2016 BMW 7-series at a glance
- Handling: ★★★★☆
- Comfort: ★★★☆☆
- Performance: ★★★★☆
- Costs: ★★★★☆
AN ARMS race is raging between makers of big cars. Not over horsepower or even top speed; instead they are battling over spa equipment. The thinking is that you can’t be a captain of industry, or a tech entrepreneur, without massaging seats, a choice of scents and intricate mood lighting. What next? Complimentary towelling robes and slippers?
Last year Mercedes led the way with fancy seats that offered a stone massage setting and a perfume atomiser in its new S-class luxury saloon. Now, with the new 7-series, BMW has gone the full Champneys with a “whole body exercise” massage setting, which includes two paddles that alternately elevate each half of your bottom.
Adding to the zen-like ambience is a system that can spray any of eight scents into the cabin, ionising the air to purify it for good measure (ideal when you’re following a Volkswagen diesel).
At this stage you’re just scratching the surface of the list of gadgets available in the sixth generation of BMW’s poshest car. Further options include headlights with night vision that can spot pedestrians in the road, direct a beam of light towards them and flash repeatedly to ensure that you’ve spotted them. Prepare to witness people flinging themselves into hedgerows to escape the crazy driver flashing at them.
Even the humble key has been given a touchscreen makeover. Drivers can check that they’ve locked the car, see how much fuel is left or turn on the climate control to warm or cool the cabin before they get in. Pay a bit more and they can control the car with the fob: a parking system allows the driver to get out of the car and then squeezes it into a tight spot for them (advanced parking package: £1,100) . BMW’s test car didn’t come with this option and so we weren’t able to try it out in our tight-as-they-come underground car park.
There’s more clever stuff going on in the all-new bodywork too. Building it with carbon fibre and aluminium as well as steel is said to have saved 130kg and to help the new 3-litre straight-six diesel engine return up to 60mpg (read “40mpg” in the real world). Even better than that: for the first time in more than a decade the car looks svelte and stylish.
The entry-level diesel-powered BMW 730d starts at around £65,000. Straight-six and V8 petrol engines are also included in the line-up and four-wheel drive is an option on diesel models. Many buyers will want to wait for the plug-in hybrid version due in 2016, which promises CO2 emissions of less than 50g/km and correspondingly low company car tax.
Measuring more than 10ft between the front and rear wheels, the 7-series has a vast amount of space in the cabin, in part to cater for the chauffeured market. Rear passengers have enough legroom to stretch out and recline their (standard) electrically adjustable seats; the long-wheelbase model adds a further 9in. Go mad with the options list and you can add massage and cooling functions to those seats, as well as a tablet computer that allows passengers to control functions such as entertainment, climate and window blinds.
A tick for technology, then. But the real test lies in whether the car can satisfy both driver and passengers on the road.
The ride must be pillow-soft for passengers, but the drive should be engaging enough for buyers who take literally BMW’s “designed for driving pleasure” slogan. The result is a compromise. Standard air suspension does an impressive job of helping the car glide across ruts and potholes, particularly in its softest Comfort Plus setting. But rougher roads with continuous bumps and dips — particularly concrete sections of motorway — send vibrations through the car.
It’s a weak point, particularly as some versions of the less expensive Mercedes E-class — let alone the S-class — provide a good ride over such surfaces. There’s no question BMW’s X5 SUV or a Range Rover would be smoother. Limousines, it appears, are no longer the last word in comfort.
It will take owners weeks to explore the extensive dashboard menu
There’s little else to complain about, though. Automatic gearchanges are seamless, sound insulation allows passengers to talk at a whisper and the driver assistance technology propels the car along by itself on the motorway, adjusting speed steadily and taking care of steering inputs, although it does struggle in the rain, when the system’s cameras struggle to make out lane markings. It’s one of the reasons BMW makes drivers keep their hands on the steering wheel. If they’re in your lap, the system will switch itself off — after giving a warning.
It may lose out to SUVs in overall comfort, but you can’t drive a big 4×4 like a 7-series. It’s almost 17ft long and weighs close to two tons, but the big saloon is a nimble machine, with sharp and precise steering. Our car was fitted with Executive Drive Pro suspension, which reduces body roll, keeping the car level in corners. The Adaptive Drive mode is excellent at working out when the driver wants a calm surge of power and a soft ride for tranquil progress, or when a spike of power and tauter suspension is needed.
Performance is unlikely to be a problem. More than 450 lb ft of torque from the diesel engine in the 730d that we tested gives the car impressive pace: it takes 6.1 seconds to accelerate from standstill to 62mph.
This is the car that Jason Statham should have driven in The Transporter. It’s subtle enough to blend in as illicit packages are moved around in the vast boot, but has sufficient style to grace a wealthy villain’s driveway. And when the inevitable high-speed chase happens, it’s more than up to the job.
It will take owners weeks to explore the extensive dashboard menu, controlled by BMW’s rotary iDrive controller, which as in lesser BMWs, allows you to out in text by tracing letters with your finger on the top of the dial. Lurking in the submenus are features such as the ability to set GPS activation points for the optional surround cameras. So if you have a tight driveway entrance, you can set the dashboard display to show images from around the car every time you arrive there.
Other areas feel as if they could have had a bit more fine-tuning, though. The gadget-laden cabin can seem overloaded, particularly in high-end models. Take the night-vision option, for example, displayed on the dashboard’s wide screen, out of the driver’s normal line of sight. It’s impossible to see the detail without taking your eyes off the road.
It’s also hard to see the point of gesture control, a £160 option. On paper it seems a great idea: the driver can use hand signals to communicate with the car, such as whirling an index finger round in mid-air, clockwise to increase the audio volume and anticlockwise to lower it. But you won’t get the result you want: it’s not very sensitive, so the sound switches to blaringly loud or virtually silent. And other drivers are likely to think you’re trying to cast a spell. An accidental two-fingered gesture irritatingly changed the radio station, even though the hand in question was resting on the driver’s leg.
For an all-singing, all-dancing 7-series, buyers can spend a lot on options. The Executive Drive Pro suspension, head-up display, parking cameras, driving assistance systems and adaptive headlights are worth specifying. In the rear, massage seats and the tablet add a lot to the experience of riding in the car. Together they will set you back around £10,000, but the whole thing should still work out cheaper than an equivalent S-class.
Those looking for comfort above all else will probably choose the Mercedes or an SUV. But if you want a luxury limousine that’s packed with gadgets and sporty to drive too, BMW’s got it licked.
2016 BMW 730d specifications
- PRICE: £64,530
- ENGINE: 2993cc, 6 cylinders, diesel
- POWER: 261bhp @ 4000rpm
- TORQUE: 457 lb ft @ 2000rpm
- TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic
- ACCELERATION: 0-62mph in 6.1sec
- TOP SPEED: 155mph
- FUEL: 60.1mpg (combined)
- CO2: 124g/km
- ROAD TAX BAND: D (free for first year; then £110)
- RELEASE DATE: On sale now
BMW 730d rivals
Mercedes-Benz S 350d SE, £67,995 (view cars for sale)
- For Comfortable, quiet and lavish: the best luxury car on the market
- Against Unexciting image
Jaguar XJ 3.0 V6 Premium Luxury diesel, £62,690 (view cars for sale)
- For Striking appearance; world-class interior ambience
- Against Lumpy ride; thirsty engine