Unless you are a high-flying Eurocrat, four-star Nato general or a business mogul, you might wonder what on earth this car has to do with you. In the UK super-limousines such as this BMW 7-series and its rivals, Audi’s A8, Jaguar’s XK, the Mercedes-Benz S-class and the Lexus LS, sell into the relatively insignificant chauffeur-drive market. In Blighty, it seems, those who want to drive themselves in a top-end premium car tend to buy a gargantuan SUV.
Yet super-limos are still significant for a couple of reasons. First is the technology trickle-down, which allows companies to introduce new tech in these expensive four-door cars where they can test the market, assuage the cost and gradually introduce it (or not) into lesser models.
The second point is just how significant these cars are in other markets, particularly China, the US, Korea and Japan, where they are used as daily drivers for your typical plastic surgeon, dentist’s wife or Triad/Yakuza boss. Worldwide market leader Mercedes shifts about 78,000 S-classes annually, while BMW sells about 50,000 of its 7-series - more than 75 per cent of them in the countries just mentioned.
Unsurprisingly, then, it was China and the US which called the shots with this mid-cycle facelift of the 7-series. According to Christian Metzger, the 7-series product manager: “They wanted more novelty, differentiation from the 3- and 5-series and more presence.”
BMW’s answer was to slap on a huge and debatably hideous grille; a single-piece iteration of its traditional “kidney” grille. This has pushed up the bonnet and wing line by 5cm, though not, apparently to the detriment of the aerodynamics.
If you thought the grille of the new X5 SUV was outsize, it looks positively discreet compared with the new 7-series. Presence it certainly has, with a “get-out-of-my-way” mien (about which the best that can be said is that when you are inside, you can't see it).
“When we showed it to the dealers and importers, they hugged me,” says Metzger proudly before he showed off the new lower rear valance, squinty rear lamps and full-width LED identifier lamp similar to that of the new Porsche 911. “Only the Korean president hugged me about the rear changes,” adds Metzger, wistfully.
Details on which you'll have your own opinion are the new upright front-wing vents, which open and close to manage air pressure in the wheelarches, and rather a lot of garish lower-body chromium, which will be standard on UK-specification cars.
The interior trim has been given the premium makeover with some quite lavish Nappa leather finishes, including one with plaited leather rope down the main seams. BMW's gesture control is standard along with what are called “caring car” features: a system to puff perfumes of various stripe at you, massaging and air-conditioned seats, and a “vitalizing” function which wobbles the seat and blasts music at you like you'd accidentally walked into a Zumba class.
The interior is quite nice actually; very plush and comfy, especially in rear seats, which have stepped up a gear in passenger comfort, though depending on how the rear bench is configured you still find the middle seat is an uncomfortable perch.
And despite a call for distinction in this class, the instrument binnacle is the same indistinct and confusing unit that resides in the 3- and 5-series. Unlike most rivals, there's no way of changing the garish graphics, either.
Much better is the BMW i-Drive capstan controller; highly developed from the original, it is now the standard-setter in user interfaces, being both safe and concise. To make smooth progress, though, you will need to turn off a lot of the driver aids including lane-keeping, while the gesture control system is still a work in progress.
The plug-in car has BMW's 282bhp/332lb ft, straight-six, 3.0-litre petrol engine with a single twin-scroll turbo and an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox with the company's off-the-shelf 111bhp/195lb ft electric motor in place of the torque converter, along with a 12kWh lithium-ion battery under the rear seat.
It's certainly rapid, with an electronically limited top speed of 155mph and 0-62mph acceleration in 5.2sec. Even on the new and more realistic WLTP figures the claimed 134mpg Combined fuel economy is wildly overstated, since once you've had your 30 or so miles of electric-only driving, this is a heavy car with two engines.
The chassis is common with the rest of the 7-series range, with front struts and a multi-link rear and air suspension. There's active damping, steering and anti-roll bars all round.
A kerb weight of two tonnes fully fuelled, together with BMW's insistence on precise handling and good on-centre steering response, means the ride is quite busy, borderline choppy on less-than-perfect roads. Bridgestone run-flat tyres, while better than previous attempts, don't do the ride much of a favour, either. They echo and boom over bumps and roar like lions on poor surfaces. As a front-seat passenger, I could feel the road fizzing through the firewall under my feet.
As ever with the 7-series, the best seat in the house is the driver's. The car’s damping is taut and well worked, the steering, while over assisted at least in Comfort setting, is precise with good on-centre response even at low speeds, although in some of the chassis settings the Servotronic system can feel a bit ethereal.
The front weight will push the nose wide in fast, tightening corners and the anti-roll system can lend a degree of unreality to the handling, but steering feedback remains in there somewhere.
The brakes, for the most part, are sensational, providing strong progression and pedal feel with a combination of electrical retardation and friction braking seamlessly joined in a way that rivals find almost impossible. For a car that will be mostly driven by a chauffeur, however, the way the nose dips on coming to an absolute halt is a problem.
For 42 years and six (and a half, counting this facelift) generations BMW has battered at the door of the luxury limo market with its 7-series. In that time it has sold 1.8 million models as well as providing engines, drivelines and body framing for Rolls-Royce, and being the BMW group’s technology flagship.
So the 7-series remains the driving enthusiast’s limo. That’s not to say that the opposition can’t do it, but the BMW (along with the Jaguar XF) feels the most rewarding to drive. Even in plug-in hybrid form, the 7-series feels like the sort of car just made for those late nights when the boss strides out of the boardroom and hands you a locked briefcase saying: “Take my car, but this has got to be in Milan before tomorrow…”.
*Lease price from list price shown in the article is correct as of 02/05/2019 and are based on 9months initial payment upfront. Prices exclude VAT and are subject to change. Ts and Cs and Arrangement Fees apply.
BMW 7-series 745e PHEV
TESTED 2,998cc straight-six turbo petrol engine, eight-speed automatic gearbox with AC synchronous electric motor in place of torque converter, plus 12kWh lithium-ion battery
PRICE/ON SALE from £76,815 as tested (£83,560 for 745e long-wheelbase xDrive)/autumn 2019
Petrol engine: 282bhp @ 5,000rpm, 332lb ft @ 1,500rpm
Electric motor: 111bhp @ 3,170rpm, 195lb ft @ 0-2,700rpm
TOP SPEED 155mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 5.2sec
FUEL ECONOMY WLTP Combined 134mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 48g/km
VED £320 first year, £445 next five years, then £140
VERDICT The 7-series is the driver’s choice of the super-limo category and that premise doesn’t change with this facelift, even in PHEV guise. The huge grille won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the cabin upgrades are welcome even if the instrument graphics are fuzzy and crude. Still great to drive, with the bonus of a useful EV range - but once you've used that, it is just another big, heavy and thirsty car.
TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five
Mercedes-Benz S450L AMG Line, from £81,080
Mercedes uses a similar electric motor as torque converter system as the BMW and it operates in much the same way with a 362bhp/369lb ft, 3.0-litre six-cylinder giving a top speed of 155mph, 0-62mph in 5.1sec and 169mpg in the Combined cycle. The cabin is class-leading, with great dashboard graphics. Feels slightly plusher in the rear seats than the BMW and is as good to drive, although Mercedes seldom advertises this.
Audi A8 TFSI e, no prices yet
The VW/Audi Group has been lax in preparing its cars for the new WLTP test, but this car will start the ball rolling again in the plug-in hybrid class when it goes on sale late this year. With a 443bhp/516lb ft, 3.0-litre turbo petrol engine, it outguns most rivals although the EV range of just 25 miles is low.
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