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Car reviews - BMW - 7 Series - sedan range

Our Opinion

We like
Comfort, performance/efficiency balance, adjustable suspension, instrument panel display, improved iDrive
Room for improvement
Styling, non-adjustable seatbelt height, interior doorhandles, run-flat tyre ride quality

17 Feb 2009

AS THE flagship model for BMW, the arrival of a new-generation 7 Series is something to savour and, while there are no big-ticket technological breakthroughs this time around, there are plenty of party tricks and technical innovations to impress your friends.

Some of the innovations – such as the bonded aluminium roof that helps reduce overall weight by an impressive 40kg or so – cannot be seen, but then you get to show off something like the side-view cameras mounted just ahead of the front wheels, which allow you to see pedestrians and bikes on the big 10.2-inch central screen as you edge out of a tight laneway, driveway or car park.

Rear-view cameras and even head-up displays are relatively passé these days, but powered soft-close doors are always a crowd-pleaser, as is automatic boot opening and closing, not to mention front seats with built-in heating and cooling.

You get all this in the fifth-generation 7 Series, and quite soon we should also get local adaption of a speed sign recognition system that uses a forward-looking camera to recognise and display speed limits on the speedo (and in the head-up display on the windscreen).

In fact, the instrument panel and head-up display are something of a tour de force, showing a vast range of information while remaining clear and relatively free of unwanted clutter.

This is largely due to “black panel technology” that shows nothing but the instrument outlines and analogue needles at rest before lighting up with a vast range of digital information as required while driving.

Of course, it takes some learning before you get used to the options and subtleties of the system, but the essentials are mainly operated from the steering wheel controls, which fall easily to hand and are commendably tactile.

While the ventilation can thankfully be controlled by conventional dials and buttons on the dash, a myriad of non-essential controls including audio and navigation continue to be operated via the iDrive controller.

When iDrive first appeared in 2001, it was extremely impressive from a technical standpoint but a nightmare to use, like early code-driven computers. But the latest version benefits from seven years of development and is now far easier to navigate – aided by the inclusion of seven buttons surrounding the main controller that enable you to quickly go back, return to the main menu or go straight to the section you want (such as the radio) without having to watch the screen and scroll through lists.

BMW introduced its programmable ‘Favourites’ buttons a couple of years ago and in the 7 Series they are even easier to program and review, with sensors that enable the details of each button to be displayed on-screen as you gently slide your finger across them.

Given that the original iDrive simply went too far in eliminating dials and buttons, leaving the dash looking bare and desolate, the reintroduction of easily seen and operated controls is a victory for common sense, practicality and even aesthetics, allowing the iDrive controller to live happily as a welcome Apple-like interface between people and technology rather than a derided impediment.

BMW has also conceded defeat with the stubby steering column-mounted gearshift that debuted on the previous 7 Series and replaced it with a conventional one next to the iDrive in the centre console.

Although the previous high-mounted lever was actually good to use once you became used to it, there is something reassuring about stepping into the new model and having your hand fall comfortably on to a regular gearshift. Maybe it’s just a security blanket thing, but it works.

Getting comfortable in the 7 Series is no challenge – even the Hunchback of Notre Dame could find a suitable position – and it remains a pleasant environment over a long trip.

However, we cannot understand why the seatbelts are not height-adjustable in such a vehicle, which caused some mild discomfort, and remain unconvinced about the semi-concealed doorhandles, which will always defy first-time drivers and unfamiliar passengers.

Of course, many occupants will spend more time in the rear seat than the front and, while the space back there is not as cavernous as a Statesman, even in the long-wheelbase model, it should be comfortable enough for most people.

However, you have to get the L models or hit the options list to get all the creature comforts a celebrity or limo passenger would demand in the back seat, such as electric seat adjustment, massage function, seat heating, sunblinds, individual climate control (which takes away a big section of the boot) and whiz-bang entertainment systems.

Victoria’s bushfires caused a late change to the media preview test route, but it still revealed the new 7 Series to be a consummate cruiser able to effortlessly swallow long distances, betrayed only by a jarring reaction to sharp-edged potholes and road irregularities due, we suspect, to the run-flat tyres rather than the suspension itself.

On the plus side, the run-flat did save us from having to stop for a replacement after we collected a nail, enabling us to cover more than 100km at highway speeds without the car behaving much different from normal. Had it not been for the on-screen alert, we may not have even noticed the puncture.

Switch the electronic suspension from Comfort mode (past Normal and Sport) to Sport+ and the big 7 Series changes personality completely, becoming an 1800-plus kilogram GT with sharp sportscar-weighted steering, taut suspension with minimal bodyroll and rapid-response throttle control that allows the twin-turbo engine to roar and snap through the gears.

And what an engine the 300kW/600Nm twin-turbo V8 is, delivering enormous performance when needed or purring quietly around town without fuss, all the while returning comparatively strong fuel consumption and emission figures. Who needs a V12?

This engine appeared for the first time only recently in the X6, but it is set-up to run much more quietly in the big saloon than in the sporty SUV.

Although we spent less time with the 240kW/450Nm twin-turbo straight-six, it felt like a more than capable replacement for the previous ‘atmo’ V8, trading the reassuringly smooth bent-eight rumble for better performance, economy and emissions.

With no night driving, we did not get to experience the trick active headlights or the optional night vision system, but we did play around with the optional active cruise control with stop-go function and lane-change warning system, both of which work impressively well and are beneficial.

In short, the new 7 Series is a great place to be, with incredible dynamics and comfort features. And, given that the styling could at best be described as conservative, it’s probably best to be on the inside looking out.

For those who can afford such luxury is these troubled times, BMW’s latest flagship makes more sense than ever before.

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