On a drive through 50km of stark terrain to reach the Coachella Valley lookout point, it seemed as though this desolate part of coastal America had been carefully conceived but abandoned mid-thought. The sun refused to retreat timidly, blazing down on rolling terrain devoid of vegetation and vast swaths of sand waiting to be sculpted into something permanent. Vertiginous roads mean a ride with agile and responsive handling is requisite if you are brave enough to hurtle down serpentine curves and rugged conditions with plumes of dust billowing in your wake. So, what is a hulking BMW 7 Series — an all-new electric version aimed squarely at Eurocrats and CEOs at that — doing treading along twisting bends in unfamiliar territory on scorched asphalt? To prove you wrong.
The electric version of the brand’s flagship limousine i7 was formally introduced in a setting that befitted its stature slightly more: The Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage in Palm Springs, a picturesque, sun-baked town with mid-century modern aesthetics that could have inspired the last big idea of Mad Men’s Don Draper. If Hollywood plies the business of manufacturing spectacles, the manicured retreat just two hours away from the Walk of Fame peddles a martini lifestyle popularised by Frank Sinatra when he lived in Rancho Mirage from 1957 to 1995. Glitterati and moonlighting celebrities escape to this affluent community that blends desert and design, allowing them to become people again and relax in discreet opulence. A buzzy affair steals the headlines sometimes, like how the Obamas put up at a long-time friend’s home in Thunderbird Heights, only an eight-minute drive from the Ritz.
This time around, it was a different kind of thrill that set off a frenzy in newsrooms and on social media as fleets of 7 Series — both the EV version and gasoline-powered equivalent — hit the moneyed neighbourhood on Frank Sinatra Road. A tacit authority accompanies the cars that exhibit totemic power, which at a minimum grants them preferred parking around clubs and fine-dining restaurants. However, to be BMW is to be a disruptor and automotive weathervane. Onlookers and experts have found the vehicles hard on the eyes, as radical styling cues such as the much-pilloried oversized kidney grille with illuminated surround and split headlights venture ahead of public taste. You can mount a defence for its breakout ideas and intention of being special, of being sui generis, but have the starry-eyed designers at the Bavarian office finally lost the plot with its latest line-up?
“There is no such thing as a future-oriented design without controversy,” BMW AG chairman Oliver Zipse insists, even about the eyebrow-raising XM, an extravagant SUV developed by the automaker’s M division (this is a story for another day). “You get people thinking about it and thinking about alternatives.”
He drives the point home when you truly see the 7 Series in the flesh: it is brawny, never brutish, and it caters to the super minority who are willing to swap any lingering nostalgia for the ultimate driving machine for a world-beating digital experience with unsurpassed levels of on-board comfort. In other words, evolution is a race against the machine.
Splitting hairs over its polarising visual language suddenly becomes a trifling parley when the cars carried their bulk with near-gymnastic dexterity on braided highways or the aforementioned hilly trails. The i7, for example, may be silently majestic but it is loud on numbers. A formidable dual-motor xDrive60 powertrain buttresses this 5.3m iteration with a lithium-ion battery pack tucked snugly under the floor, providing 101.7kWh of usable energy and 625km of range. The combined charging unit enables AC charging at a rate up to 22kw, while DC goes up to 195kw. The range can also be extended by as much as 170km in 10 minutes during a mid-journey stop if you hook it to a high-power charging station.
A car of this size and status is not usually in a hurry to shuttle between places but it is reassuring that its stamina — a maximum power output of 544hp and 745Nm that enables it to sprint from naught to 100kmh in 4.7 seconds while hitting a top speed of 240kmh — gives you the option of raising the tempo. In this torque-rich beast that steers with a silky grace, one cannot help but snatch glances at the digital speedometer in the windshield, nervous about what the next digit may bring.
The science also extends to the i7’s regenerative braking function, which has been significantly updated from its EV stablemates such as the iX and i4. While navigating a relentless succession of blind turns, we switched to single-pedal driving by activating “B” on the transmission toggle to ease up on the brakes. Uphill climbs became less strenuous; descents were kept at a consistent pace as the regenerative and friction brakes merged seamlessly with no lag in pedal effort. Ride quality erred on the side of comfort but was never lax enough to upset the car’s handling and dynamics. And if you are in North America, the Highway Assistant feature even lets you commandeer hands-off at a speed of up to 130kmh.
The further the eye travels along the body of the i7, the more surprises present themselves. The virtues of its lush as well as hushed interior have long been eulogised and with good reason. The curved display, which includes a 12.3in instrument display with a longer 14.9in main infotainment glass touch screen, is ergonomically nifty, although it can be a steep learning curve for those adverse to touchscreen interfaces as most dashboard controls have been subsumed into the central system. A new intuitive eighth-generation iDrive bridges the gap between man and machine, tailoring your shortcuts and voice activation system so that it not only understands multiple languages but also tricky dialects.
It is only when you withdraw into the calm of the cabin behind closed doors (which we should remind you are automatic and clever enough to stop before possible hazards such as passing cyclists) that the real drama begins. A 31.3in 8K resolution theatre screen with Amazon Fire TV connectivity folds down from the recess in the roof-lining when you swipe on a 5.5in touchscreen integrated into the rear door trim. The Bowers & Wilkins surround sound does a valiant job of mimicking a concert hall for your pedal-to-the-metal escape — Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA has never sounded crisper on 36 speakers.
The Swarovski crystal headlights, jewelled controls, My Modes feature for individualised cockpit experience, as well as cashmere and wool blend upholstery conjures up a sumptuous environment to slip into behind the wheel. But BMW has also moved away from the notion of just designing a seat to crafting an environment, especially if you are being chauffeured. Lean back with the Executive Lounge option, and you will get the best seat ever fitted in a car while being lovingly massaged. The front passenger seat slides and tilts as far forward as it will go, leaving the occupant in the rear to recline up to 42.5 degrees and stretch both feet.
Having said that, even a tightrope act like the 7 Series can have caveats: Launching the cinematic setup raises the rear blind and folding the front passenger seat runs the risk of blocking the right wing mirror. A simple digital rear-view camera would have sufficed to make all the safety difference, and this needs to be rectified early — at least one potential customer is going to find this disdain for practicality a deal-breaker.
The i7 is not flawless but it is achingly good at assuaging the outside world and armouring you against the slog of a commute. If one considers it nothing more than BMW’s latest electric outfit, the point has been missed — its sleek silhouette as well as innovative bells and whistles are fancy wrapping for the gift within: Luxurious quietude.
Trip through your tires
With a rightward turn into Joshua Tree National Park, the landscape and music changed in tandem. Away from the parasols of polished fronds and sprawling wind farms that turn in the breeze at Palm Springs, we were taking in the vista of this barren land, whose most impressive feature is the tenacity of the flora that survived there, in our BMW X7. Its Verde Ermes “green” sheen blended right in among groves of Joshua trees with gnarled branches that gesture awkwardly towards the heavens, appearing either to send or receive a prophecy. Bono’s voice, blaring from the speaker, was harmonising with the mountainous landscape sprinkled with the detritus of desert life that gives off the imagery of resilience and psychedelia. Was this what he was looking for when he created U2’s most pivotal album, an immigrant’s tale planted firmly in blues and gospel?
The German marque had devised a special route to this bohemian oasis and cultural landmark, as if to lead us to the big question: Does the drive matter more than the destination? The car came first, for sure, but a road trip was not too far behind. BMW’s Sports Activity Vehicles (SAV) are designed for open road missions like this, with the journey as rewarding as the final checkpoint. And now, you can do it in an X7 that has been given a major facelift.
The SAV we tested, which was an approximation of what you will get in Malaysia next year, had been markedly honed with design refinements such as a shinier grille, slim daytime running lights above new LED headlamps, and an optional 23in wheel. However, those familiar with the qualities and badge swagger of the X7 will be pleased with the engine range, now headed by a new 4.4L petrol V8 for the range-topping M60i xDrive derived from the same heart that powers the high-performance cars coming out of BMW M GmbH. A most important update is the drivetrain, in which all three revised engines have been integrated into a new-generation 48V mild hybrid system.
Utility vehicles now offer more variety than the desserts at American institution Denny’s: cushy, sporty, family-hauling, budget-conscious, status-symbol and everything in between. The refined X7 can add a new category to that list — digitally progressive. Packing a wallop of energy, the muscular X model sways customers with both on-the-road elegance and off-road prowess. A newly designed instrument panel, with slim air vents and an ambient light bar, as well as the much-touted curved display, brings a tech-forward upgrade to the cockpit.
Alas, sharp corners still yield a bit of body roll when Comfort and Sport modes are deployed. But the drawbacks are offset by props like immediate torque delivery and active air suspension that has been tuned like a Stradivarius. Bold and brash are still words on the street to describe this behemoth but if you can look past its visage, there is a wealth of inner beauty to still appreciate.
This article first appeared on Nov 14, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.