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Battle of the barges: BMW i7 vs Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Since Karl Benz himself was in lederhosen, Mercedes has built the world’s best luxury saloon. Can BMW finally upset the Apfelkarren?

Published: 07 Aug 2023

It's got a face on it, the BMW i7. Iron Man's face. Narrowed eyes in an impassive metal mask bleak and tough enough to batter through brick walls. Handy, in a pursuit situation. It comes across not so much a luxury car as a modernist object. Rolling architecture, a mobile monument to controversy. You don’t even notice the grille. In M Sport guise it’s been absorbed into a mouthy morass that incorporates a full width biker’s tache.

It’s the anti S-Class. Finally. At long last. I mean how many years, decades, has it taken BMW, Audi et al to realise that mimicry doesn’t work? That merely copying the S-Class, the plutocrat’s totem-in-chief, isn’t enough? OK, BMW has done controversial before. The 2001 7 Series was a square, chiselled Bangle block. That was the car that introduced iDrive to the world, and set the tone for all in-car infotainment until the touchscreen came along. Its influence was massive, but despite that it was never a better car than the S-Class.

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The new one is. Genuinely. Game given away early, but the traditional car classes rarely relinquish their idols; these are sectors built and shaped around the cars that have come to symbolise them - the Golf, Range Rover, BMW 3 Series. And yes, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Toppling one almost never happens (the Golf scuttled itself). Because you don’t build a better car by copying it.

Photography: Mark Riccioni

So how has BMW done it? It has nothing to do with the i7’s electric drive. OK, little to do with it. Twin motors drawing discreetly from a 101kWh battery provide plentiful surge, but that’s not the point. The throttle calibration is immaculate. You want to crawl in traffic? Done. Surge past slower traffic? Done. Park? Done. And done with such precision and diligence that you never think about it. Mercedes doesn’t do an electric S-Class. The all-electric EQS lurks in a different, curious realm. For the driver, not the driven, a car with an indistinct personality and role.

So here we have an S580e. And provided you never push it too hard it’s within an inch of being as smooth and silent as the BMW. The in-line turbocharged six is largely undetectable, just a hint of background vibration. Unless you let the revs climb. Above 4,000rpm there’s a thin rasp that doesn’t suit the S-Class’s refined demeanour. But the petrol/electric handover is seamless and Merc’s well integrated plug-in hybrid remains the benchmark by which all are judged.

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And at least you don't have to charge it up, right? It doesn’t matter that the BMW will easily do 280 miles between charges because the S-Class will do double that without the driver palpitating about where their next charge might come from. Electric isn’t yet the right solution for an airport chauffeuring fleet. For that reason, BMW does a 750e xDrive. It’s about £10k cheaper and the stats line up respectably next to the S. We haven’t driven one yet, or we’d be able to comment more comprehensively on the point made earlier about the i7’s win here having little to do with its pure electric drive. But yes, as suspected, electric is the ultimate way to motivate a luxury car.

But noise and vibration doesn’t just come from the engine – and here’s where BMW has really scored one over Mercedes. The i7 rides better than the S580e. It’s quieter, more cushioned and supple. It floats beautifully over undulations, but it’s the way the air suspension (individually controlled on each wheel) eases over speed bumps as lightly as a cloud over a hilltop that really sets it apart. In the S-Class there’s a trace of low speed thump and jostle, not much, but enough to fractionally disturb the peace of the back seat.

The BMW’s suspension insulation is extraordinary. Clearly, technology has been hosed at the i7, but a shout out too for the new bushes for the e-motors, steering that has been elastically mounted to the front axle to stop noise and vibration from the tie rods, and a hydraulically mounted rear axle to prevent resonance back into the cabin.

Normally, focus on softness and absorbency would result in a car that fell to bits at a corner. But once again here comes tech to save the day: adaptive dampers, 48V active anti-roll and rear wheel steering. It’s a 5.4-metre long, 2,640kg car that feels accurate and nimble to drive. You get in and reckon it’s going to be like piloting a tanker around a Cornish harbour, only to discover that it appears to be a boating lake pedalo. It’s uncanny. Easy to place, responsive and with a good turning circle. Plus it’ll whisk itself down a B-road with enough verve that those watching Ronin in the back will think they’re in a sim rig.

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The Mercedes doesn’t steer quite so alertly, but otherwise uses much the same technology to similar effect. And being substantially lighter, it actually has more grip and holds itself together even better if you are intent on throwing it about like you’re actually in Ronin rather than just watching it. But these are luxury cars, and the BMW drives more luxuriously than the Mercedes. It pours itself along tarmac with a syrupy smoothness that I’ve only experienced before in a Rolls-Royce. No coincidence given the links between the two.

You’ll have heard two things about the BMW’s interior: that it has a giant cinema screen for rear passengers, and that the doors open and close electrically. And you’re probably reckoning they’re both non-essential gimmicks. I don’t think they are. Instead, what they do is help the i7 tilt the concept of luxury. This is a more playful, laid-back, relaxed take on luxury than the S-Class. That, for all its considerable strengths, ploughs a traditional, fractionally austere furrow. BMW seems to have had fun creating its new car. This is the essence of the i7, and why it steals the Merc’s crown.

Yes, the Mercedes has mood lighting that ebbs and flows around the cabin. At night it looks marvellous, soft light picking out the burnished metal trims and the intricate grilles of the Burmester sound system. There’s a hint of baroque theatre to the S-Class. And it is hugely comfortable with sumptuous seats for all. Appearances suggest this is the lower, leaner car, yet it’s got a toe more legroom than the BMW and has the more cocooning environment. Depending on trim level there’s plenty of stuff to play with in the back, but it doesn’t have anything to match the BMW’s party trick.

The i7’s Theatre Screen comes as part of the £28,000 Ultimate Pack. That’s a ridiculous amount of money, but if you’re going to be chauffeur driven, you might as well make the most of it. The 31.3-inch 8K display folds itself out of the roof and blows you away. Well, it’s mostly the 36 speakers of the Bowers & Wilkins hi-fi that do that, complete with exciters that vibrate the seats in time with the bass. Like the Merc, the passenger seat will contort itself into the front footwell, allowing the one behind to pick you up and lay you back. This is the seat to be in. The position ends up being curiously akin to a dentist’s chair, only without the fear. Put simply I don’t know of another travelling experience to rival wafting along in the back of the i7.

Central to the BMW’s appeal, weirdly, is a modest button on the centre console labelled MyModes. It’s the sort of button you’d normally press to get Sport or Efficient driving modes – and indeed those are in here. But so are others: Expressive, Relax, Theatre. Select one and any number of things happen: the mood lighting changes, the screen folds down, the suspension stiffens, the blinds rise, massage starts, you can even start playing Hans Zimmer tunes on the throttle. It should all be ridiculous, but actually it’s a laugh.

Battle of the barges: BMW i7 vs Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Once beyond buttons though, you’re forced to interact with the giant touchscreen. You’ll get lost in menus and options. The Mercedes is more navigable, has more logical shortcuts but still, too much eyes off road time. This is anti-luxury. The German brands, unlike Rolls and Bentley, haven’t learned that the ‘agony of choice’ is literal.

The argument both brands make is that we must now talk to our cars, must use Siri and ‘Hey Mercedes’. So for two weeks with these cars, I did. They get it right seven times out of 10. The other three make you boil with irritation. But also this: these cars are for the chauffeur driven. The chauffeur cannot chat to the car if he has a client in the back. It’s the same with family cars: how long do you think it’ll take a five-year-old to pick up on the catchphrase and cause havoc? Even travelling solo, who wants to interrupt the radio or music to ask the car to do something you should be able to do yourself in less than half the time?

The same ought to apply to the electric doors (also part of the Ultimate Pack), but there is something Jeeves-ish about the door whisking itself open and closed. There are 12 ultrasound sensors to stop them opening into things. There’s a lot of rinky dink razzle dazzle about these cars, but what they no longer are is the best car in the world. The game has moved on, is played better in other sectors now. Few see luxury saloons as the aspirational end game.

So despite its win, the BMW doesn’t get to call itself the best car in the world. Still, this new i7 should be every bit as influential as 2001’s spatial oddity. It’s a fresher, brasher take on luxury than the car that has, until now, reigned supreme.

No 1: BMW i7 xDrive 60 M Sport (9/10)

The luxury saloon world has a new champ. Ignore the tricky visuals and focus on the lovely road manners and immersive rear seat experience

No 2: Mercedes-Benz S580E L AMG Line Premium Plus Exec (9/10)

The S-Class hardly lags far behind. Sumptuous in the back and easier to manage up front. Hybrid remains the pick of the range

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