Second look: BMW 7 Series

I’ll say from the start that I’m not a fan of almost any driver-assistance technology. Most such technology, to my mind, exists to save distracted, disconnected, and otherwise disengaged people behind the wheel from themselves. Whether it’s steering drivers back into lanes whose markings they should be paying attention to, applying the brakes before they hit the pedestrian they should have seen crossing the road, or maintaining a safe distance from the car ahead during a cruise because they can’t be bothered to do it themselves, I see driver assists as symptomatic of a world where cars have become less engaging to drive, motorized mobile-phone capsules instead of driving machines. And as a car enthusiast, this makes me mad, and a little bit sad.

By all rights, then, I should have hated the new BMW 7 Series, for it is a festival of the latest driver-assistance technology. There’s so much of it, in fact, that, in addition to individual controls accessible on the dashboard, on the steering wheel, and through the iDrive controller, there’s a button right on the dash – between the air vents and where the door lock switch would usually be – to activate and deactivate all of the systems at once. Switch it on and a green ring glows around the icon of the car, telling you you’re protected.

What can the 7 Series do for you? What can’t it do! Using the ABS, traction, and stability control systems we’ve become used to in all cars (and which I’ve come to appreciate, and don’t treat as assistance systems anymore), it adds cameras, sensors, and other devices to give it near-autonomous driving capability.

For instance, its active cruise control’s radar can not just maintain a distance from the car ahead when you’re cruising on the highway, but it works in town as well, reducing its following distance as your speed drops, and also bringing you to a complete stop in downtown traffic. The precision and smoothness with which it does so is eerie.

Along with cameras and sensors that warn you when you’re departing your chosen lane, and when there’s a vehicle in your blind spot, the new 7 Series adds steering intervention, which gently nudges you back into your lane if you’ve wandered. Above 70 km/h, the car can take over steering duties completely for up to 30 seconds, reading the lane markings and making small corrections automatically to maintain your path, whether you’re on a super-slab of straight freeway or on something more complicated and winding. To see the steering wheel writhe back and forth in your hands – or even when you’re not holding it – is disturbing to car people, because it’s doing as good a job as you.

Here’s the thing about the 7 Series, though, and it’s what distinguishes it from the other near-autonomous, self-driving-capable barges on the market: find the right road, switch the assists off, and it’s a car for an enthusiast. The turbocharged V8 produces 445 horsepower, delivering 100 km/h in a seamless rush as the eight-speed automatic blurs rapidly through its gears. While all-wheel drive is standard, the xDrive system is heavily rear-biased, leaving the steering uncorrupted and the chassis remarkably lively for such a large car. Braking performance is excellent, too.

Like most modern cars, the new 7 has several different driving modes, all of which are customizable when you start to dive into the iDrive menus. Sport is surprisingly aggressive, and gives you a taut, responsive feel along with its red-accented gauge cluster. Comfort and Comfort Plus soften the air suspension to deliver a smoother ride and calm down the throttle response. And Eco Pro not only tweaks the car’s systems to deliver improved fuel economy, but reconfigures the gauge cluster to coach you into more efficient driving habits – the “gamification” of eco-driving, in a luxury sedan packed with leather, wood, brushed aluminum, and screens everywhere. (Interestingly, I really enjoyed driving the car in Eco Pro mode in the city.)

There is so much more to the 7 Series than the way it drives, and this story could be twice as long were I just to list all of the car’s standard and optional features. There’s the new iDrive system, better than ever and controllable not just with the central knob and buttons, but via a touch-sensitive screen, or now with gestures you can make in the air in front of it. There’s the multi-adjustable seats, which are comfortable on even the longest drive. There’s the fragrance system which ionizes and subtly perfumes the air inside the cabin. And a display key that lets you control a multitude of the car’s functions remotely.

All of which is impressive – and an important part of playing the top-tier luxury car game these days. What distinguishes the new 7, though, is that, strip it all away, and it’s still a big BMW at heart – a car with power, performance, and handling to that you just want to get in and drive.

Learn more about the 7 Series here.