Car launches are often preceded by an aura of mystery, as manufacturers try to keep the new model under wraps for as long as possible before a grand unveiling, usually at a major car show. So I was intrigued by BMW’s invitation to what it called a “pre-drive” of the new 7 Series, the flagship of its fleet. A select group of journalists would be flown to France and taken to BMW’s test facility at Miramas, an hour west of Marseilles, for a first look at the car BMW will officially launch at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September. How could I resist?
On our arrival, BMW staff members were quick to disable our smartphone cameras to prevent inadvertent photographing of cars the marque wasn’t even ready to talk about, which could be seen undergoing high-speed endurance testing in part of the facility. The development cars awaiting us were well disguised, with a camouflage paint pattern on the outside and felt covering most of the interior and dashboard.
After getting comfortable behind the wheel, it was time to get a feel for what BMW has been working on for the past few years. But many questions about specifications went unanswered; all we were told was that the cars had twin-turbocharged straight-six engines. The power output was not disclosed, but it was more than sufficient to get the 7 Series going very swiftly.
For the first part of our pre-drive, we negotiated an area designed to simulate varying road conditions, with a slalom through some cones thrown in for good measure. A series of tight S-bends is not something a big luxury saloon, built primarily for the comfort of its passengers, would necessarily tackle with aplomb. But BMWs have always been known for their driving dynamics and the new 7 Series certainly doesn’t disappoint.
One of the key goals in designing the new car was to build on the carbon-fibre technology BMW developed for its electric and hybrid models, the i3 and the i8. That technology has helped deliver a significant decrease in weight, with the new car tipping the scales at 1,770 kilograms, 130 fewer than the current 7 Series. As well as the chassis’ carbon core, engineers worked on reducing the weight of every element that could be lightened without compromising safety or quality, right down to the engine’s insulation. The result is certainly perceptible in the handling; the 7 Series slithered through the slalom much more nimbly than you’d expect from a vehicle of its dimensions.
One of the key goals in designing the new car was to build on the carbon- fibre technology BMW developed for its electric and hybrid models, the i3 and i8
Of course, electronic developments are also an important part of the 7 Series’ evolution. There’s a new Integral Active Steering system, and a Dynamic Drive roll-stabilisation system, which means the rear wheels steer as well, contributing to the car’s agility. The air-based suspension adapts to the road conditions according to the mode you choose: Comfort, Sport and Eco Pro. These are now joined by a fourth mode, Adaptive, in which the car will sense, from your driving inputs and data about the road ahead gleaned from the GPS system, the best settings for the suspension, throttle and steering response, and even the ride height.
The electronic wizardry is also applied to the safety systems, though some features are more applicable to long-distance driving than to our typical Hong Kong commutes. You can instruct the 7 Series to maintain a certain speed and distance relative to the car in front, and to maintain its position within a lane. The driver ultimately retains control; the steering wheel will gently try to guide you, but the force applied comes across as a suggestion rather than an instruction.
The internal radar and cameras that guide the car also deliver automated driverless parking. Pull up in front of a narrow parking space—say, one where you wouldn’t be able to open the doors once parked—step out of the cabin and the car will do the rest. There are limitations, of course: the angle of the car to the parking spot must be within 10 degrees, and the car will not move more than 1.5 times its length. Given that the average parking spot has not grown in proportion with the dimensions of modern cars, this could prove a handy feature.
Back in the cabin, there’s little to be explained about the new Touch Display of the 7 Series, given the pervasiveness of such interfaces in our day-to-day lives. The controls are all very straightforward and work as expected. But the gesture controls are something else. Sensors enable the car to detect when you’re moving your hand in a particular way to issue a command. While the extent of control is limited at the moment, it will surely develop further.
You can accept a phone call by pointing and moving your finger towards the screen, or reject it with a swipe of the hand. Rotating your finger in the air controls the volume, and a two-fingered prod activates a pre-set instruction of your choice, for example, pulling up the navigation system. As interface systems advance, it’s natural that BMW would seek to make the selection of various options as intuitive as possible; the combination of the touch display, gesture control, voice control and old-school physical control, which are not mutually exclusive, means they are easy to learn.
The 7 Series pre-drive whetted my appetite, not only for the car’s formal launch, but also in anticipation of the application of some of these technologies in future BMW models. In the 7 Series, BMW has achieved an excellent balance between the comfort of a luxurious saloon and the dynamic engineering elan that’s long been its raison d’être.