► Upsetting looks
► Yet practical and enjoyable to drive
► Seven seats executed well
It's been a long time since BMW first ventured into SUVs with the X5 - building a car with enough off-road attitude (and just enough off-road ability) to join the legions of posh SUVs at the private school gates. Its success opened the door for a range of smaller X models and five-door coupe spin-offs, but BMW has never ventured into larger, more profitable Range Rover territory – perhaps ironically given it funded the previous generation Rangie. But now it has with the X7.
Prices start on the other side of £75,000, and you won’t see many about: BMW hopes to shift around 800 a year here – a tenth of the X5s it registered in 2018.
When you say ‘larger’…
It’s huge. But, despite what the challenging Buckingham Palace front grille suggests, BMW’s biggest car is not abnormally mammoth. At 5151mm long and over 2.3 tonnes, the X7 sits between the slightly smaller and lighter Range Rover and the slightly larger and heavier Mercedes GLS. A 7-series is a bit shorter, the long-wheelbase version longer, both dwarfed in height, width and weight.
The X7 shares its basic CLAR architecture with the 7-series, but it does not feature the 7’s Carbon Core construction, in which carbonfibre is used in places like the transmission tunnel and cant rails alongside aluminium and steel. That’s because the X7 is not built in Germany like the 7-series, but at BMW’s Spartanburg plant in the USA.
We’re told that while BMW does source carbonfibre for its i cars in the US, it’s too costly to productionise here. ‘In this class, you might as well invest in extra equipment,’ explains our source.
Equipment is certainly generous: the xDrive 40i gets 21-inch alloys, air suspension, panoramic sunroof, comfort access with soft-close doors and the new bells and whistles iDrive 7.0 – you can talk at it, wave fingers in the air near it, touch a screen, twirl a dial, and it all works fabulously well, despite that seemingly over-complex interaction.
There’s also a suitably rich and luxurious feel to the cabin, from its extended leather and excellent build to the dual 12.3-inch digital screens and a gearknob and rotary iDrive control like a crystal decanter. It almost makes you forget the 2.3-tonne kerbweight.
Which engines are available?
There are three at launch in the UK, all six cylinders. But a couple of years on two of them have been dropped and replaced. We’re testing the xDrive 40i, a turbocharged 3.0-litre with 329bhp that returns 27.7mpg and 233g/km. There's also an xDrive 40d, a diesel variant with 335bhp capable of returning 36.2mpg and 204g/km.
Topping the range is the M50i, with 523bhp - it's capable of 0-62mph in just 4.7 seconds, impressive given the sheer mass of the X7.
What’s it like to drive?
BMW has targeted even greater comfort than the 7-series, and it’s certainly a serene environment with air suspension and – the engineers are very proud that they fought for this one – fluid-filled suspension bushings. There’s a cushioned lull to suspension movements, but while this is very much a comfort-focussed experience, it never feels like you’re sloshing about because suspension movements are so nicely regulated.
The seats are highly comfortable, it’s as if wind- and road-noise has been snuffed out by goose-down pillows, and the Bowers and Wilkins hi-fi in our car basically turned the entire cabin into a pair of expensive noise-cancelling headphones.
It goes well too, and even the xDrive40i never feels underpowered despite all the mass it has to lug: max torque from 1500rpm gives it an easy-going nature at lower speeds, it's smooth through the rev range, and it pulls well when you really floor it too. Even the purposeful but subdued exhaust note fits the bill.
We've since tried the xDrive30d M Sport. Priced at £75k, the 264bhp 3.0-litre, turbodiesel will probably be the most popular X7 of the bunch. In truth, its 0-62mph in 7.0 second sprint is more than respectable for a car this size – but we've been spoilt by the more powerful petrol engines on offer. It's great, just don't compare it to some of the sillier, Newton-bothering engines in the range. Luckily, it's since been replaced by the punchier 40d.
Does it go around corners?
Despite the cushy ride, BMW engineers have targeted best-in-class dynamics – indeed, one chassis expert with a background in WTCC and DTM was quick to quash any fears that this would be BMW’s least dynamic car (and mumbled something about front-wheel-drive 2-series).
Chassis tuning was even conducted at the Nürburgring. Apparently the chassis engineers reached an impasse until someone suggested they changed tack from a conservative chassis set-up to one as agile as possible, with software for the all-wheel drive, steering, differential and suspension layered on to keep owners out of trouble. ‘It took two months but immediately it went five seconds faster at the Nürburgring,’ says our man. You’d certainly move out of its way on the touristfarting days.
We didn’t drive it on the ’Ring, though. Our test route took us from BMW’s Spartanburg plant to Savannah, Georgia, which unfortunately conformed to the Americans-only-drive-on-straight-roads stereotype we know to be largely rubbish.
But on the few freeway on-ramps and corners we did experience, the steering had a familiarly pacey, weighty and precise feel, and the X7 certainly turned in well, resisted roll, gripped hard and felt suitably rear-biased when driven more aggressively. It feels both far more dynamic than expected, and like a much smaller, nimbler machine that the proportions suggest, but only UK roads will paint the full picture.
Does the X7 actually go off-road?
It does. Ground clearance of 221mm, all-wheel drive and air suspension that can be raised by up to 40mm should more than cope with most owners’ demands, but BMW is happy to leave the really serious terrain to Land Rover, barely mentions off-road capability in the press material and didn’t include any off-roading on the press launch.
It’s also telling that the xOffroad package is optional, with four off-road modes (the unnecessarily pre-fixed xSand, xRocks, xGravel and xSnow), mechanical diff lock and sump guard.
Can it do tip runs? Carry three generations at once?
You can. The X7 comes as standard with seven seats. Row two can be moved forwards and back by up to 14.5cm so you can flex the ratio between space for those occupants, or for people or luggage behind. The seat backs also split 60/40 as standard.
Row two tilts forward to provide access to row three. It’s a bit of a squeeze getting back there and out again, but there’s decent space for two full-size adults once seated, and even armrests, cupholders, heated seats and the option of air vents and a climate-control panel.
Row three also includes Isofix child-seat mounting points – not all seven seaters do, which means child seats have to be locked into row two, with the knock-on that accessing row three is harder for other passengers. Not in the X7. So if you’ve got a young family and regularly carry more than five, the X7’s rear Isofix is a real bonus.
With all three rows raised, the boot is smaller than a Golf’s at 326 litres (the electric split tailgate actually helps to stop the stuff you’ve crammed in falling out) but row two and three can electrically lowered at the press of a button, providing 750 litres and 2120 litres of space respectively.
A more opulent six-seat layout is available, which switches the middle-row bench for a pair of captain’s chairs. Clearly, you’ll need to leave one passenger at the kerb and you lose the ability to fold row two completely flat and carry really big loads, but there’s more space and comfort for the two remaining, and the gap between the seats makes getting back to row three easier. BMW predicts 40% of buyers will opt for the six-seater, and it’d be our recommendation unless the drawbacks already listed are deal-breakers.
BMW X7: verdict
For a car that’s easy to dislike on account of its sheer bulk and those frankly monstrous kidney grilles, there’s actually a lot to enjoy once you’re aboard the BMW X7, and there’s no doubt its mix of luxurious refinement, seven-seat versatility and dynamic ability is unmatched by any rivals for comparable money.