Typically when a BMW 7 Series features on PistonHeads it's a Shed Seven, a worthy and popular old E38 that has just sneaked in under £1,000. Still look rather classy, don't they? But this new car is a really significant model for both BMW and PH, not just those looking for a bargain barge a few years from now.
It's a sharper looking 7 than before
This new G11 - yes, we're onto G numbers now - is not only tasked with replacing a fairly ordinary predecessor, but it must also introduce a raft of technology that will eventually make its way to the more mainstream cars. It's easy to forget in this world of BMW SUVs, MPVs and crossovers that the 7 Series is the flagship, the pioneering model that we can look to for a glimpse into the future 5 Series, 3 Series and so on. Finally, from a PH perspective, the traditional saloons and coupes are surely what drew so many fans to the brand, and a class-leading 7 Series will make many people very happy. Nobody loves BMW for the X5, right?
The 7 Series experience begins in the back, of course. A brief passenger ride from airport to yacht - natch - aims to replicate the typical journey of a 7 Series owner. They aren't likely to drive it, a point we will return to. The rear of the 7 Series is sumptuous, the combination of soft leather, rich wood and cool metals combining to create a really luxurious environment as soon as bum touches seat. There's acres of space in the long-wheelbase car, beautifully crisp displays and an expensive feel to every surface and control. An optional 'Heat Package' means even the armrest is warm. For feel-good opulence there can surely be little better this side of Rolls Royce.
This is the seat you want
On French autoroutes the refinement is sublime, wind and engine noise kept to an absolute minimum while you get comfortable with one of eight massages and a headrest like a pillow. It turns out a bird is swallowed up by the grille and nobody notices; it's that well insulated. A quick comparison reveals the 19-inch wheels certainly improve the ride over the optional 20s at lower speeds but both are suitably plush at motorway speeds. Air suspension is now standard at both axles on every model, the test cars no doubt assisted on the comfort front by the fitment of 'Executive Drive Pro'. A £2,450 option, it works with the air suspension and variable dampers to theoretically provide the best comfort or control where required. The active roll stabilisation is now electromechanical, with the anti-roll bars slackened off in a straight line to provide maximum comfort. But an 'anticipatory chassis control function' uses data from the nav to know when to firm things back up again. Clever.
BMW claims 25 new technological innovations for the new 7 Series, with 13 industry firsts. They vary from the surprise and delight to the incredibly useful, with presumably little hope for the earnest Shedman to remedy in 20 years time. Whatever, it's important to note the technology and engineering that can not be seen before becoming too carried away with that which you can. The 7 Series is now up to 130kg lighter than before thanks to a construction that uses a lot of carbon reinforced plastic - tech of course seen on the i8 - with aluminium for the bonnet, roof and bonnet. The centre of gravity is lowered, the balance is still 50:50 and the unsprung weight is said to have been reduced by 15 per cent; all of these lend, well, weight to BMW's assertion that the 7 Series remains "unashamedly a driver's car."
Adaptive dampers and air suspension standard
To the fancy stuff. 'Gesture Control' is a real highlight, allowing calls to be dismissed, the navigation display to be pinched and grabbed plus the volume adjusted with a series of set hand movements. And no, it won't accept any rude ones... In our brief experience it worked extremely well. The 'Touch Command' Samsung tablet opens up a whole world of apps and media from the rear seat to the pair of 10.2-inch displays, is removable from the car and integrates very nicely into the Executive Lounge rear console thank you very much. Who wants a middle-seat passenger anyway? They would probably only interrupt your Vitality Programme massage, allowing passengers "to engage in active training to revitalise the body on longer journeys." That's before the standard Wi-Fi is mentioned, the staggering array of parking cameras or the Welcome Light Carpet, using LEDS in the side skirts to bathe the car's perimeter in light when it's dark. It's said to be modelled on a dragonfly. Finally, a mention for the Sky Lounge Panoramic roof, a feast of glass and LEDs to replicate a starry sky. Bet the engineers who worked on lowering the CoG will really appreciate that...
So then, to actually driving the 7 Series. Unlocked with the new Display Key - don't drop it, a replacement is £230 - marvel at the huge new head-up display and away you go in almost complete silence.
'Carbon core' means 130kg saving
As the likely best-seller, all the launch cars are 730ds. BMW is very keen to point out in the tech briefing how much cleaner and faster the 7 is than an S-Class, with no mention of any rivals from Jaguar and Audi. With 265hp it isn't imperiously fast, but the 457lb ft ensures the 730d never feels overawed. Throughout, the straight-six remains supremely smooth and the gearbox a perfect partner.
But more importantly, any mention of power and dynamics comes towards the end of the press conference, comfortably behind the push for wellbeing, the range of assistance features and the Ambient Air Package. Despite BMW's claims it's a secondary concern, one that's borne out on the road. It's easily capable enough and utterly benign, but a drive on the Route Napoleon should never be so forgettable. The steering is disconcertingly light and the whole car feels aloof, the various Driver Performance Control switch modes appearing to do little but make the throttle mushier or sharper. The most fun we have is chasing an impeccably driven Swift Sport down the hill.
Stunningly competent but a little aloof
And here's the 7 Series quandary. As a passenger experience it is second to none, one that fulfils BMW's desire to 'create an inspiring mode of luxury transport'. But without much in terms of driver engagement, is the 7 Series not left rather without a USP? The Mercedes S-Class has forged a reputation for offering ultimate opulence and comfort, one that's reflected in its ongoing popularity. The Audi A8 offers complete anonymity and minimalist style, with the Jaguar XJ remaining as a less accommodating but more rewarding choice.
That the 7 Series was more enjoyable from the rear seat than the front is probably how it should be for a luxury saloon in 2015. BMW says the majority of sales are now likely to be long-wheelbase for the first time, indicating how these cars are used. It's now more efficient and more technologically advanced than ever too, which will surely impress the right people. As a luxury device it's a fine achievement, but as a BMW the 7 Series leaves something to be desired.
Engine: 2,993cc, in-line six, diesel
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 265@4,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 457@2,000-2,500rpm
0-62mph: 6.1sec (6.2)
Top Speed: 155mph (limited)
MPG: 60.1 (58.9)
CO2: 124g/km (127g/km)
Price: £64,530 (£67,400)
[Figures in brackets for long-wheelbase car]