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BMW 7-Series 2009 Road Test

Fri, 09 Jan 2009

In pondering the latest BMW 7-Series, Martin Gurdon writes: A lot of us have invested in things we might have avoided if only we’d known the world economy would start behaving like a grand piano chucked from the top of a tower block. 

Things like expensive shoes, shares in Woolworths or perhaps a new car. Which brings us to BMW.

It’s spent about one billion Euros on a car, the latest 7 Series, which is big, complex, expensive -£54,000 buys the poverty version, £100k plus for one with all optional the bells and whistles- and likely to be viewed by many as the last word in vehicular conspicuous consumption.

This a problem for BMW; which wants to sell the 7 Series to people with a lot of disposable income, in a world where those that still have money are hanging onto it, and those that don’t are now saving up for something like a lightly soiled Kia Pride, rather than a flagship uber saloon.

Then there are the private hire companies which bought the diesel versions of the outgoing 7 Series to waft captains of industry to airports and posh hotels. If Robert Peston is right, there’ll be less wafting, and so less work for the big BMW’s other natural market.

However, for the benefit of the five remaining people who can still afford one, let us consider the 7 as a car.

Visually, it’s a clever evolution of its immediate predecessor, who’s monumental, New Brutalist looks made a lot of people wince. Styled by an engaging American with a beard called Chris Bangle, some thought the old model’s tail appeared to have partially melted, and others found its iDrive control system a nightmare to use.

Few disagreed that the car was a technical tour de force, and the 730d diesel version gained a strong following amongst execs and private hirers, so rather than completely ditch the outgoing 7’s aesthetic, BMW hung on to visual elements like the window shapes and front lamp cluster’s styling, but smoothed, rounded and generally toned down everything else, doing away completely with the old model’s curious rump.

The latest 7 is also the first production BMW to feature a pretty vast version of its familiar kidney radiator grill, premiered on various concept cars, and destined to become the German make’s new family face. The end result isn’t beautiful, but it’s quietly interesting and has presence.

There’s nothing dainty about this car, but BMW has worked hard to shave weight from it, using light alloys rather than steel for some of the external panels and the complex independent suspension system.

The engines are generally less porky too, with the all-alloy, 245bhp, 2,993cc six cylinder diesel found under the 730d’s bonnet being some 8kg lighter than before. It’s also more efficient, producing 192g/km of CO2, gets the car to 62 mph in a claimed 7.2 seconds with a 153mph top speed.

There are incremental efficiency gains for the 740i six and 750i V8 petrol models (they’ll only take about 15 per cent of sales). The 750 replaces a V12, and has a design first in that its twin turbochargers and exhaust catalyst are stuffed into the recess between the engine’s cylinders. These things get very hot. Heat aids combustion, and since these bits make everything warm up more quickly, it’s more efficient.

All three motors are attached to a six speed automatic transmission with a manual over-ride and a series of modes which go from relaxed to rapid when changing gear. This is now worked by a conventional transmission tunnel lever rather than the chunky paddles found in the outgoing car.

Let us now dispose of the iDrive system, which is still worked by a big round knob that can be pushed and waggled about as before, but is now augmented by Audi-like auxiliary buttons. The result is perfectly usable, which is a great improvement on ‘completely unfathomable,’ a description which applied to the old system.

The iDrive communes with enough computer power to store 8GB worth of MP3 music files, and tells you what its doing via a big centre console-mounted screen which can be linked to a very effective reversing camera and two fish eye cameras mounted in the front wings. These allow you to see into junctions obscured by street furniture. Clever stuff that works well, although it’s optional.
You’d loose the will to live if we listed all the toys and gadgets boasted by this car, but should get a sense of the attention to detail if we mention the interior lighting is ambient and that the windscreen washer jets are heated. Everywhere you turn there are details intended to cosset or interest.

As for driving dynamics, well, all three versions proved surprisingly wieldy for such big lumps of metal. Their controls have an immediacy of action and a precision that is more engaging than, say, a big Lexus, which tends to hermetically seal its driver and occupants from the outside world.

If there’s a down side, then you might decide that the BMW’s ride is perhaps a bit less relaxed, and there’s some roar from its big, fat tyres, but really only an automotive pedant would either notice or care.

Both petrol engines deliver their power with the expected speed and fluidity, with the V8 demonstrating a speedy responsiveness despite having to shift an extra pair of cylinders and their associated bits as well as a big car. They sound classy too.

The oil fired 730d is the one that matters, and it’s a very nice thing to use; smooth, quiet and possessed with the elastic power delivery that makes big, modern diesels so appealing. Given its economy and efficiency advantages, this is really the 7 to have.

Just a year ago launching a car like this would have seemed a pretty safe bet for BMW. Something this clever, capable, efficient and wearing a badge of one of the world’s most aspirational car makers would have found a ready market.

Not any more. The new 7 Series is probably one of the most advanced mass produced cars you can buy, but events make it seen rather anachronistic.

For prices, specifications, engines, transmissions, dimensions and performance date, please click the tabs.

More at www.bmw.co.uk

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