The BMW 7 Series cars are some of the most dynamic and exhilarating large luxury sedans in the world. Completely redesigned for 2009, the fifth-generation 7 Series line expanded considerably for 2011. The 740i and 740Li were the first six-cylinder 7 Series cars since 1992. Also new for 2011 were the ActiveHybrid 750i and 750Li models, combining power with fuel economy. And for those who want even more performance, BMW teamed up with tuner Alpina to offer a new Alpina B7. All-wheel drive is available for stability and traction in wintry conditions.
After all that, changes are limited for 2012. All models now come with an iPod/USB adapter, sport steering wheel and rearview camera; while V8 models get upgraded audio systems and 19-inch wheels. Some option packages have changed.
The 2012 BMW 7 Series sedans comes in standard and long versions, the latter designated by an L in the numeric nomenclature. The BMW 740Li, 750Li and 760Li have a wheelbase that's 5.5 inches longer than that of the 740i and 750i. They're a little harder to parallel park, but they offer a ride that's even more luxurious and have considerably more rear-seat legroom. So the L models are the better choice for buyers who frequently put adults in the back seat. The long-wheelbase cars have their own roofline, and the silhouette is sleek.
Short or long, all BMW 7 Series models have presence wherever they go. The 7 Series body has no transparently gratuitous scoops or scallops, and the car's size and lines clearly say first class.
The 7 Series interior is classy and luxurious, like a richly appointed, roomy cocoon, protecting occupants from an ornery world. Just about every safety, comfort or convenience feature invented for the automobile is available on the 7 Series. Some of the controls and features are overly complicated, however.
Yet dynamic verve is what really distinguishes the BMW 7 Series: a combination of response, acceleration, smooth ride and sharp handling that few large sedans can match. Weight-efficient construction and innovative chassis technology contribute to the lively driving dynamics that many expect from a BMW.
The BMW 750i and 750Li feature a new-generation V8 engine, with direct fuel injection and twin turbocharging. This 4.4-liter V8 makes 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, awesome numbers for an engine its size, while using less fuel than its predecessor to get occupants around town. It's matched to a 6-speed automatic transmission. The BMW 760Li ups the ante with a 535-hp V12 and an 8-speed automatic. All 7 Series models come with BMW's Brake Energy Regeneration system, which captures energy lost as the car slows to charge the battery.
All-wheel drive adds all-weather capability to the 750xi and 750Lxi and, in our opinion, does so without ruining the sporty handling characteristics found in the rear-wheel-drive models.
The ActiveHybrid 750i and 750Li employ a mild hybrid powertrain with the same twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 from the 750i, an electric motor, a lithium-ion battery, and an 8-speed automatic transmission. Total output is 455 horsepower and 515 pound-feet of torque. Zero to 60 mph arrives in just 4.7 seconds and fuel economy is improved by 15 percent. Fuel economy is good but not great at an EPA-rated 17 mpg City/24 Highway. That's close but not quite as good as the six-cylinder engine.
The Alpina B7 is likely the closest you'll get to an M7, which isn't offered. During our test drive, we found the Alpina B7 offers sharper handling than that of the superb standard models but it doesn't sacrifice overly in terms of ride quality. The Alpina B7 boasts 500 horsepower from its specially tuned, turbocharged 4.4-liter V8, and it rides on 21-inch wheels.
The 2012 BMW 7 Series sedans look sleek and expensive, and for the price they should. What's better, virtually all of the odd, sometimes awkward design cues from the 2002-2009 models are now just fading memories.
In front, the vertical bars in all 7 Series grilles are spaced wider than those on other BMWs, for distinction, though we're not sure it improves its appearance. It doesn't make a car look more stylish by increasing the gap between its teeth. From the driver's seat you don't see that, anyway. What you see is a really nice power bulge on the hood, subtle and sweet.
The 760Li has several discrete styling appointments to distinguish it from the 750Li and 750i. Its kidney shaped grille is trimmed with a wider chrome surround that is slightly concave. The 760Li's side gills, located where the doors meet the front fenders, have a chrome finish and V12 badges.
The 7 Series looks best from the side or front three-quarter view. The hood is long but front overhang is short. Nice. The sheet metal contours, blending concave and convex surfaces, are still there, but they're more subtle than they've been on BMWs of recent years, and they don't shout for attention. The fenders are chiseled upward, nicely. This 7 Series has the maturity and sophistication appropriate to a car of its stature.
The long-wheelbase L models have their own roofline, creating a different profile from the shorter wheelbase models. The L roof travels sensuously along with the rest of the car in order to keep it from looking like a stretched 740i/750i with a long tail. The result is a beautiful shape that also creates a tad more headroom.
Also beautiful are the standard double-spoke alloy wheels. We've seen many lovely cars that don't have wheels that meet the aesthetic standard set by the rest of the design. BMW pays attention.
From the rear, there's little to tell the world that the BMW 740 and 750 models are remarkable luxury cars. The back end looks like any other car on the highway, with big taillights and a horizontal chrome strip. A small lip on the trunk lid only adds accent to the car's lines when viewed from the side. Maybe it's good not to attract attention by those behind.
The 760Li is spiced up a bit in back. An additional chrome bar connects unique dual tailpipes below the bumper line. The 760Li's quad tailpipe tips are rectangular and integrated in the rear air dam. The 760Li comes with unique star-spoke light-alloy wheels that further distinguish it from the sides.
The ActiveHybrid 7 has some special exterior characteristics. It gets unique badging and an exclusive paint color, Blue Water Metallic. Aerodynamic 10-spoke, 19-inch alloy wheels are an exclusive option.
The Alpina has more exclusive exterior content. It features 21-inch 20-spoke BBS wheels, front and rear spoilers that improve stability at speed, a unique rear valance, two double exhaust outlets, and a ride height that is lowered 15 mm up front and 10 mm in the rear.
The BMW 7 Series interior offers the best contemporary automobile craftsmanship and technology have to offer. Unfortunately, it also offers some of the most complicated. Whether the good outweighs the bad depends on personal taste and predilection. We sometimes find it overwhelming. Many owners adapt to it, however, and have no complaints.
First, the good: Great interior lighting, and the world's best rearview video camera, including those that incorporate top and side views. The doors open way wide, for easy entry and exit. The dash is low, thin and lovely, with a great instrument cluster featuring a clean, crisp speedometer, tach, temp and gas gauges. The large 10.2-inch screen with navigation and all its menus is very readable. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is just about perfect, and some drivers will find its audio controls close to salvation.
The 7 Series models deliver the luxurious feeling cars in this class are supposed to create. Comfort, whether in the front seat or rear seat, is superb in the long-wheelbase Li models. Short-wheelbase models have front seats that are just as comfortable. The difference is in the back seats: The standard models offer just 38.9 inches of rear legroom, compared to a luxurious 44.3 inches in the Li models. There's still enough space for most folks in the standard models, including people up to about 5-foot, 10 inches, even when tall occupants are up front.
More good: luxurious leather, even in the base Nappa trim grade, and genuine polished wood available in several choices. We absolutely loved the stitched leather dashboard that's optional on the 750 models and standard on the 760Li.
Other amenities exclusive to the 760Li include stainless-steel door entry trim with an illuminated V12 sill, Alcantara roof lining and sun visors, and individual inlays of exclusive burled walnut.
We'll start the bad with the worst: The 2012 7 Series has the fourth generation of BMW's point-and-click iDrive control, and it's accurate to call it the fourth attempt to get it right. The new version incorporates Menu, CD, Tel, Radio, Nav, Back and Option buttons around the central controller. These buttons cut down on the number of steps it takes to access various functions, but it's still awfully complicated. There are also eight programmable buttons that look like radio presets. They can be used as presets or to program commonly used functions, such as favorite phone numbers and important navigation destinations. Program those to your lifestyle and maybe you'll be golden.
BMW boasts repeatedly that iDrive is clear and intuitive. In our opinion, it is not. This latest version is better than before but still bewildering, and it consumes enormous amounts of concentration while you're trying to focus on the road in front of you. We have, however, talked to 7 Series owners who have learned how to operate iDrive effectively, and some like it.
We give iDrive the big thumbs down. We wish it would be replaced with something simpler. We never figured out how to listen to the radio and hear the navigation commands at the same time, unlike the blissfully easy to understand Dodge we tested the previous week. We couldn't blow up the navigation map nor find streets that might or might not have been there. We were dismayed by the array of questions that had to be answered when we pressed Menu. There are loads of options we never knew we needed or wanted, all with strange names that didn't describe any function we know of. Ditto with icons.
BMW's redesigned, console mounted gear selector isn't much better. It looks like the joystick for a flight-simulation video game, and company engineers have re-invented the Park position, putting it where Reverse is on other cars.
Generally, there are a lot of surprising and significant inconveniences inside the 7 Series. The seatbelt pretensioner annoyingly pretensioned us when we wanted to lean forward for visibility when pulling onto the highway. The standard climate control system offers up to four separate temperature zones, but we drove the 750Li during a heat wave, and the air conditioning on max couldn't make the cabin cool enough. Furthermore, it reset itself at 70 degrees each time the engine was shut off. Maybe we didn't program it correctly. Those wide-opening doors need a grab handle to easily close them, because without the optional soft-touch feature you can barely reach the notch in the armrest to pull them in.
Cubby storage is in short supply, disappointing in such a big car. Not counting the spacious glove compartment, there are so few storage places for basic things that you have to use the cupholders. All we had was a micro cassette tape recorder, a set of keys, a garage door opener, and some bridge toll tickets, and it was too much to ask of our $100,000 car to find us spots to store them. Try to use the over-engineered center console, and there will be a small wing awkwardly flipped up under your elbow. Small door pockets help little.
The 7 Series isn't the greatest for hauling big things, either. Its trunk is large compared to that of a compact sedan, but not when compared to the full-size luxury competition. With 14.0 cubic feet of space, the 7 Series trunk is smaller than those in the Lexus LS or Mercedes S-Class, although a little larger than that of the Audi A8.
From a dynamic standpoint, there's little to complain about when it comes to driving the BMW 7 Series. About 90 percent of the time, any 2012 7 Series model is a truly satisfying machine to operate: both amazingly comfortable and quiet, and impressively quick and agile for a sedan of its size and weight.
That last 10 percent is a gray area and in that zone the driving can get a little annoying. Perhaps BMW, with the 7 Series, suffers from a problem of ambition. It's as if the engineers and designers have attempted to raise the bar in virtually every respect, and in doing so have made simple things, like the gimmicky gear selector and even the electronic turn signals, way more cumbersome or complicated than they need to be.
The inline six-cylinder engine introduced last year is a godsend. It brings the starting price down more than $13,000, relative to the V8-powered 750i, and is plenty powerful. The 740i and 740Li use the N54 version of BMW's 3.0-liter inline-6. This twin-turbocharged engine produces 315 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. It vaults the 740i from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds while delivering fuel economy of 17/25 mpg City/Highway, according to the EPA.
We drove the BMW 740i and found that it feels like a V8, and a good one at that. Despite the turbochargers, there is no appreciable turbo lag. Highway passing response is immediate and plentiful, and torque off the line is more than willing. With such an excellent base engine, the larger engine is harder to justify.
The V8 engine in the 750i and 750Li models is brilliant, even incredible. It's all turbocharged horsepower, torque and smoothness. We can't say enough good things about the 4.4-liter V8. Not just the 400 horsepower, but the 450 pound-feet of torque at a very low 1750 rpm. It is flawless. BMW claims that the 750i will shoot from zero to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, on par with sports cars like the standard Porsche 911, and we don't doubt it for a second. Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 15/22 mpg or 14/20 mpg with all-wheel drive.
The V12-powered 760Li raises the acceleration bar even further. It's powered by a 6.0-liter turbocharged V12 that's turbine smooth, and it bumps output to 535 horsepower and 550 pound-feet of torque at just 1500 rpm. BMW reports a zero-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds. It feels like a jet engine pulling you forward with awesome power. Fuel economy is a thirsty 13/19 mpg.
The 7 Series suspension is nearly as flawless as its engines, whether cruising in a straight line on a rough road, or tossing the big Beemer through curves. The 7 has the first double-wishbone front suspension ever in a BMW passenger car, believe it or not, and the package delivers what might be the best blend of ride comfort and handling response available in a large luxury sedan.
The standard Driving Dynamics Control system offers four suspension modes: Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus. The only problem is all those decisions. Using the Driving Dynamics Control selector located near the iDrive controller and E-shift lever changes the performance characteristics of the car in the areas of shock absorber firmness, throttle response, transmission shift characteristics, power steering assist level, and Dynamic Stability control points (how much the electronic stability control will allow the car to slide before it engages).
The M Sport Package adds 19-inch alloy wheels to the 740i, and 740 Li, and 20-inch wheels to the 750i and 750Li, with extra-sticky performance tires.
The 750i xDrive and 750Li xDrive are the first 7 Series cars with all-wheel drive. While the AWD system is similar to that used in the BMW X5 SUV, on the 7 Series it's tuned more to enhance performance than to optimize traction on low-friction surfaces (though it can do that, too). The 7 Series xDrive more thoroughly integrates all-wheel-drive management with other electronic systems, like stability control and the 7's optional Active Roll Stabilization anti-sway bars.
Like other all-wheel-drive BMWs, the 7's system starts at a 40 percent front/60 percent rear default power split. But when the driver applies power more aggressively, especially through bends, the xDrive 7 adjusts torque distribution to maintain the sporty handling dynamics of rear-wheel drive. Through a hard bend, its control system seeks a steady power split of 20/80 to optimize handling.
On dry roads, regardless of drive type, the 7 Series is remarkably balanced for a car of its heft. Rear- or all-wheel drive, it's almost a toss up. With xDrive, the steering feels heavier than that in rear-wheel-drive models with the optional Integral Active (front and rear) Steering system, and we like the heavier feel. But once the driver gets used to its lighter steering touch, the rear-drive 7 Series is livelier. It almost feels like a smaller car. The rear steering turns the rear wheels with the fronts in sharp bends and in the opposite direction of the fronts at highway speeds to improve stability.
Distinctions are easier to find on a closed course, or in sloppy road conditions. Even with the anti-skid electronics switched off, the 750i xDrive does a lot more of the car-control work for the driver than the rear-drive 750i, balancing itself more readily with less need to be really delicate or active with the gas pedal. The rear-drive 7 Series requires a lot more work, and it asks more of its driver. While that may be exactly what enthusiast drivers want for track day, it's not the preferred set-up in a blizzard. Not many 7 Series owners take their car to track day, anyway.
The gray area of 7 Series satisfaction and performance sits largely in the transmission. The 6-speed automatic seems over-engineered, or at least over-programmed. It insists on doing too many things for the driver, and that's in Normal mode. We're not talking about our usual frequent complaint, that the manual mode isn't very manual; we're talking about a relentless number of automatic downshifts.
Basically, the transmission won't let the car glide. Around town, it almost feels like the emergency brake is on. Back off the throttle, and some program says: The driver wants to slow down. Let's help him! You're going 20 mph and ease off the gas for a red light, intending to coast there, and it downshifts so eagerly that you have to get back on the gas to get to the intersection. It's like the 7 Series is a pickup truck with its transmission in perpetual tow/haul mode. That's great on a race track, but a bit too tense for everyday loafing around.
We had to accelerate to go down our steep hill, because the transmission held the car back so much. Going up a less-steep hill, one-half mile at 25 mph, it downshifted three times and up-shifted twice, all in an effort to keep the car in the optimum gear. It's like the transmission is compelled to use all six of its gears as often as possible. With all that engine torque, it makes no sense. There's plenty of torque in these easy situations to motor along in a lower gear. What's more, the kick-down shifts are often not smooth. Lurch is the word that popped up on our tape recorder, three times.
Out on the highway, this annoyance goes away. It's only poking around town that the 7 Series can be unwilling to glide smoothly. It seemed better with Driving Dynamics Control in Comfort mode, so we suggest staying there, and avoiding Normal altogether. Normal seems like an inappropriate word to apply to this very special car anyhow.
All BMW 7 Series models except the 740i and 740Li are saddled with the federal Gas Guzzler Tax, ranging from $1,000 to $2,100 on top of the purchase price, but we averaged at least 19 mpg with a mix of city and highway driving during a couple of test drives in the 750Li. That, in our view, is acceptable for a car of the 7's size and performance. BMW is nonetheless aware of perceptions about efficiency, and to that end it has added Brake Energy Regeneration to all 7 Series models.
Brake Energy Regeneration captures some of the energy lost as a car slows to a halt, much as the typical hybrid vehicle does. In the case of the 7 Series, that energy is used to turn the alternator, which charges the battery and supplies electrical power. In most gasoline engine cars, the alternator operates when the car is under power, using energy that could otherwise be used to move the car along to charge the battery. In the 7 Series, the alternator only turns when the car is slowing and the engine is essentially idling. When the 7 is accelerating or cruising, the alternator freewheels, so it draws no power from the engine, thus saving fuel over a traditional alternator.
We drove an Alpina B7 and came away thinking the Alpina is the closest we should expect to come to an M7. We don't expect to see BMW build an M7 because its size and weight would prevent it from achieving the sporty character BMW expects in an M model. Having the Alpina B7 means they don't have to play that card.
The Alpina was designed to combine performance with true luxury. It uses a tuned version of the twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 that makes 500 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. BMW says the Alpina is capable of reaching 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds, which makes it as fast as the 760i. Despite the performance tuning, the Alpina delivers its massive power smoothly and without a lot of ruckus.
The Alpina B7 is lowered front and rear, rides on 21-inch wheels, and features BMW's Dynamic Damping Control and Active Roll Stabilization systems. The suspension is tuned by Alpina to balance ride and handling, and it does so impressively. We found the ride quality of the Alpina B7 firm but surprisingly forgiving, considering its shorter springs and larger wheels. Handling is sharper than that of the other 7 Series models. Drivers can choose among Comfort, Normal and Sport modes to tailor dynamics to the situation.
We have not driven an ActiveHybrid model.
The 2012 BMW 7 Series is the ultimate driving machine among big luxury sedans. It offers impressive performance from its brilliant engines. Underway, it feels solid, and its balance of smooth ride and sharp handling borders on amazing. The six-cylinder models introduced for 2011 bring the price of entry down considerably. A hybrid delivers more performance without a big hit in fuel economy. The Alpina B7 is a wonder of elegance and force. Whether you prefer to drive the ultimate luxury car or luxuriate in the ultimate driving machine, the BMW 7 Series delivers. A vexing interface detracts from a superb line of cars.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses reported on the BMW 750iL after his test drive in the Northwest's Columbia River Gorge; with J.P. Vettraino reporting from Detroit; Kirk Bell in Chicago; and John F. Katz in south-central Pennsylvania.
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