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BMW 7-Series driven in Russia

  1. The BMW 7-Series is an hermetically sealed, double-glazed real-world repellent. It’s also one of those cars in which very important and often rather scary decisions are made. Politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, industrialists and nefarious Third World despots generally go about their business by German limo, combining embassy gravitas with a determined amount of below-radar discretion.

    Words: Jason Barlow
    Pics: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in the October 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. BMW’s 7-Series might be flying too far below the radar for its own good, though. Imagine the discomfort at the BMW boardroom table: the 3 and 5 own their respective segments, but the 7 routinely gets its backside tanned by the Mercedes S-Class, the techno-showboat everyone wants to be seen disembarking from.

  3. With an all-new Mercedes S-Class looming, BMW’s biggest, stealthiest car has just been nipped and tucked. There are enlarged kidneys on the grille, the new front apron gives it a more lantern-jawed look, and the full spangly complement of LED lights are present and correct. There are revised engines - from 258bhp 730i to 544bhp 760i V12 - an eight-speed transmission standard across the range, TFT instruments, sophisticated interior upgrades, while all-wheel drive is available for the first time, and self-levelling air suspension promises to iron out the previous 7’s surprisingly irksome ride quality.

  4. Tellingly, we’re in Russia to drive it. This is a hot market for cars like the 7-Series, as there are more than 100,000 millionaire households here now. In parallel with China - where there will be 500,000 new millionaires by 2014 - no prizes for guessing the impact enhancing its most profitable model will have on Munich’s bottom line. “The anticipated growth in the luxury segment and its resilience to economic volatility make it particularly attractive,” says BMW board member and Brit Ian Robertson. In 2011, BMW sales in Russia rose by 40 per cent compared to the previous year.

  5. So Saint Petersburg it is, held to be the most European of Russian cities, the second biggest after Moscow and a place whose incredible Baroque palaces and buildings have been rocked by mankind at his most revolutionary over the centuries since Tsar Peter the Great founded it in 1703.

  6. It has been variously Petrograd and Leningrad, before reclaiming its original name in 1991. There have been assassinations, sieges, aerial assaults, naval bombardments. But there are also remarkable treasures (the Hermitage Museum houses the world’s biggest art collection), while the vast River Neva and a network of smaller waterways give the city a part-Venetian feel. It’s epic.

  7. Travelling in a car like the 7 should be a similarly grandiose experience, and in many ways it is. Against the likes of the Audi A8, Merc S-Class and Jag XJ, the big BMW is a beautifully crafted object. If the mood lighting and clever interior doorhandles - they’re upholstered on the inside - don’t match Jag’s XJ for emotional elegance, it’s palpably better made. The rear compartment is icily cool, and there are ottomans to tease the feet.

  8. Problem is, BMW seems to be backing away from the 7’s remit as the sportiest-driving limo, burnt perhaps by the outgoing car’s poorly resolved ride. The new one is better, but still lacks the S-Class’s sublime blend of pillowy smoothness and balance. It doesn’t handle like the XJ, either, and the absence of a paddle-shift underlines the 7’s apparent abandonment of hustle mode. At least you don’t find yourself endlessly faffing about with those eight ratios.

  9. The 7 still convincingly smothers the city, and we head to Kronstadt on the A118 motorway, an incredible piece of civil engineering suspended over the Baltic. Kronstadt was once the most heavily fortified island in the world, a supreme bulwark against naval incursions, before the sailors eventually turned mutinous in 1921. Islanders, eh? Our pearlescent white 750i prowls around its streets in the way only big German saloons can, an utterly incongruous presence in a garrison that was once one of the key strategic bases of the awesome Russian Baltic Fleet.

  10. More than 45,000 people still live here, but Kronstadt has a compelling air of faded imperial ambition. Fast-corroding Volga saloons sink into the ground on deflated tyres. There are smashed windows, crumbling masonry, and while we’re filling up the 750i - it gets an Eco-Pro mode now, so BMW claims this 447bhp V8 can average 33mpg - we’re eyed by feral dogs and a cock-eyed local whose Lada is emblazoned with a huge tiger. A two-day Western blow-in armed with someone else’s luxo car is one thing, but this symbol of New Russia still feels uncomfortable in a place that hasn’t quite thrown off the vestiges of communism.

  11. There’s life behind the fortress walls that ring the island, though. We talk our way into a boatyard, our local fixer managing to penetrate the natural suspicion of the guy who runs it. There’s a boar’s head in his office and a stuffed wolf sits under a portrait of Putin.

  12. It’s a tense moment, and one in which we fully expect to be relieved of some roubles. But we’re waved in, and an hour later our host is showing us round his weekend retreat, his wife Nina is trying to put lemon in our coffee and his friend - a professor of magnetic fields at one of the city’s polytechnics - is gesturing to the sea and telling us that the ice will freeze to a thickness of a metre from November to April. “Saint Petersburg is windy in the winter,” he adds. “So while the temperature is usually around minus 20°C, it feels colder even than Siberia.”

  13. The boatyard is basically row upon row of improvised steel and chipboard shacks, clinging to a series of swampy little inlets, a kind of nautical equivalent of a dodgy-looking East End lock-up. This impression is under-scored by the arrival of a senior police officer in a Bangle-era 7-Series who stops at the far end, has a conversation with a couple of thick-set-looking dudes, then leaves in a hurry. Elsewhere, a couple of old men sway along unsteadily before toppling over onto a grass verge in a vodka-suffused haze. “I love Russia!” our host, called Alexander, says.

  14. “I have seen the world and I wouldn’t live anywhere else. Life was hard 25 years ago, but today is good.” Like China, the sheer vastness of Russia, its natural assets, and the emergence of a wealthy middle class, means there is big business to be done here. BMW has had a CKD deal with local outfit Avtotor since 1999 and assembles 3, 5 and 7-Series, and all the X models, at a plant in Kaliningrad.

  15. Hyundai and GM have car plants in Saint Petersburg’s heavily industrial hinterland, while Toyota has just spent another £56m boosting the Camry production facility it opened here in late 2007. Renault-Nissan produces 50,000 cars in its Saint Petersburg facility, and earlier this year invested £500m increasing its stake in Lada parent company Avtovaz to create a majority holding by 2014.

  16. This is a country on the move, no question, though the rules are different, as a lawyer friend of mine who worked in Moscow for four years recently confirmed: in the UK, they don’t generally pull guns on you during contract negotiations.

  17. As for the 7-Series, it’s one of those cars I find difficult to critique, mainly because I’m not a despot, bureaucrat or remotely rich. The XJ is more soulful, the A8 probably superior, but also depressingly sterile, and 2013’s new S-Class will no doubt wipe the floor with them all.

  18. Does it really matter? The 7-Series isn’t a car so much as a mobile command centre wearing a BMW badge, from which everything up to and including global domination could be masterminded. And if the proles kick off, well its double-glazing really is very good.

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