BMW's new 7 Series overwhelms with tech and opulence

Like people, cars tend to get bigger with each successive year. When a luxury car gets big enough, it begins to cross into uncomfortable territory. Does it become an effective limousine, a land-yacht designed for the owner not to drive but to be driven? Or, does it continue on as a driver's car, optimized to cosset he or she who sits behind the wheel?

BMW's 7 Series has long straddled that very fine line, and with this sixth generation, it does so with more poise than ever before. The 2016 BMW 7 Series is a luxury cruiser par excellance, yet with the touch of a button becomes a capable, if not quite captivating, driver's machine. A steal for $81,300?

What's new

Under the skin, the 7 Series offers a mixture of steel, aluminum and carbon fiber.

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The 7 Series has long acted as BMW's venue for pioneering new technologies -- ABS in the first generation, Xenon headlights in the second, etc. -- but the company has really outdone itself with this, the sixth generation. The list of innovations here is long enough that it'd be difficult to recount them all here without making this read like a string of technobabble. But, I'll try.

Carbon fiber construction is a big one. This lightweight material is a major component of BMW's fancy i3 and i8 cars. In the new 7 Series that composite isn't quite as integral, but it makes up a good portion of the inner crash structure, particularly the roof rails and transmission tunnel. This saves weight up high, lowering the center of gravity and improving the handling of the thing.

That, plus a number of other mass savings, contribute to a 290-pound reduction in weight compared to the outgoing model. Sure, 4,225 pounds in its lightest configuration is still beastly (it's 4,610 for the more powerful 750i with xDrive), but for a car in this class, that's not all that bad.

Power comes from either a twin-turbo inline-six-cylinder engine delivering 320 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque or a twin-turbo V-8 offering a rather more meaty 445 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque. The weight savings and the power from the V-8 deliver a 0-60 time of 4.3 seconds, just two tenths off the current-generation M5. But, it is thirsty. We saw just south of 15 mpg on a 60-mile jaunt through the country.

Buttons, touchscreens, voice control or gestures? It's your choice.

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The majority of the innovations aren't about performance, though. They have more to do with luxury, technology and safety. On the luxury side, the interior is immaculate, with plush, high-quality materials throughout. All the buttons have been galvanized with a thin coating of metal, giving them a premium feel without adding premium weight. This also enables many of them to be touch-sensitive. Linger your fingers on nearly any of them and the in-dash display will tell you what that button does before you press it. This particularly makes adjusting your seat a cinch.

That infotainment display is vastly improved, iDrive 5 showing a number of improvements over before. The big display wedged atop the dashboard is now touch-sensitive, responding not only to the tips of your fingers but even the approach of your hand. You can still use the rotary dial nestled down between the seats to select a phone number, for example, but reach your hand up and the display switches to a more traditional number pad. Meanwhile, a retooled voice recognition system means you can simply say the number, quickly and naturally.

If that's not enough to impress, there are the gestures. Raising the volume is now a matter of simply spinning your finger in mid air, clockwise or counter depending on your decibel demands. You can reject phone calls with a swipe of the hand, accept them by pointing a finger and BMW even added a custom gesture, two fingers, which you can program to do whatever you like.

Even the key is smart, featuring a small touchscreen.

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The system works thanks to an infrared camera positioned up in the roofliner, designed to detect the position of your hand. Mind, your hand must be in a fairly limited space above the shifter for it to be detected (BMW engineers called this the "strike zone"), but once you figure out the boundaries of detection the system is impressive. It's truly an interesting experience to change the channel away from a song you don't like just by making a rude gesture at the radio. However, it isn't perfect. The twirly finger volume adjustment gesture takes about two seconds to register before the volume begins adjusting, and by then you could have simply turned the knob.

In case you're worried about taking your hands off the wheel to perform these gestures, don't, because the 2016 7 Series can now steer for itself -- for a limited time, at least. A pair of cameras nestled behind the rear-view mirror watch the road ahead and, when the painted lines on the road are visible, the car will make sure that it stays within them. You can take your hands off the wheel and the car will drive itself, meandering slightly between the lines as it goes, but never crossing them.

Until it does. The car will only steer itself without your hands on the wheel for a maximum of 15 seconds, at which a series of sharp beeps will prompt you to get back to the task at hand. Additionally, the system only works when it can clearly see those lines. In my limited testing this worked great on well-painted roads with few turns. Twistier back lanes in need of some maintenance generally resulted in the system disabling itself.

The car can also park itself, and in Europe it'll be able to pull into the garage without you inside of it. Sadly, US laws prevent that functionality from being available here, and BMW's fancy laser headlights will also not be available on American 7 Series cars. Blame restrictive, outdated legislation.

Even more tech

The rear is truly the place to be in the 7 Series.

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Other smaller but important additions include a wireless charging spot inside the armrest, which happily juiced up my Samsung Galaxy Note 5 while I drove along. There is neither Apple CarPlay nor Google Android Auto on offer, but BMW did add NFC pairing of phones, meaning if you have a suitably enabled device you can pair it over Bluetooth simply by tapping it against the dashboard. The process took about five seconds, which was a lot more pleasant than the usual hunting through menus that's required.

There's even more technology on offer in the rear seats. Buyers can spec a pair of 10-inch touchscreens, one situated behind each of the front seats. Each can display current information about the car, broadcast video from an integrated Blu-ray drive situated between the rear seats or anything else you like thanks to an HDMI input.

BMW also took the trouble to integrate a Samsung Galaxy tablet, which nestles into a boutique holder. Through this, passengers can control the in-car lighting, open or close the panorama moon roof and adjust their seats. Using the tablet also makes it easy to select from the series of massage programs available on the optional Rear Executive Lounge Seating Package, which also includes a sort of ultra-low-impact workout routine, in which the chair pushes you forward and challenges you to push back against it. Yes, seriously.

Perhaps the only disappointment in the rear is headroom. The panoramic moonroof is standard on all cars, and taller passengers may find their hair, if not their scalp, dragging against the headliner, as indeed I did. It's a very nice headliner, but it's a bit difficult to truly relax back there if you feel the need to slouch.

Whether you're up front or in the rear you'll be surrounded by incredible sound thanks to an available 16-speaker sound system from Bowers & Wilkins, delivering a whopping 1,400 watts. It'll tackle whatever you play through it, but the diamond-coated tweeters seemed particularly at home whilst blaring Beethoven.

The system is helped by the incredibly quiet nature of the car, which glides along with nary a hint of unwanted road noise. Hands-free calls over a paired phone can be completed without raising your voice the slightest bit.

The drive

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The BMW 7 Series looks imposing at speed.

Chris Tedesco/BMW North America

Despite being nearly 300 pounds lighter than before, the 7 Series is a very, very large car. That's especially true in American trim, where we will only receive the long-wheelbase version. Despite this, it is a genuinely engaging drive, and an easy one at that.

Buttons to the left of the shifter make it easy to toggle between driving modes, and in Comfort Plus the car instantly turns into a magic carpet, floating over road imperfections and gliding through corners, throttle and steering softened enough to ensure a delicate ride.

Press for Sport and instantly things cinch down a few notches, responsiveness increasing across the board, really encouraging you to drink up the 445 horsepower on tap. It's hardly a track-day toy, but the 7 did lap the track at Monticello Motor Club with ability -- if not quite agility. Understeer was the theme of the day, but the big sedan tracked cleanly through the turns and put the power down ably without the traction control system ruining my fun.

That's an unlikely environment to see a 7, though, and it's certainly on the roads where it shines. Brakes have a long, soft feel but plenty of power, making them easy to modulate. The eight-speed auto shifts quickly and smoothly, and thanks to some new smarts that looks at the car's GPS, it'll actually downshift before you get to the hill. Impressive.

Tour de force

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As a driver's car, the new BMW 7 Series shines. It is very big and very heavy, but it carries its weight with aplomb, delivering smooth performance, engaging handling and, most importantly, an utterly refined experience.

As a limousine, the 7 Series is perhaps even better. The Executive Lounge package rear seat is amazingly comfortable, and while some of the in-cabin tech is borderline gimmicky, it all serves to elevate the car even further -- the only real shame being the lack of CarPlay and Android Auto.

The 7 Series starts at $81,300 for the base 740i, while the better-equipped 750i xDrive will set you back $97,400. (International pricing is not available at this time.) This, however, is just the beginning, with options like the Executive Lounge adding $5,750, the B&W Diamond sound system a further $3,400. Needless to say, you can spend an awful lot on this car if you like, but it is an awful lot of car for the money.

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