2020 BMW 7 Series first drive review: Travel comfortably and carry a big grille

Some automotive midcycle refreshes consist of nothing more than an exterior nip and tuck, while others are far more substantial. One glance at BMW's updated 7 Series sedan and it's clear this one falls in that latter category; its design changes are visible from outer space.

And if you look past the exterior changes, you'll find a host of other welcome improvements. With greater helpings of luxury and tech, not to mention some powertrain enhancements, the refreshed 7 Series is better equipped to battle the luxury world's best.

Now with 40 percent more grille

The most obvious way to tell a 2020 7 Series from its predecessor? The huge grille. BMW says the 7's signature kidney grille is 40 percent larger than before, and it sort of reminds me of the Batmobile from the original Batman: The Animated Series cartoon. The grille is flanked by skinner headlight housings, and beneath it you'll find a new bumper with a bigger lower air dam. A redone hood sits 2 inches higher than before, adding to the front end's more in-your-face style.

From the side profile, the taller vents in the front quarter panels are the most prominent difference between the new and old 7 Series. Out back, the three-dimensional light housings are slimmer than before and are now connected by a tiny light strip, giving this sedan a slick nighttime prominence. A redesigned rear bumper boasts wider exhaust outlets that, along with the light treatments, try to add visual width to the car. As if it needed to look wider.

All of this visual biggening results in a car that's much more imposing on the road. BMW says customers in the US and China -- the 7 Series' two biggest markets -- asked for a more standout look, and this is the result. From the front, I have to say that effort succeeded because that big ol' grille is impossible to miss. Whether it's attractive or not is up to personal preference. I don't mind it; I think the oversized schnoz is nicely integrated with the rest of the design, even if it's a bit cartoony.

The updated 7 Series is packing way more grille.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

Interior styling changes are less extensive, with swankier accent stitching and six-color ambient lighting standard on all 2020 7 Series models. The 750i and M760i also get slightly thicker acoustic side glass for better sound insulation. I have to say that the stitchwork on the soft leather covering the seats, door panels and armrest in my 750i xDrive test car gave the spacious and cushy cabin a little extra attitude. And as I motored out of Almancil, Portugal, heading northeast on a first drive in search of more interesting roads, the surroundings were noticeably void of almost any annoying wind and tire noise.

Smarter tech

The most dramatic changes inside the 7 Series concern the onboard tech. The latest version of BMW's iDrive 7 is housed in a responsive 10.2-inch touchscreen, which can either be operated via touch or through the redundant controls on the center console. Interior tech amenities include navigation, a 16-speaker Bowers & Wilkins surround audio setup, a Wi-Fi hotspot and Bluetooth connectivity. One-year of Apple CarPlay capability is included, but after that owners will have to pay a subscription fee to use it (boo!). Gesture controls also come standard, letting you make audio adjustments or accept and reject phone calls by making various hand motions in front of the center screen. It'll impress your friends.

BMW's Intelligent Personal Assistant artificial intelligence system arrives in the 7 Series, too, giving you yet another way to adjust things like climate and entertainment settings. Saying, "Hey, BMW" activates the AI, which you can then ask to change radio stations, navigate to a destination or give vehicle information such as fuel range and tire pressures. Further refinement is clearly needed, as I found the system on many occasions didn't respond to the voice prompt or understand instructions. It maybe worked half the time throughout my day of testing.

Gesture controls and BMW's Intelligent Personal Assistant can now be found inside of the 7 Series.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

Safety tech also gets a slight upgrade for 2020, with a more robust automatic park assist function that adds a new Back-Up Assist feature that can navigate the 7 Series out of parking spots. The system remembers a driver's inputs to get into a space and will carry them out in reverse order. That joins a standard feature menu that includes forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert, speed limit information and a surround-view camera. Adaptive cruise control and active lane-keep assist are optional, allowing for partially automated, hands-on-the-wheel driving.

A punchy and comfy ride

The 2020 7 Series' engine lineup remains broad, with a 3.0-liter turbocharged I6 making 335 horsepower in the base 740i, and a monstrous, turbocharged V12 with 600 horsepower at the top of the range in the M760i. While not as impressive as the 12-cylinder, the thoroughly reworked turbocharged V8 in the 750i xDrive is no slouch, with 523 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque, the latter of which is available between 1,800-4,600 rpm. Compared with last year, the 750i packs an additional 78 horsepower and 78 pound-feet, helping get the all-wheel-drive luxury land yacht to 60 miles per hour in a BMW-estimated 3.9 seconds.

Put the 750i into Sport mode and there's little reason to doubt BMW's 60-mph acceleration claim. A muscular wave of power is available right from the jump and stays steady throughout the rev range. To the surprise of nobody, the venerable eight-speed, ZF-built automatic gearbox performs fast, fluid and well-timed gear changes.

The turbo V8 now makes a stout 523 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

All things considered, the 4,722-pound 750i xDrive isn't a bad handler when you throw it into bends. Air suspension, rear axle steering, optional adaptive anti-roll bars and staggered 20-inch Bridgestone Potenza S001 tires do their best to keep things under control in Sport mode. Weight transfer under braking and at initial turn-in is apparent, but after the car takes a set, it romps around curves well enough. The steering is weightier than before, though it possesses a dead spot on-center and lacks overall feedback.

Not that blazing through mountain roads is the 750i's main mission in life, of course. At its core, it's a luxury cruiser that aims to be comfortable to drive and be driven in. Dial up the Comfort setting and everything smooths out. After muted response at initial throttle tip-in, power delivery was calmer in Comfort, and the suspension gobbled up the few road imperfections I encountered on the Portuguese roadways. The ride was properly cushy -- so much so that my co-driver fell soundly asleep while I chauffeured him around (though jetlag likely played a factor in this, too).

Smoother hybrid

A brief drive in the 745e xDrive let me experience the last substantially updated piece of the 7 Series family: a plug-in hybrid powertrain. The new drivetrain combo mates a slick 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine with an electric motor, and produces a net system output of 389 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque. With a more powerful 12-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, BMW is promising better all-electric driving range than the puny 14 miles of the outgoing 740e.

My small sampling put the drivetrain's smooth electric power delivery on display; stop-and-go traffic never really required the gas engine to kick in. Hitting the throttle kick-down forces the engine to fire up in short order when max power is needed, before quickly and seamlessly shutting down when no longer required. Reviews editor Jake Holmes had a more in-depth look at this model earlier this year.

The 2020 BMW 7 Series starts at $86,450.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

A flagship price

When the 2020 BMW 7 Series arrives at dealers this month, the rear-wheel-drive 740i will begin at $86,450, not including $995 for destination. Stepping up to the 750i xDrive pushes things to $102,650, and springing for the king-of-the-hill M760i xDrive will cost you $157,700 before options. Those interested in putting the 745e xDrive plug-in hybrid in their driveway will need to prepare to part with $95,550. Pricey for sure, but all of these figures fall in line with the BMW's main rivals, the Audi A8 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

The 2020 7 Series' technology and powertrain updates are strong additions to this plush package. The styling might turn some folks off, but it certainly commands your attention -- and deserves a look, too.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While 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.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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