Ace is a proper bit of kit, and cheapest way into an Ariel
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£66,560 when new
Ah, a facelift for the 7-series… Don’t be obtuse. Sure the styling is – putting it kindly – evolutionary because BMW reckons its big limo buyers run a mile from anything radical. But it’s an all-new car. As in really, properly, radically new. Hardly anything is carried over from the old one. There’s a look into the new tech here. Without listing every single new component, give us an overview. BMW calls the body ‘carbon core’. Meaning the shell contains several major reinforcing elements of carbonfibre. Big ones, too – some are as long as I am tall. They’re in the sills, posts, the roof rails and the centre tunnel. Much of the rest is aluminium and very-high-strength steel, and there’s magnesium too. This made the body 40kg lighter. And the rest? Because the suspension and wheels have a less stressful job, and because they use modern redesigning techniques and materials, these chassis parts have lost another similar hunk of mass. Other slimming-down takes the total weight loss to 130kg on the V8 750i. If they’d have simply added all the new car’s extra equipment onto the old car, they’d have ended up with something 70kg heavier than before. So the like-for-like drop is an impressive 200kg. So the engines don’t have to work so hard? Nope, and they’re more powerful anyway. The straight-sixes on the 730d and 740i are all-new, from today’s modular family. The diesel, which is the one people in Britain will buy, is a lot quieter and smoother than before. It does a 6.1 second to 62 run, hits 155mph, and is rated at 124g/km on 19-inch wheels. In the context of a full-size luxo-barge, you might like to stop and consider those numbers for a minute. An S350d (6.8 sec) is 148g/km. I didn’t try the 740i, but did have a long go in the four-wheel-driven, twin-turbo V8 750Li xDrive (pic 11, above). The V8 is much as before, but it was never shabby. It makes 450bhp, with a subtle background rhythm section. It gets to 62 in the mid-fours and obeys all your reasonable – and many of your unreasonable – requests for forward impulsion. Still not enough? There will be a V12 760iL in 18 months’ time. How does it feel down the road? Tremendously isolating. The ride is terrific, soaking up big bumps and avoiding the tremor of small ones, and keeping body heave well contained. Air suspension and adaptive dampers are fitted as standard, which help, as does the lightness of the chassis. But the test cars had an extra tweak: “Executive Drive Pro”, which consists of a pair of variable anti-roll bars. They relax on straights, to stop the car rocking if only one side hits a bump. But they stiffen for corners. Not just as the car turns, but in anticipation: the car uses the nav system and a stereo camera to anticipate bends. The dampers are bundled in the same control logic, as is the optional all-wheel steering. Result is it really can attack tight and twisty corners like a much smaller car – it’s more nimble than most versions of the 5-series, I’d say. Hang on, is it one of those ridiculously over-configurable cars then? No, you don’t have to keep toggling between ‘sport’ and ‘comfort’ every time the road cycles between interesting and boring. A new ‘adaptive’ mode sets the chassis and powertrain according to how you’re driving and what the anticipatory powers see ahead. It sets up the car accordingly. And it worked seamlessly enough that by day two I trusted it enough to leave well alone in that mode.
OK, so it rides and handles well. But I asked how it feels, not just how it behaves. Rather remote, actually. In all modes the steering is wispy-light and whisper-quiet, failing entirely to talk to you about grip or tyre load. Maybe that’s OK in a luxo-barge, but given the car’s agility I missed some intimacy through my hands. It’s also a very low-geared setup, despite the fact that the rear tyres can add some steering too. I found myself failing to wind the wheel far enough for tight bends. Of course if you want to drive like that on roads like that, you’d probably buy a sports car. But the frail-feeling steering also means it doesn’t cleave to a straight line at speed as earnestly as an Autobahn cruiser should. An autobahn car that can’t do the Autobahn. Gott in Himmel. Well, technology comes to our aid. It has semi-autonomous driving that nudges your hands back into lane. Plus a warning vibrator if you drift out. They work well enough. But can’t we have them and decent on-centre feel too? The adaptive cruise control reads road signs and suggests the new limit to you, whether that’s faster or slower than your current speed. One tap of a button then accepts it. These things ease your workload over an 800-mile day. The gorgeously inviting plump leathered seats cancel fatigue too. If it looks so conservative, does it run dark-ages IT? Not at all. It’s got all the 4G and wifi you could wish for. You can control the main screen by the iDrive knob, or by voice command, as before. But BMW has newly added touch sensitivity to the main screen, which is super-handy for map zooming and scrolling. And there’s a new party trick: a camera looks at your hand movements near the screen, so by simply waving or swiping or jabbing or twisting in its general direction you can perform certain infotainment functions. Frankly it’s a bit of a gimmick at the moment, but a fab bit of showmanship. Main thing is, all the screens are very high in resolution and low in latency (the climate panel is also a touchscreen, and the main instruments are digital representations, and there’s an optional head-up display). Serious computer power is at work here. So is it a limo or an ultimate driving machine? Standard or long wheelbase? Drive or be driven? Interesting one. Design chief Adrian van Hooydonk says that for the first time in a 7-series they designed the LWB version first and then spun the SWB off it, “so the standard car is a derivative really.” And with the four-wheel steering, the long car doesn’t act any bigger to drive – at least not til you need a parallel parking space. Meanwhile, it’s much roomier inside, and can be had with a pair of snuggly reclining rear seats, a theatre-like wash of ambient light and a brilliant Bowers+Wilkins hi-fi. I got a lift in the back of a 750Li xDrive and didn’t particularly want to arrive. That said, the interior design is a bit predictable, lacking in wow factor. Top of the class? I’m not sure that’s the point. Sure the way it can switch from cocoon to athlete is impressive, but an S-class still has a better sense of occasion and of cohesion, and that’s probably what matters. So what does the 7-series matter for the price of fish? Call it trickle-down. For the foreseeable future, every longitudinal-engined BMW will get a derivative of this structure (though most of them without the carbonfibre), these powertrains, this chassis, these electronics. And it bodes well. If the next-gen 3, 4, 5, and 6 inherit these genes of lightness, handling, comfort and refinement, we say bring ’em on. As long as the new steering gets a work-over, anyway.
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