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First drive: Latest BMW limousine is ‘7’ All-mighty

Seven MkV: Fifth-generation BMW flagship is new from the ground up.

BMW goes back to the drawing board with its new 7 Series, as our first drive reveals

6 Oct 2008

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in GERMANY

CALM in, rather than calm before, the storm succinctly sums up BMW’s fifth-generation 7 Series.

The flagship luxury sedan surfaced last week at the same Paris motor show where Renault boss Carlos Ghosn described the stormy current economic situation as the most complete financial meltdown since 1929. Not the most ideal time or place to launch a plutocrat express then.

But the mood was upbeat at BMW as it presented what is claimed to be the calmest, smoothest, comfiest and most dynamic version since the original 7 debuted in 1977.

Buyers can reserve one now, at prices yet to be revealed, with deliveries commencing in March next year in 740i and 750i regular, and 740iL and 750iL long-wheelbase (LWB) guises.

All will be petrol-powered, but the long-anticipated diesel, the 730d, should be ushered in from the middle of 2009, while the electric-hybrid V8 ‘Active Hybrid’ as previewed in Paris materialises to take on the Lexus LS 600hL some time from 2010 at the earliest.

Known as either the F01 (or F02 for the LWB cars), the latest 7 Series replaces the enormously controversial E65/6 range released in Australia in early 2002, and is completely fresh from the wheels up.

Underneath the redesigned body, which uses more aluminium than ever, is an all-new rear-wheel drive platform boasting out-of-the-box engines, the first BMW sedan application of a double wishbone front suspension, the implementation of class-first driver-assistance aids such as (optional) active rear-wheel steering, and the availability of high-tech comfort and convenience features.

BMW’s engineers set themselves often-conflicting goals to make the new 7 the segment leader.

These included retaining the strong visual presence of the outgoing (and best-ever selling) model while introducing elegance and subtlety fixing ride comfort but improving sportiness and dynamics upping performance while lowering consumption and emissions and subtracting mass in the face of added equipment levels.

Yet owners of pre-E65-era editions may welcome the return of the old BMW trademark driver-angled dashboard, centre console-sited gear lever, (iDrive-enhancing) buttons on the fascia, and classically presented (though in fact completely ‘black panel’ screen) instrumentation.

Meanwhile, no previous version has offered a head-up display, a real-time traffic-sign speed-limit display, 3D satellite-navigation mapping, a night-vision screen with individual-person detection, lane-change and lane-departure warning systems, driver-assist cameras around the car’s perimeter, ‘climate’ rear seats and restriction-free internet connectivity, among other innovations.

This 7 Series is in many ways the most radically changed in 30 years.

Development commenced in late 2003, while mass production kicked off on September 1.

The latest version is longer, wider and lower, thanks to a lengthened wheelbase that sees both variants outstretch all current rivals’ efforts, with the LWB adding 140mm to the standard 3070mm wheelbase.

This enabled Quebecois stylist Karim Habib (responsible for the BMW CS Concept show car and owner of a 1964 Alfa Romeo Giulia 1600 coupe) to fashion a more coupe-like silhouette out of the classic three-box, long-bonnet/short boot cab-backward design.

Key stylistic features include a blocky nose ensconcing a pair of BMW ‘kidney grille’ nostrils that assist in engine cooling daytime driving lights with an illuminated upper ‘eye brow’ a curvy bonnet bulge a high-rising door sill line a strong shoulder line a wide stance and tear-drop shaped all-LED tail-lights.

BMW director of design Adrian van Hooydonk told GoAuto that his team wheeled out cars from the company museum for inspiration, and found it in models such as the 1986 to 1994 E32 7 Series.

About 14 per cent of the body is made of aluminium (namely the roof, bonnet and – as a first for a BMW sedan – all four doors), with high tensile steel making up another 55 per cent.

The net result, helped by a slew of weight-saving materials such as full-aluminium suspension components, is a 35 to 55kg weight saving (adjusted for equipment levels) over corresponding previous-model 7 Series’.

14 center imageYet body stiffness soars by 60 per cent while the body shell’s torsional stiffness increases by some 20 per cent, while a 7kg-lighter roof and 22kg weight saving in the doors systematically help lower the latest, 1870kg-plus 7’s centre of gravity to benefit driving dynamics.

More mass is banished through the use of the aluminium double wishbone front suspension, which actually shares nothing with the conceptually similar set-up found in the current X5 and X6 SUV.

This helps the double-arm front axle separate wheel guidance and damping functions, meaning that there are less corruptive forces on the way the 7 steers, rides and is controlled.

The design also allows for optimum adjustment of wheel camber to the road, thus improving tyre-to-road contact significantly, resulting in higher lateral acceleration and better stability properties through corners and when braking.

Aluminium is also employed in the Integral-V multi-link rear axle, featuring swinging arms with elastokinematic mounts that precisely counteract conflicting and/or multi-directional impact forces for greater dynamic and ride-comfort control, while providing an additional buffer to noise and vibration elements.

BMW calls its new electronic dampers ‘cutting edge’ due to their ability to adjust to both driving style and road conditions. A world-first here is that they adjust both the inbound and rebound stage in a continuous process independently of one another. The upshot? Suppleness and comfort in a set-up tuned for sportier responses.

Further suspension adjustability comes via ultra-fast computing processes as part of BMW’s FlexRay data transmission technology linked to a central control unit, to ensure optimum comfort and control. For instance, ride height varies instantaneously to counteract body movement according to speed and road conditions.

Dynamic Driving Control allows the driver to select Comfort or Sport from the regular Normal suspension setting, influencing both the damper settings and the threshold of the DSC Dynamic Stability Control. One sub-setting even switches it off for tail-out antics.

The LWB F02 cars add air suspension, which further maintains ride height under all driving and load conditions.

Lightweight inner-vented brake discs with fade-resisting swing callipers are fitted, and are supported by the DSC, which (by the way) includes ABS anti-lock brakes, ASC Automatic Stability Control, Trailer Stability Control, and CBC Cornering Brake Control, as well as the DBC Dynamic Brake Control which not only maximises brake pressure when sensing an emergency stop, but compensates for heat-related pressure losses to cut brake-fading dramatically.

There is also a hill-start function, a DSC-activated braking device working in conjunction with the cruise control set-up, to maintain the desired speed regardless of gradients etc, and an Auto-Hold function as part of a trick parking brake that can’t be unintentionally deactivated. It operates either electromechanically or hydraulically, depending on whether the engine is running or not.

Still on brakes, all models come with Brake Energy Regeneration (BER), which converts the heat from braking to charge the car’s battery without consuming any engine power, thus saving fuel.

Fourth-generation run-flat (or "Safety") tyres with improved ride qualities make their BMW debut in the new 7, encasing 17-inch light alloy wheels on the 245/55 R17-shod 730d and 245/50 R18-wearing 18-inch items on the others. A tyre defect monitor signals pressure drops in excess of 20 per cent.

Optional ‘Integral Active Steering’ (IAS) is a 7 Series-first.

Linked to the ZF-supplied hydraulic Servotronic power steering system on the front axle is a Magna-supplied, electronically powered rear-wheel steering system using a concentrically arranged motor with spindle drive on the rear axle to vary the steering angle.

Sensors covering the speed of the wheels, steering wheel movement, yaw rate and lateral acceleration swivel the rear wheels by up to three degrees, at an opposite angle to the front ones at low speeds for a reduced turning circle, and with them at higher speeds for greater stability and smoothness.

IAS reduces driver effort when parking, works with the DSC system to help prevent swerving in certain difficult circumstances, and even benefits rear-seat occupants since it subjects them to reduced yaw-rate forces during high-speed manoeuvres.

Motivation is provided by a choice of petrol or (eventually) diesel EU5 emissions-rated internal combustion engines.

The 740i uses a variation of the 2929cc 3.0-litre twin-turbo in-line six-cylinder petrol engine first introduced in the 335i Coupe.

In this application, power and torque rise to 240kW at 5800rpm and 450Nm between 1500 and 4500rpm respectively, the European combined urban fuel consumption figure is just 9.9 litres per 100km, while the carbon dioxide emissions rating is 232 grams per kilometre.

World-first twin-turbo V8 technology features on the 4395cc 4.4-litre 750i petrol unit, pumping out 300kW between 5500 and 6400rpm and 600Nm from 1750 and 4500rpm. Its fuel and CO2 figures register at a respective 11.4L/100km and 266g/km.

But these pale against the debuting 2993cc 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder common-rail turbo-diesel unit with direct fuel-injection and piezo-injectors as well as a particulate filter and catalytic converter in one, as found in the 730d.

Delivering 180kW at 4000rpm and 540Nm from 1750 to 3000rpm, the diesel returns an astonishing (for an 1865kg luxury car) 7.2L/100km and 192g/km.

As with increasingly more BMW models, the 7 Series has been developed under the firm’s EfficientDynamics umbrella of lower-impact technology. Not only are all three engines more powerful but less profligate than previously, they also lead their respective classes for economy and emissions.

Power is transmitted to the rear wheels via a ZF six-speed automatic gearbox, with upgraded performance thanks to a series of modifications designed for greater response. Electrical rather than mechanical signals help see to this, as does a sequential-shift pattern for manual control.

The lever has also been repositioned from the steering column to the floor, in an interior that is a complete departure from that of the previous 7 Series.

Next to the transmission lever is an iDrive, which has undergone a thorough redesign. It includes direct selection buttons, a 10.2-inch large-format full colour display, and new functionality with more ergonomic control buttons and a completely new menu layout.

Black panel technology has been incorporated as part of the instrument cluster, which returns to a traditional four circular dial look with chrome rings, but is actually a digital display.

The entire dash architecture is presented in a driver-orientated, flowing strip, with vehicle control functions located on the driver’s side while all the comfort and convenience switches and controls are more centrally located.

BMW has also designed palpably higher-quality materials and trim throughout the cabin, and will offer individual and personalised colours and textures from the onset, including the availability of ceramic trim for the first time.

Among the new/improved technologies on offer is the Night Vision device that can detect and warn of individual persons lurking ahead a Head-Up Display with an array of essential vehicle data including speed, navigation (as part of a new 3D system), local speed-limit posting and automatic cruise control functions Adaptive lighting that helps the driver ‘see’ around bends Lane Change and Lane Departure warnings that vibrate the steering wheel and cameras with side-view and back-view facilities.

An automotive world-first is an integrated owner’s manual, while buyers can choose individual luxury rear seating with reclining and ventilation/heating functions, a high-end multi-media interface including full and unrestricted internet access as part of BMW’s ConnectedDrive assistance, and full integration of the latest ‘smart’ phones such as Apple’s iPhone.

The boot can be opened and shut automatically at a press of a button, and offers 500 litres of capacity.

All F01/2 7 Series are built at BMW’s Dingolfing plant in Germany.

With over 335,000 units sold since 2001, the outgoing model has been the most successful, surpassing the E38 model introduced in 1994.

BMW says the USA is the biggest market, with 35.7 per cent of E65/6 sales heading over there. This is followed by China (16.4), Germany (13), the Middle East (6.4) and Japan (4.9).

Some 7 Series ‘world firsts’ over the years have included the electronic speedometer (1977), stability control (1986), in-built satellite-navigation (1994) and the six-speed automatic gearbox (2001).

Drive impressions:

IF CARS were people, then the BMW 7 Series has traditionally been Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator to the Mercedes-Benz S-class’ brilliant Albert Einstein... all cold, hard, unswerving, futuristic, ruthless efficiency, as opposed to the more personable brilliance of one of the 20th Century’s greatest minds.

But the outgoing ‘7’ was something else too – innovative, in-your-face, somehow larger than life. As the first production BMW to introduce design boss Chris Bangle’s new design language for the Bavarian firm, many onlookers would happily add ‘gross’ to the Seven’s ever-growing list of adjectives.

Nevertheless, the E65, as the current car is known internally as, proved to be solid at the automotive luxury box-office, finding more customers than any previous ‘7’ and influencing a whole generation of sedans both inside and out.

To car critics, the biggest BMW presented something of a contradiction: sure, it had presence, was spacious, luxurious and extremely well-equipped, and drove like the dynamic thoroughbred that its propeller badge implied.

Yet, for a luxury sedan, the old 7’s ride felt far too fidgety, the interior fittings seemed a little too brittle and downmarket, and elegance and charm were sadly nowhere to be found.

Welcome, then, the all-new 7 Series - a car that is far, far more different than its understated but ultimately alluring looks suggest.

This is a caring, sharing luxury car for the second decade of the MM millennium, with a much, much more supple ride to cosset you, a beautiful and tactile cabin to caress you, and the most brain power available in any car right now, in order to stimulate you.

Instead of the arrogant board-of-directors face looking down on you, we have a somewhat earnest and buck-toothed visage, backed up by a significantly smoother and more streamlined body, and an agreeably buff posterior – which for many is the BMW’s best angle.

Trust us, the latest 7 Series is awash with interesting and soothing exterior detail.

Stepping inside is like revisiting a bustling big city after 20 years of being away – fundamentally familiar in that modern BMW way, but with a whole new architecture to keep you happily sight-seeing for days on end.

Even the new-fangled technology fails to rattle, since BMW has obviously spent a vast fortune figuring out the easiest and most ergonomic way for newcomers to interact with the cornucopia of driver, comfort, communication and entertainment options on offer.

The new 7 Series’ interior is at last truly worthy of the luxury car title, even if some people might find it a backward step from the icy symmetrical futurism of the outgoing model’s.

We were especially taken in by the excellent iDrive layout, were fooled in thinking that the electronic instrumentation display was a classy analogue cluster instead, marvelled at the wonderful head-up display with its superbly sited graphics, relaxed in the knowledge that the speed-sign reader always left us in no doubt as to how fast (or slow) we should be travelling and luxuriated in the lush surrounds of the long-wheelbase model’s rear quarters, which did an impressive approximation of a first-class airline seat.

But nothing prepared us for the new 7 Series’ outstanding driving prowess.

Keeping in mind that both vehicles that we sampled (730d diesel and 750iL petrol) were fitted with BMW’s optional new Integrated Active (four-wheel) Steering, we were gob-smacked.

For starters, the 7 flows over most roads, smoothing out big bumps as effortlessly as small ones are dispensed with. At last, admittedly on excellent German roads, we can honestly call a BMW cushy.

Get pushy around a corner, however, and you will be left wondering whether there shouldn’t be a 5 or even a 3 badge bolted on the bootlid, since the 7 shrinks around you like all good sports cars should.

Make no mistake with that optional 4WS there to keep everything tightly in check, stringing the biggest BMW sedan through twists and turns is like watching Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain. Dynamically, the 7 shines like no other luxury sedan that we know.

The steering, too, isn’t corrupted by artificial weighting, or numbness, or overly light responses, that are the drawbacks of many a fine luxury express. Instead, and in spite of the supple ride, we felt as connected to the BMW’s dynamics as we were with its excellent interior multi-media and GPS interface.

On a restriction-free autobahn we easily saw 220km/h in the ultra-smooth and unbelievably civil 730d, and hit the 250km/h speed-limiter without really realising it while sprawling on the rear lounge of the even smoother and more silent 750iL.

Unfortunately, the drive was over too soon and, after returning the latest BMW flagship to its rightful owner, finding real fault with the BMW proved almost totally elusive. Even the average fuel economy in the diesel hovered in the low-nines.

We realise that the new Seven will definitely react differently on Australia’s roads, and that these carefully prepared global launch vehicles were optimised with pricey options in order for them to appear in the best possible light. We admit, it was fun soaking it all up.

Yet we don’t care. Unlike any other 7 Series before it, the new F01 and LWB F02 resets the luxury sedan template with the ferocity of a futuristic robot alien... swathed in the new-found softness that is more your Auntie than Arnie.

If it translates as well on Australian soil, then the 2009 7 Series will be a landmark model in the rarified upper luxury car segment.

Read more:

First look: BMW’s potent new 7 Series flagship

First look: BMW shows 7 Series mild hybrid


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