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2016 BMW 7 Series First Drive Review

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 8/27/2015 Manufacturer, Angus MacKenzie
© BMW

There are some earnest engineers inside BMW's giant FIZ engineering center in Munich who will be deeply dismayed by this: Most people are going to talk less about the brand-new 7 Series than they will about its key. A body with carbon-fiber structural elements? An adaptive drive mode that combines data from forward-looking cameras and the sat-nav to prepare the air suspension and eight-speed automatic transmission for the road ahead? Electrically operated active anti-roll bars? Four wheel steering? A new turbocharged straight-six and updated twin-turbo V-8? Yeah, yeah, yeah … it's got all that good stuff. But hey, you gotta check out this key, dude!

It's called the BMW Display Key, it's a $250 option, and it's basically a typical remote-control key with a baby iPhone-like touchscreen that can display information such as fuel level, estimated range, service details, and whether the car is locked. A gimmick? Possibly. But it doesn't really matter. What matters is people will talk about it: A simple 15-second video posted to the Motor Trend Instagram feed showing the Display Key in action garnered more than 7,500 likes and 2,000 comments in less than a day. People will talk about the key, and by extension they will be talking about BMW's new high-tech flagship sedan.

And that's a conversation BMW wants people to have.

From the launch of the first generation in 1977, BMW's 7 Series has been hunting big game, namely the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The S-Class dominates the large luxury sedan segment—has done for decades—and while it's come close at times in recent years, the 7 Series has never quite managed to wrest segment leadership from the three-pointed star. Over the years BMW has tried 12-cylinder engines, unconventional styling, and sporty chassis tuning; this time, it's betting heavily on advanced technology and ride comfort to take the fight to Mercedes.

Set to go on sale in October, the 2016 BMW 7 Series will launch in the U.S. with three models: 740i, 750i, and 750i xDrive. Despite the nomenclature, all are long-wheelbase cars; the short-wheelbase version will no longer be available here. Base prices will start at $81,300 for the 740i powered by the new TwinPower 3.0-liter straight-six, and stretch to $97,400 for the all-wheel-drive 750i xDrive with the upgraded 4.4-liter, twin-turbo V-8. The two-wheel-drive 750i will start at $94,400.

The lineup will be expanded in 2016 to include a 740i xDrive, a new 760i with V-12 power, and the 740e xDrive, a plug-in hybrid powered by a 2.0-liter TwinPower four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric drive motor integrated into the eight-speed automatic transmission. BMW claims the 740e xDrive will be able to drive in pure electric mode at speeds of up to 75 mph for a maximum of 23 miles.

In addition to the Display Key, the 2016 7 Series features a lot of surface-level technology that makes for great driveway theater. The iDrive 5.0 system now features touchscreen control in addition to the familiar rotary controller—you can pinch and zoom the map on the screen, or swipe between menu options, for example—as well as gesture control for functions such as audio volume control or answering phone calls. The optional Luxury Rear Seating package includes a 7-inch touchscreen tablet in the rear seat center console that controls functions such as seat adjustment, interior lighting, and air-conditioning, as well as the infotainment, navigation, and communications systems. The tablet can play audio and video files, or connect to the Internet via a Wi-Fi hot spot built into the car.

But the cutting-edge technology goes to the very core of this car—literally. The 7 Series' body-in-white is made from a revolutionary mix of aluminum, ultra-high-tensile steels, and, for the first time ever in a high-volume production car, carbon fiber. Manufactured using processes pioneered on the BMW i3 and i8 models, and using carbon fiber made at BMW's new plant in Moses Lake, Washington, the Carbon Core body has contributed to a 190-pound reduction in overall mass compared with the previous generation 7 Series. Crucially, many of the carbon-fiber structural elements are used in the roof, helping lower the car's center of gravity.

The all-aluminum, twin-scroll, single-turbo 3.0-liter B58 straight-six in the 740i model is a member of BMW's new family of modular inline engines, and develops 320 hp at 5,200 rpm to 6500 rpm, and 330 lb-ft of torque at just 1,380 rpm. The twin-turbo, 4.4-liter V-8 in the 750i models now features two twin-scroll turbochargers mounted in the vee, and a compression ratio bumped to 10.5:1, both of which help boost power to 445 hp at 5,500-6,000 rpm, and torque to 480 lb-ft from 1,800-4,500 rpm. Both engines drive through an eight-speed automatic transmission with a control system that among other things allows it to communicate with the sat-nav and adjust shift strategies on the fly to match the topography of the road ahead with the driver's current driving style. It's a development of the system pioneered on the Rolls-Royce Wraith.

Rolls-Royce engineers also helped with tuning the 2016 7 Series' front and rear air suspension system. "We wanted The Ultimate Driving Machine plus comfort," says Manfred Wachinger, the man in charge of the car's chassis development. "The Rolls-Royce team has a lot of experience with two-axle air-spring calibration and gave us a lot of help." The system has three basic settings: Comfort, the default setting; Comfort Plus, which allows an even more pillowy ride; and Sport, which firms everything up in the usual manner. It also has an Adaptive mode, which utilizes data from the sat-nav and driver inputs to adjust effective spring and damper rates to suit upcoming road conditions.

Our preview driving was all done in 750i XDrive models, the only variant BMW North America had available. All cars featured the optional Autobahn pack, which meant they were fitted with electrically actuated active anti-roll bars and the Integral Active Steering rear wheel steering system. Half the cars were also equipped with the optional M Sport package. The M Sport package includes the Autobahn package in the price, and adds larger diameter brakes along with a host of appearance items including different design wheels, different front and rear bumper fascias, a different steering wheel, and blacked-out exterior trim.

"The Ultimate Driving Machine plus comfort" is a difficult starting proposition for a chassis engineer, but the team behind the 2016 7 Series seems to have made a reasonable fist of it. In standard Comfort mode the chassis is relatively plush yet body motions remain controlled, though the undemanding roads on the 60-mile drive loop through western New York state hardly challenged the suspension. We'll wait until we try the car on rougher roads we know well before making a definitive call, but our first take is that while this may be one of the smoothest-riding 7 Series ever, it still doesn't quite match the S-Class in terms of rolling ride comfort. The Comfort Plus setting comes closer to matching the Mercedes, but the secondary body motions are perhaps not quite as well contained. The Adaptive mode seemed an appropriately BMW compromise, allowing Comfort levels of ride quality and smooth transmission shifts under most conditions, but tensing the suspension and sharpening the tranny when the car sensed greater driver involvement and/or more challenging terrain ahead.

Playtime on one of the short circuits at Monticello Motor Club in M Sport-equipped cars revealed the new 7 Series to be quick and controlled in Sport mode. The car feels relatively light on its feet (BMW claims it's about 300 pounds lighter than a Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic) and turn-in is good. Using the Individual sub-menu in Sport mode to switch the steering to Comfort seemed to promote fractionally quicker response thanks to reduce weighting, though the steering lacks the subtle tactility BMWs used to have, and the xDrive all-wheel-drive system provokes plenty of mid-turn understeer through the longer sweepers. Lifting off the gas gets the nose to tuck in smoothly, but at the cost of corner speed. We suspect the two-wheel-drive version will deliver better front-end grip, and, hopefully, better steering feel.

The 4.4-liter V-8 has plenty of punch—BMW claims a 0-60-mph time of 4.3 seconds for the 750i xDrive, making it about four-tenths of a second quicker than the S550 4Matic—and the eight-speed automatic is smooth yet responsive, even at light throttle. BMW claims careful attention to aerodynamic detail that includes active shutters on the grille and lower fascia, careful management of airflow around the front wheels (the side vent just rear of the wheel opening is a functional part of the system, and not just there for decoration), reshaped side mirrors, and extensive underbody cladding have helped reduce the co-efficient of drag by 15 percent compared with the outgoing model. You can feel it, especially in EcoPro mode, which allows the car to coast if you lift off the gas at speeds between 31 and 100 mph.

While the visible technology in the new 7 Series—especially that key—will impress the hell out of your buddies at the country club, the car itself is perhaps less of a visual feast. The well-proportioned and nicely surfaced exterior styling is conservatively handsome in the current BMW idiom; the backlash from the Bangle years still clearly resonates in Munich. Yet while the wheelbase is 1.8 inches longer than an S550's and overall length a tenth of an inch more, the big BMW somehow manages to look smaller than the Mercedes. In some markets, where stealth wealth is popular, that's a desirable attribute, but here in the U.S, in South Beach, or Beverly Hills, or Greenwich, maybe not so much.

Inside, the new 7 Series looks richer, plusher than any recent BMW. What looks like metal is metal, the wood veneers are beautifully finished, the leathers rich and colorful, and the 7's showy ambient lighting and perfume dispenser suggest these features are now de rigueur for German luxury sedans. It's a little disconcerting to find that some of the minor switchgear in the center stack is touch-sensitive black plastic, which doesn't provide the mechanical tactile signature you expect in high-end luxury products, and leaves a trail of fingerprints all over the cabin. Rear seat room is, as you'd expect, excellent, and BMW's stadium seating arrangement means passengers get a decent view out the windshield.

It's an interesting car, the 2016 BMW 7 Series. The technology—the stuff you can see and the stuff you can't—is truly spectacular, and, more important, delivers genuine consumer benefits. It's quietly handsome outside, and expensively finished inside. But it's also the first big BMW to have so overtly targeted the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in terms of ride quality. The Ultimate Driving Machine, plus comfort, is a contradiction in terms, but BMW's engineers have certainly tried hard to make it a reality. The question—and what further testing will answer—is whether the new 7 Series remains enough of a driver's car to please the BMW faithful, and is truly comfortable enough to win over those who might be thinking of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

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