There is a preconception that as a car gets larger, it gets softer and gentler; it disconnects you from the road; it places you gently on a cloud of nothingness while you glide down the highway protected by excessive sound insulation. Even in the driver’s seat, it makes you a passenger.
These preconceptions don’t apply to the redesigned 2016 BMW 7 Series. (Except when you want them to.)
I spent a day with the new 7 on the winding country roads northwest of New York City last week, both as a driver and a willing participant in the absurdly comfortable rear, which has more LCD displays than my home and office combined. But before you drive the 7 — or even ride in it, really — there’s a lot of technology that you have to digest.
BMW, as with other luxury automakers, uses its flagship sedan as a rolling showcase of new, often weird features that are fresh out of the R&D lab. In the long term, many of these features end up trickling down to the smaller and cheaper models in the lineup, but they usually start here. Not only is the new 7 — which starts at $81,300 and can climb north of $130,000 — no exception to this rule, but I think BMW has actually doubled down on it: there’s more ridiculous stuff happening in and around this vehicle than anything else I’ve driven (excluding, perhaps, the Mercedes-Benz F 015, which is as far from production as a concept car can possibly be).
The wizardry starts before you get in. BMW offers its so-called Display Key on this car as a $250 option, which debuted on the i8, but this is the first time it’s being made available on a mass-market car (insomuch than you can call the 7 a "mass-market car"). The Display Key looks a bit like a tiny smartphone, featuring four buttons on the front for lock, unlock, trunk release, and panic — the same buttons you find on most car remotes — but here, they’re pushed up to the very top of the fob to make room for a full color touchscreen. By swiping back and forth on this display, you can see whether the doors are locked, toggle lighting, see the car’s range based on the current fuel level, and schedule the climate control system to turn on at a certain time so that it’s comfortable by the time you get into the car. It’s a novelty — there’s nothing about this key that you need — but that’s true of many features on this car. The same could really be said of the car itself. You get it because it’s cool, not because you need it.
You get it because it’s cool, not because you need it
Of course, a key with a screen on it dies a lot faster than a regular key, so there’s a little slot in the car’s armrest where it wirelessly charges while you drive. BMW tells me the key will last about a week between charges with normal use, and if it dies, you can still use it like a regular key for many months before the battery goes completely dead. (I’m not sure I’d remember to stick it in the armrest very often, so this is important.) The key doesn’t use a cellular connection to communicate with the car — they talk directly to one another — so the range is just a few hundred feet. Don’t expect to schedule the air conditioner from another state.
And again, that’s just the key. Inside, the 7 is basically a Best Buy’s worth of gadgets, buttons, and displays. A small symbol in the center of the dashboard, a phone with three RF waves coming out of it, is an NFC touchpoint — tap your NFC-compatible phone against it, and it’ll automatically pair to the car’s speakerphone and audio systems. Beneath, another color touchscreen controls the cabin’s weather patterns — including the heated and ventilated seats. This display also manages the car’s optional fragrance system, which can dispense either of two smells at your choice of several intensity levels from cartridges in the glove box. Yes, it sounds utterly ridiculous, but they’re really pleasant; the car I drove had the "Golden Suite No. 2" and "Authentic Suite No. 2" fragrances installed, and I found both to be refreshing additions to the cabin. As a car ages and gets grosser, I think this feature would basically pay for itself. (BMW charges $350 for the "Ambient Air Package," which includes the fragrance system and an ionizer.)
There’s also gesture control, a trick BMW first showed off at CES earlier this year. It’s pretty basic — you can turn volume up and down, answer calls, and assign one special gesture (a poking motion with two spread fingers) to a function of your choice. For the purpose of my drive, I had it assigned to navigate me back to my starting point, lest I get lost somewhere in upstate New York.
The gesture control system works with a camera in the 7’s headliner pointed forward toward the center-mounted iDrive touchscreen. You can’t execute the gestures with your elbow lazily perched on the armrest — you need to extend your hand forward so it’s within view of the camera, just a few inches from the dashboard. That makes it little more than a parlor trick, since many of the controls are duplicates of buttons already available on the dash or just a tap or two away on the iDrive display. Still, it’s an easy way to get a rise out of a passenger: make a clockwise circle in the air, the radio volume turns up. Go in the other direction, it turns down. Magic.
Speaking of iDrive, I’ve run out of ways to criticize BMW’s oft-maligned infotainment system. Every reasonable problem that I can think of has been resolved. It’s pretty, fast, well-organized, and offers several methods of interaction so you can use it in whatever way you prefer — the touchscreen is new to BMW, but you’ve still got the traditional iDrive controller with a touch-sensitive top for character recognition when entering text. But there’s still no CarPlay or Android Auto support, and I believe this is the last generation of car where potential buyers will tolerate that oversight — these features are going to rapidly become must-haves. BMW is precious about iDrive, yes, but drivers are precious about their smartphones. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.
BMW is precious about iDrive, yes, but drivers are precious about their smartphones
As much fun as it is to twist knobs and press buttons in the 7’s driver’s seat, the back is just as wonderful. If you add the $5,750 Rear Executive Lounge Seating Package, the passengers are treated to heated / cooled / massaging / reclining seats with footrests, a pull-out tray (like you’d find on an airline seat), large, vibrant displays mounted to the backs of the front seats for watching movies, and a center console with a built-in Samsung Android tablet that can wirelessly control a bunch of functions — climate control, radio, seat position, and so on. The tablet is held in place by two motorized clasps that retract with the press of a button, popping the tablet upward at an angle so it’s easy to grab. The whole experience is a little like sitting in business class on an international flight; you can’t lie completely flat, but there’s enough legroom to get absurdly comfortable.
And therein lies the 7’s greatest contradiction: being driven in it is heavenly, and you can completely disconnect from the world around you if you want. But at the same time, it’s just as wonderful to drive. I had the uprated 750i xDrive model, featuring a 445-horsepower V-8 that’s good for 0-60 in a healthy 4.3 seconds. BMW is touting this car’s extensive use of carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP) — the strong, light material used in the chassis of the i3 and i8 — and I’m a believer. Between the engine and the weight reduction, I felt like I was driving a much smaller car. Selectable drive modes include a Sport mode — which changes the suspension damping, power steering, transmission mapping, and the appearance of the full LCD instrument cluster — and if I’d been blindfolded, I might have guessed I was driving a 5 Series, or even a 3. (I don’t recommend driving blindfolded, but you get my point.)
In the twisties, this car made me want to drive: it was responsive but refined, endlessly powerful without being raw like an M4. (I drove over a couple decent potholes, and apart from a dull "thud," I couldn’t feel a thing.) But then there are other times where I just wanted to kick back: the drive home from the test facility, for instance, where heavy eyelids nearly had me pulling off to the side of the road for a nap. As you might expect, this 7 is just about as self-driving as today’s regulations will allow it to be: on highways, you can basically go hands-off. In Europe, the car can even park itself, but US rules require someone to be in the driver’s seat — currently.
The rise of car services and autonomous tech has the entire automotive industry in an existential crisis. Here, though, BMW is making a compelling case that even in the age of the Google Car, you’re still going to be able to have your cake and eat it too: when driving is fun, go ahead and drive. When it isn’t, don’t. The technology for doing both is getting better, weirder, crazier, and more entertaining than it’s ever been before. In fact, I’d take it even a step further; in order to convince me that a fully autonomous car that can’t be driven is a good idea, BMW and its contemporaries are going to have to get a lot worse at making cars fun to drive.