FROM RUSSIA WITH ... LEGROOM
PH samples a taste of Russian car culture from the security of the revised BMW 7 Series
a thousand YouTube videos, is apparently the motoring equivalent of the Wild West. The irony, I know. Can it possibly be true? Russia also offers such extremes of wealth and taste. A heady mixture, potentially.
BMW is certainly playing the money = power card. Not only is it using the Heathrow by Invitation service for the connecting flight to Germany (don't fret, I'm sure it got a good rate, it supplies the on-airport 7 Series 'shuttle buses'), the trip is bookended by exclusive, out of hours access to two of Saint Petersburg's most famous tourist attractions. The Hermitage and Catherine's Palace are opening their doors early and late, respectively, just because.
This is the first significant international car launch I'm aware of that has ever taken place here. For the 7 Series it makes sense, as the consistent growth in Russia's appetite for luxury goods makes this an important market for BMW. Changes to the car are modest visually, but significant under the skin. More power, greater efficiency is by now the usual jazz, but responding to criticism about the ride quality, BMW has thoroughly overhauled the chassis, swapping bushes, dampers - even top mounts - and fitting air suspension as standard at the rear.
Leaving Saint Petersburg airport we're whisked out into the evening rush hour traffic. It is perhaps foolish, but I wasn't expecting the automotive landscape to be so extensively familiar. In fact, compared to your average European metropolitan area only the Cyrillic script and the disproportionate number of Ladas is genuinely jarring. For no properly conceived reason, this very familiarity seems weird.
It's not just Ladas, actually - there are big old Volgas as well. It dawns on me that these cars mostly occupy the road space taken up by timeworn examples of everyday vehicles back home. The majority are battered, driven by the young, or the old - they are the cheap secondhand car market in Russia, because there is little alternative. Hyundai, Kia and Dacia are their newer counterparts here, as elsewhere, although the latter is badged Renault.
It's raining. The traffic is heavy, seething. The roads quite literally being dug up around us. There are electric buses and there are trams. And a lot of SUVs.
The next morning we're dispatched on our own, hands at the wheel of the new and improved 750i. Still a V8 - thankfully - this now has 449hp (10 per cent up) and yet officially records just 199g/km CO2 (25 per cent down). We've been warned not to leave the car unattended at any point, and that the sat-nav is unreliable due to the rapid and rabid road construction. It's picture books and concentration to make sure we spot the correct Cyrillic turnings.
Our route takes us from the Hermitage to Park M (one of only two exclusively BMW M dealerships in the world...) and then out into the country, where we encounter trucks and so much traffic. In the Saint Petersburg region Russia is on the move - where are all these people going? The landscape is like Europe writ large, so therefore also strangely American. But perhaps this is just a trait of every massive county. The police are a constant roadside presence, in gnarly Ladas mostly. And again with the SUVs - I see more Hummers in a day than I have in my entire life before.
In an environment where he who hath the biggest car maketh the most progress, the 750i is a dream. This engine is fantastic. Shouldering two tonnes, it is as utterly decisive as you need when two-lane roads are commonly host to four. Not sure the surfacing makes this the best place to show off the revised ride quality, though. Bumpy is the kindest word.
On the other hand, the way the 7 responds so immediately to steering inputs is an asset when the next near miss is only moments away. We manage to stay clear of trouble - police a cooling balm - but see some sights in the process. I begin to eye the multiple Mercedes G500s with appreciation. Big power, brutish looks and battering ram build quality are attributes of desire in these parts. The BMW has a fair helping of them, too.
That night I lie awake in my hotel room, listening to what sounds like street racing in the distance, and it occurs to me that instead of getting more conventional, my automotive experience of Saint Petersburg has only got stranger. Today I've spotted rally-inspired Samaras, airbrush art on an X6 and a whole bunch of average commuters mixed in with a significant (and very obvious) minority who drive like absolute mentalists. And for once none of these was a journalist.
Engine: 4,395cc V8 TwinPower Turbo
Torque: 479lb ft@2,000 - 4,500rpm
0-62mph: 4.8 sec
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 2,015kg (EU)
Price: £71,340 (basic list)