BY ANDY ENRIGHT
"The more you see the 7 Series on the road, the easier it is to gear to it quickly. Only people who say 'I've got to not like something,' have a problem with it. This is the car to make a long-term statement, which will get its following and build on it over many years. If people have difficulty coming on to a design, then OK, back off and give them time to work on these things. Yes, more than ever I am convinced that we did the right thing with this car." These are the words of Chris Bangle, the man responsible for the design of the 7 Series. Love it or hate it, the 7 Series is impossible to ignore and there are enough fans of the marque for it to have notched up some respectable sales. Controversial styling notwithstanding, the 7 Series is holding its value remarkably well as a used proposition.
Few were expecting anything quite so radical as the 7 Series when it was first unveiled in 2001. Its predecessor was sleek, understated and austere but in the intervening years BMW's design direction had veered off at a tangent. The bulbous 7 Series that eventually landed in UK BMW dealers in early 2002 was challenging to look at, but beneath the unconventional lines was an engineering masterpiece. Many buyers initially never got that far, being put off by the design and the frustratingly fiddly iDrive control system. Despite slow initial sales it seems the market is warming to the 7 Series and year on year sales compared to its admittedly ageing predecessor are up 8 per cent. The range was supplemented by a 730d diesel model in 2003 and the arrival of the long wheelbase derivatives some time later.
Early 2005 brought a series of major alterations to the 7. Most notably, issues of the iDrive control system and the car's styling were addressed. Inside, some of the key controls found their way out of the iDrive computer and back onto the dash while a series of small revisions were made all around the exterior to soften some of the more controversial edges. Engine wise, there were lots more alterations with the 730i and 730d models receiving power boosts while the 735i and 745i were replaced altogether. Doing the replacing were the 740i and 750i which slotted in below the 760i. Further tweaks were made to the suspension and chassis in a bit to improve steering response and stability.
What You Get
Never a company to duck a challenge, BMW have certainly bitten a big bullet with the latest Seven Series. That tacked-on boot may well be the most unusual styling detail since Fiat figured a people carrier that looked like a frog would sell, but if you put that detail aside, can the latest 7 Series compete against the unremitting excellence of the executive elite?
Trouble is, that boot is so difficult to set aside. It's there peering back at you from the rear-view mirror, your eye catches one of its upper corners as you approach the otherwise sleek car from the front three-quarter whilst from the rear it's plain bizarre. Still, when we think of some of the cars that we considered radical but soon got swallowed by the mainstream, BMW's high-rise bootlid may not be the big but we all thought it was. In many respects the styling of the 7 Series is a masterstroke. It hunches over its wheels, all the weight stored in its haunches - think Lexus GS430 without the bulky bloat. The headlights chew down into the butter-smooth front bumper unit, stern beads that wear LED indicators as jewelled eyebrows. The chrome kidney grille has been warped wide like a digital stretch effect, whilst pinhole parking proximity sensors are dotted at intervals along a sleek dado rail at the front.
The signature cutback of the rear passenger window remains as a legacy of the bloodline, but in most other respects this is a breed apart from the flat planes of the previous generation Seven. The roofline arcs in a coupe-like sweep, a trick pulled off by the Mercedes S-class some years back now, but deftly performed by the Mac-meisters in Munich. It's a sleek shape that would be a winner if it wasn't for that tacked on trunk. Let's give it time.
The other discussion point is BMW's iDrive system, a set-up that dispenses with most of the previous car's 117 separate switches, levers and buttons in favour of a rotary dial that accesses a menu-based system that flashes up on an LCD screen. At first it's desperately frustrating finding yourself adjusting the front/rear balance of the stereo when all you wanted was to demist the windscreen and your initial response to iDrive will probably be,"UDrive, I'm off to learn something easier like advanced Thai or particle theory." Get the system right and you'll look like some sort of techno guru, a few deft nudges of the serrated silver knob where the gearstick should reside causing the computer to access a dazzling array of electronic functions. Get it wrong and you'll be thankful for the comprehensive help facility. The post 2005 facelift models have a simpler version of the iDrive which may be preferable to any technophobes out there.
Due to the fact that so many functions are marshalled by iDrive, the cabin of the Seven Series is the paragon of elegant, pared down design. Everything from the carphone, the satellite navigation and the audio system right through to changing the setting on the adaptive damping system from Comfort to Sport are controlled by iDrive, so you'd better put in the time to learn it. As you will have deduced, a conventional gear lever has been dispensed with in favour of the world's first six-speed automatic gearbox, evidence of which comes in the form of dinky chromed buttons on the steering wheel.
What to Look For
No significant problems have yet to be reported with the 7 Series. Be very aware that the desirability of the car is very dependent on colour choice. Stick to safe silver, graphite or black and you shouldn't go too far wrong but some of the more colourful hues won't be so easy to sell on.
(based on a 2003 760Li ex VAT) An exchange starter motor retails at around £172 while a windscreen with top tint will set you back around £180. Expect to fork out £485 for an exchange alternator while front brake pads costs a stinging £171.A xenon headlamp unit will detain you for the princely sum of £358.
On the Road
It seems almost Dickensian to start talking about internal combustion engines after considering the 7 Series' technological tour de force, but the 7 Series does its best to further the engine builder's art. There are two 3.0-litre engines that kick the 7 series range off, the entry-level 218bhp 730d diesel and the 231bhp 730i petrol engined model. Both the 735i and magnificent 333bhp 745i (replaced by more powerful but similar 740i and 750i models in 2005) feature BMW's innovative Valvetronic system, as does the desirable V12 760i flagship variant. This is engine design that does away with conventional throttles, the valves themselves dictating how much air reaches the combustion chamber. This means a cleaner and more efficient powerplant entirely without the somewhat odd 'hollow' throttle response of the smaller Valvetronic engines. Factor in such high-tech features as the world's first fully variable inlet manifold and variable timing on all four camshafts and you have something of a technological tour de force. The 730d diesel supplements the petrol versions offering better economy, useful power and lower emissions, making the 7 Series increasingly attractive to company users. These customers may well be tempted by the long wheelbase iL versions.
The 7 Series has always been a permanent fixture in the board member's car park and the latest model is bound to be even more popular, encompassing as it does enough state of the art features to punt it to the top of the class or thereabouts. It's not a class that stands still. Jaguar's XJ8 and Audi's A8 are continually being fettled and improved whilst the Lexus LS430 still mops up sales and the Mercedes S-class' position as chief claimant to the World's Best Car crown isn't going to be wrested away from Stuttgart without a concerted struggle. As you'd expect from BMW, the driving characteristics are predictably superb. Dynamic Drive Control is an electro-hydraulic system that does clever things to the anti-roll bars of the 7 Series, artificially dictating the amount of body roll - none at low speed and a few degrees off kilter during more enthusiastic cornering to remind you where the electronics give way to sheer physics. Drive like this and you'll appreciate the Sports suspension setting. At first you'll be disappointed, the syrupy ride quality making the 7-Series seem a trifle bloated, but as soon as you encounter a corner the dampers up their game, keeping everything taut and resolved with just enough information flowing up the steering column and through the chassis to keep you appraised of what the tyres are up to. Switch into Comfort mode and you'll breeze effortlessly over the sort of scabby surfaces that constitute the British road network.
No doubt you'll have your opinions on the 7 Series but whether or not you're a fan of the styling be in no doubt that there's a great car underneath the controversial sheet metal. The 730d looks to be the best buy of the bunch, offering competitive fuel consumption and emissions showings. Perhaps the last word should go to Chris Bangle. "People just haven't had a chance to learn yet. We haven't been open enough, explained [the design] as well as we should." Arrogance or genius? You decide.