x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Coming in from the cold

Feature Neil Vorano travels to the former communist state of East Germany to test drive BMW's latest luxury offering, the 7 Series.

BMW has toned down the design excesses of the previous generation of the 7 series.
BMW has toned down the design excesses of the previous generation of the 7 series.

It's been almost 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell, but Dresden and parts of what used to be East Germany still show signs of its Soviet-era heritage. Dresden especially, where stark, concrete buildings and grand communist murals mix with stunning baroque architecture and postmodern glass and steel structures. Occasionally on the city streets, old Volgas and Ladas roll by spewing blue smoke, a nod to a time when people thought less about the environment and more about standing in queues for toilet paper.

Another Cold War remnant I had the pleasure of experiencing was being pulled over to the side of the road by four Polizei officers to check my papers. But instead of imposing men clad in black leather with steel eyes and patronising voices, they were four women in their mid-twenties, one with purple hair and another with a piercing in her top lip. Though they were hardly intimidating, the leader coldly demanded our papers and then, upon finding out I had left my passport in the hotel, they held a secret meeting in their van for five minutes before letting myself and my driving partner off, without a single explanation as to why they had pulled us over.

Maybe it was the car. Or maybe it was the fact that two guys not wearing blue pinstripe suits looked odd driving around in BMW's latest iteration of its flagship, the 7 Series. But it should not matter what you are wearing when you are in the 750 Li, which is what I was driving on a crisp autumn day in and around Dresden. This is a car that does not just say you have arrived, but you probably own the place, too - whoever you may be. This should even make the lucky valet who gets to park it at the hotel rise up the totem pole at work.

Certainly, this car is a looker, albeit an understated one. The design of the new 7 is less, shall we say, adventurous, than the last generation, but all in a good way. Gone is the infamously bulbous "Bangle Butt" and other stray design lines. Instead, this version is more streamlined, yet it looks larger and more muscular, thanks to a taller front end and a sharp, flat beltline that extends from front to back. The rear lights are the most adventurous part of the car, with neon-like inserts and a slight and unexpected dip in their shape.

Overall, it's a design that doesn't scream at you - the 7 is still for those who enjoy their money but don't like to slap people in the face with it. But they certainly can enjoy their money. The new 7 is a big car, but it doesn't feel like it behind the wheel. For one thing, the 4.4-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 churns out 407 horsepower and 600 Newton-metres of torque, which gives the extended-wheelbase 750 Li surprising performance, accelerating from a stop to 100 kilometres an hour in 5.2 seconds.

The engine is coupled to a six-speed automatic gearbox that seemed to be in the right gear all the time. Passing cars was an absolute dream, and a short trip on the autobahn showed the car seemed to have a limitless supply of power. And though it looks heavier, BMW was able to trim 55 kg over the old model. Another reason it feels like a smaller car is the optional active steering. At slower speeds, the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to the front wheels, while at higher speeds they turn in the same direction. Dreamy in a tight car park for such a large car (3,210-millimetre wheelbase), it helps make sharp corners at higher speeds as effortless as just pointing the steering wheel and following the nose. No tyre screeching, not even much body roll as we snake over these twisty, tight roads through the Saxony hills and forest.

Also helping to keep that control were a multitude of driving aids under the 7's skin, such as Dynamic Damper Control (which allows a driver to select between four suspension settings), Driving Dynamic Control, Dynamic Stability Control, Integrated Chassis Management, FlexRay information transmission technology, ABS Brake Assist and Dynamic Brake Control. It all adds up to a perfect drive with no surprises, no sudden frights and no missed steps. In fact, driving the BMW was great fun at first, then it became perfectly boring - because it was boringly perfect.

Inside, the quiet cabin is filled with BMW's typical high-end materials that you would expect in a car of this quality. The reason I do not go into too much detail about quality and luxury here is exactly because it would be a shock if a car like this was not filled with luxury touches, like buttery-soft and extremely comfortable leather seats and high-end, tactile switchgear. It's all arranged nicely in a clean, modern look, with nice wood and soft plastics. Perhaps it's a bit cold and clean for my tastes but I have no complaints save that I prefer to be swathed in an expensive car, feasting on its sumptuousness. The 7 Series simply puts it out there for you to pick at, like a big buffet of luxury. But what I particularly liked were the black panel instruments behind the wheel - basically, a large computer screen with a set of chrome bezels where the speedo and tachometer reside. Everything, including the numbers on the gauges, is black until the car is started, then the necessary information lights up. It makes for a clean, uncluttered appearance.

Of course, in this extended-wheelbase model, the rear seats are going to get some use. BMW says the 750 Li has the most legroom in its class, and sitting in the rear, there's no reason to doubt them. Both front seats have separate LCD displays on their backs that can show different DVDs at the same time, perhaps so businessmen can watch their share portfolios dissolve in stereo. But at least they'll be comfortable.

As strong as the ride and power is on the new 7 Series, it is the vast array of technological features that really impresses. If you can think of anything that will help comfort, safety and driving, BMW has probably done it here: heads-up display, radar-assisted active cruise control, a lane departure warning (that buzzes the steering wheel when you cross the white lines), park distance sensors, rear and front side-facing cameras, adaptive xenon headlights, BMW Online (it's the first car to have integrated internet capabilities) - again, I can't possibly list everything here. A few systems stood out for me: first, the Night Vision, which uses an infrared camera to show a ghostly view of the road ahead. But it also picks out human forms ahead, and shows if they are in the path of the car or off to the side. Very "black ops".

Another system I liked was the redesigned iDrive. BMW has listened to the complaints from customers and, I'd like to think, journalists, about how difficult its previous iDrive system was to use, so they simplified it by putting more buttons on the console (sounds strange, but it works). My biggest joy was plugging in an iPod, which packs away in the centre armrest. There is no need to see it, because all the playlists appear on the dashboard screen, allowing you to make your selections through the iDrive controller. All of this is pumped through one of the most impressive sound systems I have ever heard in a car - all the highs and lows of the Geto Boys' Damn, It Feels Good to be a Gangsta came in crystal clear as we turned into the magnificent Schloss Wolfsbrunn mansion for a light lunch. Very apropos.

I also liked the heads-up display, but not initially. I found it distracting, but I began to appreciate it the more I used it - especially with the navigation system. With a destination punched in, a small arrow appeared to float in front of me on the windscreen. When nearing forks in the road, the arrow was replaced by a graphic that showed me which road to take. Simple, but effective. So the 750 Li sounds too good to be true. The drive, the electronics, the power - everything was perfect, in a clean, tidy and efficient manner.

But perhaps that is the car's only downfall - in it's strive for perfection, BMW may have toned down what emotion the 7 could have had. It's road manners are so impeccable that they fail to elicit much of a thrill. The interior is so clean and modern it feels sanitised - it's more executive boardroom than luxury cockpit. If you were so inclined, you could compare this car to the old East Germany's communism: perfect in theory, but cold and calculating in practice. Of course, if communism had ever worked as well as the BMW 750 Li does, we would all be happily singing Party songs arm in arm with our workforce comrades today.

The new 7 Series goes on sale in the UAE today. nvorano@thenational.ae