SUVs

2019 BMW X7 Prototype first drive review: Super-sized split personality

BMW's first proper three-row SUV strikes an excellent balance between comfort and engagement.

BMW

The BMW X5 is a good SUV, but it's not really a flagship. That's where the upcoming X7 comes in. It's bigger. It's more luxurious. It brings new tech to the table. But even with the extra mass and focus on comfort, it's still very engaging under the right circumstances.

The X7 won't debut for several more months, but BMW was kind enough to let me have a crack at a prototype version of the car -- in other words, not everything is finalized. Clad in camouflage, I set out into the wilds of South Carolina to see if this SUV is worthy of the badge it carries. Spoiler alert: it is.

A third row for (most) adults

The BMW X7 might not look much larger than the X5 from the outside, especially in camouflage, but it's inside where you notice the added space. While the X5's third row is best suited for children or pets, I -- a real, adult human -- can fit back there without issue. My hair ever so slightly grazes the roof, and I have about two inches of space between my knee and the back of the second row, but I fit. Anyone taller than 6 feet will likely have some issues, but that's the case with most three-row SUVs.

Oh, and fun fact: The optional second-row captain's chairs are actually the front seats of the upcoming 8 Series, albeit with some slight dimensional tweaks.

Six or eight, both are great

When it launches, the X7 can be equipped with one of two gas engines, a 3.0-liter, single-turbo I6 or a 4.4-liter, twin-turbo V8, both of which mate to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Other markets also receive a six-cylinder diesel, but BMW isn't yet sure if that engine will wander stateside. All-wheel drive is standard on all trims.

The straight-six has a slightly tinny growl to it when I lean on the gas. However, as my right foot lightens up, the engine note fades away to near silence, like it's not even on. Acceleration is ample and smooth. BMW is quite proud of this engine in this car, and rightfully so -- it'll likely be the volume powertrain, and buyers will appreciate what it offers.

The V8, on the other hand, is for speed demons. Acceleration comes on strong, and the exhaust note lacks a total disappearing act, which is fine by me, because it sounds great and will likely resonate equally well with its buyers. The extra heft under the hood is noticeable, conferring a bit more front-end stability at highway speeds.

I'm a sucker for exhaust notes, so I'd probably opt for the V8.

BMW

Like two cars in one

X7 owners will likely stick to one of two primary vehicle modes: Comfort or Sport. A four-corner air suspension is standard on the X7, and Comfort brings an almost Lexus-like plushness to the ride. It's utterly serene over bumps and undulations with light steering and a good deal of body roll. To that end, it does wallow a bit in tighter corners, but there's a solution to that: Sport.

Pressing the Sport button injects the X7 with an entirely new character. The SUV hunkers down, relying more on the air suspension's auxiliary springs, which transfer more feeling into the body. It's stiff, but it's a composed kind of stiff -- you'll feel the bumps, but they won't push you off your line. The steering tightens up, and on the V8, the exhaust note changes demonstrably thanks to an active exhaust.

Once I click the Sport button and toss it into a corner, the body roll all but disappears. In this mode, the X7 really does feel like a completely different vehicle, or at least a smaller one. Many sport modes are content to just add some throttle sensitivity and leave it at that, but not the X7. Just because it's big and comfortable doesn't mean it can't also drive well.

Things get even better when you add BMW's Integral Active Steering, which is a mix of active anti-roll bars and four-wheel steering. The dynamics gets even more precise at both low and high speeds, in the event you want your three-row luxury SUV to handle.

Off the beaten path

As part of the X7 drive, BMW brings me to an off-road park that, at first glance, seems a bit challenging for a car that, in all likelihood, will live almost exclusively on paved roads. An optional off-road package adds beefier underbody skid plates, additional vehicle modes and an off-road-friendly differential, but even without the package, the X7 proves it's mighty capable.

A non-off-road-packaged X7 can ably climb steep hills, slog through sticky mud and climb over sharp mounds that put every inch of the chassis to work. But thanks to ample torque, an adjustable ride height and just enough suspension articulation, the X7 comes out the other side unscathed. Off-roading tends to make a lot of noise in certain suspension systems, but not this one. It's nearly silent in the dirt.

2019 BMW X7 Prototype

Taking a very wrong turn is hardly the end of the world with the X7.

BMW

A quick tech check

The X7's interior is still shod in camouflage, so I can't really discuss its style, but certain tech-related bits are left uncovered and they're definitely worth discussing.

The X7 packs BMW's Operating System 7.0, which it previewed in mid-April. The new instrument cluster is a single screen that pushes the "gauges" to either side, leaving enough room in the middle for a small map. The design shifts based on vehicle mode, but the pertinent information is always kept in full view. Best of all, it will be standard on every X7.

USB Type-C ports are everywhere, too. There's a traditional Type-A port near the cup holders for those of us still living in the past, but the remainder of the ports I see in the car are Type-C, including a couple in the second row (but, alas, not the third).

Considering some buyers have been crowing for a proper three-row BMW SUV for years, the X7 might feel late to some. But I think its timing is spot on -- with BMW's latest and greatest tech, in addition to its new design language, the X7 is set up to bring the fight to cushy competitors like the Mercedes-Benz GLS and the Range Rover, yet it doesn't stray from BMW's requirement that its cars still be fun to drive. To me, it's worth the wait.

Watch out, Range Rover.

BMW

Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

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