Barely 25 years ago, Mercedes and Jaguar had this market – then the sub-Rolls market – sewn up. BMW was knocking on the door but only got its foot in with the second-gen 7-series of 1986. Audi came along with the A8 a few years later and today there are still only those four key players, with some upstart rivals in the shape of the Lexus LS and others. So a new 7-series is a big deal, especially when it follows a car as controversially styled as the outgoing Seven, the car which kickstarted the Bangle design revolution.
And, as a further reminder of how the limo market has evolved, today it’s dominated by diesels. So say hello to the 730d, the biggest-selling version of BMW’s biggest car, now in its fifth generation.
BMW’s new range-topper. I bet there’s a lot of tech in this 730d…
You’d be right. There’s a new, improved iDrive (with internet access for the European market, coming to the UK once negotiations with wireless firms are sewn up), four-wheel steering, a speed limit display, a head-up display, lane departure warning, night vision and side-view cameras. And yes, if you want all that lot, you’re looking at a hefty bill on top of the asking price.
Our 730d test car was specced with the optional head-up display and speed limit display, but was otherwise mainly standard. The former projects your speedo reading onto the windscreen, as well as the speed limit of the road you’re travelling on. It’s meant to be failsafe, because a forward-facing camera reads the roadsigns to cross-check with info on the sat-nav system. Fine in theory, but it assured me that the limit was 60mph in my village, despite a huge, illuminated sign warning me to slow down to 30mph… Honestly, officer.
And while we’re moaning, the front parking sensors failed to warn of an imminent (then suddenly inevitable) numberplate/brick wall interface scenario, and the windscreen washers didn’t work. That’s irksome in December on a long trip up a salty motorway, and the smeary windscreen meant I had to turn off the head-up display too. And before you ask, I had checked the washer reservoir…
>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our BMW 730d first drive review
What about the new BMW 7-series' iDrive?
There’s no doubt that it’s easier to use than before, thanks mainly to a handful of buttons strewn around the rotary controller that grant you direct access to the sat-nav, radio, CD and so on. You also get a proper separate air-con panel and – at last! – a little button that cancels traffic bulletins without you having to go through a whole set of sub-menus, which then only results in the option to de-select them altogether or put up with hearing them over and over.
The new sat-nav screen is fabulous, with a 3D display that tells you something of the topography you’re driving through, and the flexibility on offer is certainly of huge benefit to owners who are going to be able to personalise their driving environment to suit them. But it’s still quite daunting on first acquaintance, and fails the patented Glen Waddington Intuitiveness Test™ by irritating me within a couple of minutes so that I didn’t want to be bothered with it any more.
But I’m a CAR Online road tester, so obviously I did bother with it a bit more. I even read the digital handbook (there isn’t a paper one) to find out whether there was an Off switch for the blasted windscreen washers (there isn’t. And why would there be?) and how to unplug your iPod when the screen tells you it’s ‘Not safe to disconnect’. It couldn’t tell me. I unplugged it. I survived. So did the iPod.
Okay, enough tech. How does the new 7-series drive?
Like a very big BMW saloon, is the short answer.
There are four settings for the suspension (Comfort, Normal, Sport, Sport+) and you can play with the throttle response, steering assistance and the aggressiveness of the gearchange using the Drive Dynamic Control. Normal provides a decently BMW-ish compromise, with a firm, level ride, a quickish helm and the surprising ability to hustle on twisting B-roads. It also quells the Seven’s tendency to get a bit mobile over motorway undulations in Comfort mode.
Sport tightens things up further (and is the mode you need to personalise settings using Drive Dynamic Control) and allows the 7-series to attack bends with an alacrity that’s normally denied cars this long and wide. The steering is quick and accurate, if not exactly over-burdened with feel, and is key to the instant confidence with which the big BMW endows you.
>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our BMW 730d first drive review
Sounds great. Any downsides to the new 730d?
It may not have escaped your attention that the new Seven is a big, fat luxury saloon. And you may have certain expectations of big, fat luxury saloons. I know I do. Silence and comfort, in particular.
Let’s talk about silence first. This is an exceptionally refined car, no doubt. The engine, a diesel straight six, is audible at town speeds and makes such an agreeable sound that you probably won’t mind. But it’s only silent once you’re cruising. Wind noise is low but there’s a fair degree of rumbling from the tyres over typical motorway surfaces. So, again, silence is denied the 7-series driver. That may or may not be a problem, depending on whether you’re after a bigger BMW or an absolute luxury car regardless of origin.
Same goes for comfort. Even in Comfort mode, there’s always an underlying knobbliness to the ride, probably because this thing rides on run-flats. If you’re used to the way a Jag XJ wafts you around, or how an S-class blunderbusses bumps into submission, you might wonder what all this surface intrusion is.
Surely the 7-series is luxurious in other ways?
Of course it is. There’s leather for the seats, dashtop and doors, slabs of wood, loads of electric trickery (seats, steering column, you name it) and limo-like space in the back. You’ll only need a long-wheelbase version if you habitually carry the world’s tallest man as a rear-seat passenger.
Gone is the awkward double-bubble dash of the previous 7, replaced by something more traditionally BMW-shaped, with a driver-orientated centre console, proper, big, clear instruments, and something of the architecture of the original 1970s 7-series in the shape of the instrument binnacle and central air vents.
But though all the ingredients are there for a truly atmospheric cabin, something’s happened in the cooking process that denies the latest 7-series any real character. Perhaps it’s all just too efficient; perhaps big sat-nav screens don’t look right in a luxury interior; maybe it’s because the leather grain is matched to the plastic surfaces and doesn’t feel as supple as it might. Whatever, BMW’s stylists have missed a trick inside.
While we’re on about styling, there’s been a cautious step away from the overtly challenging looks of the old Seven. Some will prefer it, but there’s something anti-climactic about the latest iteration's meekness.
Check the ratings. It’s a four-star car, this 7-series. But can I be the only person who’s mildly disappointed by that?
In so many respects this is a great car: spacious, luxuriously finished, and with a certain gravitas, all of which make it enormously admirable, if rather less admirably enormous. But there’s a problem and it’s that there’s just no tingle factor here. Anybody who drives the 730d will like it an awful lot. I do. But I don’t love it. And because it costs nearly 60 grand, I think I should.
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