It was with some anticipation that I took the key from my work colleague.
BMWs recent history has been somewhat irksome to the enthusiast. When I worked for them, in sales, there were certain core values that we were told were cast in stone for all eternity. This was reinforced whenever we went on BMW UK training courses, where official guys from the firm who were paid to know what they were doing, and to say the right thing, would force the point home until it started to bleed.
Firstly:- There will never be an M Car with a turbocharged engine. BMW engines have relied on careful tuning, immaculate engineering and normal aspiration since the 1970s. All the legends, M3s, M5s et al were known for their huge lungs and the responsiveness that goes with them. So the decision that the next M5 should be propelled by a twin-blown V8 seems a shame. No doubt it will be excellent, and no doubt this fate was brought on by environmental factors, but diehards are fussy bunch who will whinge and moan until the cows have come home, their leather has been removed and their meat processed.
Secondly:- There will never be a front-wheel-drive BMW, but it was only a matter of time before they defaulted on this one. BMW are possessed of one of the finest front-drive platforms in the business in the shape of the MINI, and economies of scale are such that you have to have a presence in every single market sector, existing or otherwise. Enter stage left the new small BMW to fit below the 1 Series. Can this car possibly still be a BMW in sight, sound and touch? Probably, yes. But it still hurts slightly that they went back on a value central to the brand since the dawn of time.
Thirdly:- A trawl of the internet forums will find legions of BMW fanboys struggling to defend their hero brand in the light of some of the strange new cars they have recently released. To real aficionados the X6 is the most loathsome car ever to have issued from Munich, a sort of Teutonic re-hash of the Suzuki XC90, proving that melding sports coupe with off-roader is no more logical than trying to combine a mobile phone and a fire escape.
Meanwhile, the 5-Series GT appeals directly to anybody who needs to sprint across the continent at 150mph while carrying a twin-tub washing machine in the boot. All well and good, but the 5 Series Estate is reasonably adept at hauling white goods as it is, and the GT is only available with the top-end engines, right up to a big V8. Customers, it would seem, aren’t exactly flocking.
They might, though, if they knew what it drove like. Underneath the ungainly bodywork lurks the same platform as the 730d you see before you. I had the pleasure of sampling this car on the winding lanes of mid-Suffolk, as well as the two-lane blacktop that 7s sit so comfortably on. Opportunity enough, I hoped, to see if there was any chance that BMW have managed not to throw the drivability baby out with the design bathwater.
They haven’t. I jumped into the 7 straight from a Mercedes ML and, frankly, it felt like I was stepping into the future. 7s have always given good cockpit, and this one is as good as any of them, but this time dripping with the latest technology. It all works, too. The iDrive interface has been the subject of much discussion since appearing in the E65 7-Series, but has evolved into a windows-alike system approaching intuitiveness. Herein can be found everything, from nav, through phone, down to car maintenance history and the seat heating preferences, though many of these functions do also have direct button access. The only peccadillo is that iDrive was clearly intended for left-hand-drive vehicles, in an RHD 7 series you may feel more at home if you’re left handed. Overall the system is a good’n, successful enough that both Mercedes and Audi ape it now.
The instrument cluster could be a source of consternation among the contingent who wish designers would stop fiddling and just give us a bank of nice, crisp Smiths gauges. Well, those days are over. It's information overload nowadays, but the data onslaught is well handled by the electronic dash of the new 7er. There are analogue dials, but their bezels serve only to segregate them from the big LCD panel they are actually part of. All the space around the dials is used to present all manner of statistics in the finest Star Trek tradition. It's actually very effective.
Thumb the start button and a distant diesel rumble thrums into being with the same presence as an old-school V8 at idle. It stays like this too, only betraying its compression ignition nature when the revs build towards non-diesel numbers. Then, as with all big BMWs, it’s entirely up to you how you drive. If the mood takes you there is waftability on offer, the ride isn’t quite uncanny like the S-Class, you’re always aware that you’re in a car, but it’s terrific nonetheless.
What the car really wants you to do, though, is engage the Sport+ mode, firming the ride and disconnecting most of the DSC. Suddenly, everything’s OK and you know BMW haven’t forgotten about job #1. It still grips with alacrity, flows between apexes and goes exactly where you point it. The steering is a little artificial, an unfortunate given in cars today, but it is at least very precise, you never wonder where the car’s going. A few times I found myself having to reign the car in when my ambitious manoeuvres were more than the road could deal with. You forget how vast this car is, but every time the car responds with an unruffled shrug of the shoulders.
Even with all this chaos going on behind the wheel, your passengers will still be comfy in their beautifully stitched leather buckets, even Sport+ fails to completely ruin the ride. At worst, you could say that it starts to feel like an Audi. I was particularly surprised, too, by how adequate the 245hp diesel felt. Bolstered by an unstoppable flood of torque from low revs, it feels very much like how the old 735i did. Certainly, it never wanted for power, though a more grunty740d is also available, as well as the obvious (and pretty redundant) petrol models.
It feels as if BMW want us to forget about the last 7 years. The E65, previous generation 7 was a development too far. It never felt like the driver was the most important part of the car. With the F01 you can tell that they are heavily referencing what I feel is its spiritual father, the E38 generation, and all those alienated customers will begin returning to Munich products.
This 7-Series model two generations ago relied on deep-seated competence. It didn’t have the glitz of the S-Class, it wasn’t the technological tour-de-force of the original Audi A8. But it was far better to drive than either, as soon as you found your first system of flowing bends on a deserted A-Road, you knew that even a huge BMW still knows how to boogie.
Here in 2010, the 7-Series has still got it. You have to know where to look, but the spirit is still alive.