the signature kidney grille design in a similar fashion to the current BMW X5. The bonnet is contoured more sharply though, as are the car's flanks, which now look more taut. Around the tail of the car any hint of superfluity has been removed while the under-bumper diffuser incorporates two exhaust outlets.
It is under the skin of the new flagship saloon where some of the really interesting details lie. Through experience gained in its use of carbon fibre technologies in both the BMW i3 and i8, engineers have been able to use the lightweight yet strong material in some core elements of the car's construction. Structural elements such as the roofline, B-pillar, sills and some of the transmission tunnel have been constructed using carbon in a number of different ways. Not only does this make the body shell stiffer in torsion it significantly helps to lower the car's centre of gravity, which was a key target in retaining the focus as a driver's car. Some 40kg has been shaved off the weight of the shell and in total the overall reduction is 130kg, which has helped BMW stay true to its philosophy of 50:50 weight distribution.
Inside the spacious cabin is a whole new dashboard and centre console layout, although much of this remained hidden away from our eyes underneath covers in the prototype, leaving just the gear and the Driving Experience Control selectors exposed. A functioning mock-up of the car's dashboard gave a clue as to some of the other features. These include touch-sensitive slider controls to adjust the air vents up front. Other items such as the heated seats and temperature control are adjusted via a smaller touchscreen located lower down.
The iDrive infotainment system has been given an overhaul too gaining a new look and improved user interface. Menus now show a preview of the next screen as you scroll through them and for the first time the main display screen is touch sensitive. Not only does it react as your move your hand towards it, you can also pinch and zoom in maps just like on your smartphone.
The range of engines offered in the 7 Series will include a new 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder petrol unit featuring BMW's TwinPower turbocharging technology. Updates to the eight-speed Steptronic automatic transmission have also been made to further enhance the driving experience.
Speaking of driving, the degree to which BMW has been able to make this sizeable saloon handle is to be commended. On the comfort side of things, using an updated version of the Driving Experience Control and selecting the Comfort+ setting evens out the most broken of tarmac, even on 19-inch wheels. Previously, changing between driving modes using this system had to be done manually, but now the car notices any change in driving style and adapts accordingly.
Its agility has been enhanced further by the adoption of Integral Active Steering (as experienced in the updated BMW 6 Series recently), which turns the rear wheels by up to three degrees in the opposite direction to that of the front in order to increase its manoeuvrability. At lower speeds the rear wheels steer in the opposite direction to the front giving the car sharper turn-in. At higher speeds this active steering works in the other direction, slightly turning the rear wheels in the same direction as the fronts to give the car greater stability, particularly when changing lanes for example. The net result is a car that feels smaller than it physically is.
Other driver aids include the option of a more advanced version of BMW's Driver Assist Plus. This system has now separated the active cruise control and lane departure warning assistant functions enabling them to work independently of each other. Active cruise control uses an advanced radar system to keep a safe distance to the car in front and can react to changes in speed, even bringing the car to a complete halt in a traffic jam before pulling away again. Previously, a directional control assist system was capable of keeping the vehicle in its lane when driving on a motorway. Thanks to a new stereo camera system, this has now been advanced to work on smaller roads that may feature less clearly defined markings. As the driver you are still required to keep at least one hand in contact with the steering wheel, but the car can now actively steer in a far greater number of scenarios. It isn't autonomous driving in the true sense of the word but it does bring it one step closer.
What you get for your Money:
As you would expect, a flagship saloon such as the BMW 7 Series won't be cheap. Irish pricing and specifications for the production version have yet to be confirmed but we do know that the self-levelling air suspension will come fitted as standard to all models.
In-car technology is set to take another step forward in the 7 Series with BMW introducing gesture control. Via a 3D sensor located above the centre console a number of functions can be carried out by using pre-defined hand movements. Turning up or down the volume can be done by simply rotating your index finger whilst deciding to accept or reject an incoming call can be done by a simple wave of the hand.
One other innovation that will feature in the next 7 Series, although not immediately from launch, will be BMW's remote control parking, ideal for those extra tight car park spaces. It can be done by first driving towards the space, positioning the car no more than 10 degrees offline. You can then exit the vehicle and use the new BMW Display Key (like the one demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show), which is then used to instruct the car to enter the parking space. Upon returning to the car the driver can remotely start the car and instruct it to reverse back out of the space.
From the extensive use of carbon fibre and other lightweight materials to the advanced driver and infotainment systems the next BMW 7 Series will clearly be a genuine technical tour de force. Crucially it seems to have struck the right balance of making a multitude of electronic assistance systems work at enhancing the driving experience rather without taking away any of the involvement for the driver. We look forward to reviewing the finished article later in the year.