Ryan Bubear drives (and is driven by) the all-new BMW 7 Series on the luxury limo's local launch in the Western Cape...
The BMW 7 Series has long played second fiddle to a certain svelte rival from Stuttgart.
Yes, a glance at the global sales figures illustrates that the majority of buyers in this segment regard the Mercedes-Benz S-Class as the absolute pinnacle of modern luxury motoring.
Indeed, the Daimler-backed automaker itself unashamedly bills its swanky flagship sedan as "the best car in the world".
BMW, of course, would beg to differ.
And, with the launch of the sixth-generation 7 Series, the Munich-based automaker's argument has certainly been revitalised. Very much so, in fact.
In what way? Well, this latest Seven confidently stands toe-to-toe with the S-Class in the innovation battle, gamely trading punches with its foe on the all-important technology front. Yes, just like the S-Class, the new BMW 7 Series is a showcase for its brand's latest tech, and can virtually drive itself.
Semi-automated motoring — where the vehicle takes care of acceleration, braking, and steering — is still an experience that takes plenty of getting used to, but the new 7 Series does it exceedingly well. Provided you keep a hand on the wheel, of course.
And the newcomer boasts a few segment firsts as well, including gesture control. Thanks to a hidden 3D sensor, specific hand movements can be used to control a number of infotainment functions, from adjusting the volume (with the twirl of a finger) to rejecting a call (with the swipe of a hand).
The system — which also allows users to pair a gesture with a specific function (such as "mute", "next track", or "recent calls") — is fairly intuitive. But, crucially, it augments rather than replaces controls in the iDrive setup, so if owners are unconvinced, the traditional methods are still available to use.
Another feature currently unique to the sixth-gen Seven is Remote Control Parking, although this will only be available on vehicles ordered from March 2016 (and thus on South African showroom floors around May or June 2016). The system allows owners to manoeuvre the vehicle in or out of forward-parking bays (or indeed domestic garages) without anyone at the wheel, providing access to spaces previously deemed too tight.
The full-size luxury sedan is controlled via the nifty new BMW Display Key, which looks (and behaves) more like a mini-smartphone than a customary vehicle key. Indeed, the chunky key-fob boasts a touchscreen that displays items such as vehicle range, allows remote locking and unlocking, and even permits preconditioning of the cabin.
Of course, just like a smartphone, the fancy key requires charging, something that's achieved by simply placing it into the wireless charging box in the centre console (an area in which your phone can also score some juice) or indeed by using a USB cable. And if it drops from the pocket of your fine-tailored suit and smashes on the floor? Well, we were surprised to learn that the replacement fee is a mere R2500.
And, if those pockets are indeed deep enough (and we're sure they are), you can also order your Seven with the R15k optional laser headlights, a feature exclusive in the segment and first seen on the BMW i8. These replace the standard LED headlamps, incorporate dazzle-free selective beam technology, and double the high-beam range to a rather useful 600 metres.
At launch, there are two engines available: one petrol and one diesel. Eventually, however, the local range will include four powertrains, with the 4.4-litre turbocharged V8 (in 750i and 750Li guises) scheduled to arrive shortly and the plug-in hybrid electric 740e expected to debut by September 2016.
But we sampled the BMW 730d, a silky smooth six-cylinder inline turbo-diesel worth 195kW (up five units) at 4000rpm and 620Nm between 2000rpm and 2500rpm. This 3.0-litre mill is still one of the more refined oil-burners around, and the little noise it does emit struggles to permeate the thick layers of sound-deadening material slathered around the cabin.
Hoof it and the 5098mm-long sedan will skip through its eight-speed automatic transmission as it wafts to three figures in just 6.1 seconds, before topping out at an electronically limited 250km/h. Somehow, though, the Munich manufacturer has managed to improve the claimed combined fuel economy to a mere 4.5 litres per 100km (low enough to render most econo-hatches red-faced).
We then tested the 740i, another turbocharged six-pot displacing around three litres, which also gains a power bump of five kilowatts. This one, of course, prefers a liquid diet of petrol, and churns out a tasty 240kW (between 5500rpm and 6500rpm) and 450Nm (from just 1380rpm all the way through to 5000rpm). Surfing that seemingly never-ending wave of torque can be great fun, with the obligatory sprint from standstill to three figures taking just 5.5 seconds.
Indeed, the BMW 740i urges its driver on, and feels far lighter and nimbler than its considerable size may first suggest. A major part of this, of course, is the extensive use of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic in the passenger cell, which cuts overall weight by up to 130kg. And this aids economy, too, with the petrol model bearing a claimed consumption of just 6.6 litres per 100km.
The new BMW 7 Series, then, is still undoubtedly the driver's choice in the segment (something that will likely be reinforced once the 750i arrives on the scene). It feels far more dynamically capable than a luxury barge ever should, and still outclasses its key competitors in this regard (even if there is no M7 to match the AMG-badged monsters out there). Naturally, it's exceedingly comfortable, too, with a top-notch luxury-spec ride.
Inside, however, it can't quite match its closest German rival. Although the dashboard's fit-and-finish is absolutely impeccable, it just doesn't feel quite as special or indeed as bespoke as the S-Class. But one row back — where there's plenty of stretching room, even in the standard wheelbase model — the differences aren't nearly as clear.
Indeed, we made sure to spend plenty of time perched back there, taking advantage of the various massage functions available and toying around with the rear seating area's pièce de résistance: a removable seven-inch tablet integrated into the centre armrest. This touchscreen device (Samsung-based, if we're not mistaken) allows the user to control various infotainment and comfort functions and can also be used as a games console or even to surf the net.
Later this year, the long-wheelbase 750Li will furthermore be available with an Executive Lounge package, which adds a range of back-seat updates, including individual climate control zones, electrically adjustable comfort seats, ventilation for all seats, and an electrically operated fold-out footrest.
Of course, such options do not come cheap: ticking the Executive Lounge box, for instance, is an exercise that costs R32 000. In fact, the 740i we drove on the launch featured an array of extras adding some R415k to the base price. That said, such a figure is hardly unusual in the full-size luxury sedan segment.
So, where does this leave the new BMW 7 Series? Well, it clearly excels in the comfort and luxury game, just as one would expect. But it's also rather understated in terms of exterior styling, and isn't nearly as flashy inside as the S-Class, either. Of course, for discerning buyers, that needn't be a bad thing.
Significantly, however, the Seven is still the dynamic benchmark for vehicles in this class. And, just as importantly, it has grown into a tech titan that can match — and, in some areas, better — the current best in the segment.
Second fiddle no more, we say. The only question is, would you give up the driver's seat to lounge in the back?
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See page two for specs and pricing.