When the outgoing BMW 7 Series (E65/E66) was introduced late in 2001 its exterior styling became a source of some controversy, especially in Europe, writes Dave Leggett. The flamboyant lines that culminated in the raised boot lid (dubbed the ‘Bangle Butt’ after designer Chris Bangle) jarred with conservative-minded BMW loyalists who prefer evolutionary design advances that support strong residuals.  

But despite a few ruffled feathers (which were further ruffled when the next 5 Series took its design cues from E65) BMW says its outgoing 7 Series was the most popular large luxury saloon in BMW’s history. Around 50,000 units were sold worldwide per annum and the car went down particularly well in fast-growth places like China where the appetite for luxury BMWs was relatively fresh and baggage free.

Design and how far you go with new ideas is a tough call for any car company. The reasons behind the creation of a new design language or DNA for a brand may well be pretty compelling. A break with the past is sometimes necessary to signal that the brand and product are moving forward. But how far do you go?

Concept cars shown at motor shows are a good way to gauge likely reactions to new design directions. But they cannot remove all the risk. If the new production car looks too much like the outgoing one, there may be a problem taking the car to new customers – although the traditionalists will be happy.

Give the new car too radical a new look, and it’s the traditionalists – the dealer’s bread and butter repeat buyers – who are doing the complaining, along with those jittery dealers (some of whom may see political advantage in amplifying the ‘poor market reception’). There’s perhaps a tricky balancing act to perform but, for one reason or another, the internal debate may swing around that line at particular times. Chris Bangle clearly got his way at BMW in the early part of this decade.

Chalk one up for the radicals.  

But did BMW hear the complaints in 2001/2 and take them on board?

When the time came for a mid-cycle freshening there was an apparent toning down of ‘Bangleness’ on the Seven. That pronounced rear-end became a little less pronounced.

And now, in 2008, we have E65’s successor – the fifth generation 7 Series known internally at BMW as FO1/FO2 (FO2 is the LWB version) – hitting the market. It looks good, and it looks like the Bangleness has been dialled down yet again. This ain’t a shocker looker, at least not in the way E65 was on the back of the previous E38 in 2001. Something looking like new Seven might still have caused a slight rumpus seven years ago, but we have now had what has come along since. The new Seven certainly isn’t dull to look at, but it most certainly won’t cause the gin and tonics to spill when it first rocks up at the golf club.
 
It’s a competent and apparently safe-pair-of-hands job on the styling front. If you haven’t already seen it, I think you’ll like it when you see it in the flesh. It looks well balanced.

Faster, lighter and more economical
Besides the styling, what new technologies have been employed in the new model? As you might expect, it’s quite a long list, so I’ll try and highlight what seems important.

For one thing, BMW engineers have worked hard to make this car lighter, faster and more economical (which means lower CO2) than the outgoing range. There’s a more extensive use of aluminium (certain elements of body structure – like the roof, as well as in engine construction). There are the ‘Efficient Dynamics’ BMW brand elements that include lightweight engineering and brake energy regeneration. It’s a BMW brand thing that BMW believes has found its time. You can have both performance/driver appeal and the sort of efficiency that doesn’t instantly mark you out as public enemy number one.

The BMW 730d can go from zero to 62mph in 7.2 seconds before going on to a top speed of 153mph. But check out the fuel economy this all-aluminium 3.0-litre six-cylinder diesel returns: a combined 39.2mpg figure is undoubtedly impressive and BMW says a host of improvements mean that the new diesel is 10% more fuel-efficient than the previous one. BMW says that is better than any comparable car in its market segment, petrol, diesel or hybrid. If, as claimed, it scores better on CO2 than Mercedes’ upcoming S 400 hybrid, that’s certainly saying something. BMW’s average 192g/km CO2 figure on the 730d compares with 204g/km on the Mercedes S 320 CDI, 199g/km on the Audi A8 2.8FSI or 219g/km on the Lexus LS600h (source: cleangreencars).

In 2007 the BMW 730d accounted for 85% of UK 7 Series sales and this figure is expected to remain the same for the new car. The two high spec petrol engined versions (there’s a V8 twin-turbo 4.4-litre and a twin-turbo six-cylinder 3.0-litre) are designed for customers who want to max out on sporty performance or fall into the category of ‘diesel resistors’. In Europe at least, the diesel is the main story.

Pedestrians safer at night
Other bells and whistles? There are the expected driver assistance systems such as Active Cruise Control and lane departure warning. But there’s also a night vision system that comes with pedestrian recognition.

The system centres on a thermal imaging camera with a 300-metre range that provides a video picture of the road ahead beyond the range of the car’s headlights; typically 150 metres. As this camera, located in the front valance, scans the road a control unit also analyses video data of human behaviour that has been picked up. By applying complex algorithms the computer is able to calculate if any pedestrians highlighted are likely to move into the path of the 7 Series. Should this be the case, a warning flashes three times in the control display located between the speedometer and the rev counter. Drivers specifying Head-up Display also get an additional warning projected on to the windscreen.

The BMW 7 Series is also the first car in the world to be offered with a system that is capable of reading road signs and displaying the corresponding current speed limit to the driver. It works courtesy of a camera located in the rear view mirror housing.  The camera monitors the road ahead and cross-references all the speed limit signs with the same data stored on the navigation section of the car’s hard drive.  Should there be a discrepancy, such as a lower speed limit through temporary road works, then the vehicle displays the lower speed.  This is the same should a variable speed limit sign be activated on a motorway. BMW stresses that the system is not 100% foolproof. A sign may not be recognised for some reason. But it seemed to work well on the test car with the head-up display (HUD is a GBP915 option on the Seven). 
 
The interior is as luxurious and spacious as you would expect and the driving experience hits the right notes. It’s a big car, but the consensus among the journalists I spoke to was that it handles well for a car of its size (the aluminium roof is an innovation that helps to lower the centre of gravity).

Bad timing?
But here’s the thing. There’s a bit of a recession on. Timing couldn’t be much worse for the rollout of a flagship luxury sedan could it? No, it couldn’t. Even if you have got the financial means to renew your car, you might nevertheless be a tad reluctant.

If you’re a company director in manufacturing about to show a quarter of your workforce the door, a spanking new 7 Series in the company car park might not go down at all well. It’s a time for belt tightening and being a bit frugal. Perhaps you’ll keep the current car another couple of years and get the new Seven when business has picked up.

In normal circumstances, BMW would expect to shift over 2,000 units of new Seven in its first full year of sales in the UK market. Dave Tuckett, the BMW 7 Series Product Manager for Britain, told me that volume of around 1,700 units is expected for 2009. That, he said, takes into account current market conditions.

“We had initially higher expectations, but we can’t not launch the model,” he said.

Going back to our company director in the golf club with his G&T in hand, these are uncertain times. His business has to ride out a recession that has yet to crank up in the real economy and the business needs to come through it lean and fit. The new car is put on hold. In the scheme of things it’s not all that important.

And when he thinks of his car, there’s a thought that may prove scary – even scarier than a Bangle Butt, which seems rather trivial now. His car is a horribly depreciating asset. Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear was recently joking that residuals are so bad now that you are stuck with whatever car you currently drive because it’s worthless. Collapsed residuals are at their most collapsed for big luxury cars. Our company director may decide to hang on for a few years and pick up a used Seven that has already taken its big depreciation hit. And that may be a new pattern of purchasing behaviour that sticks around for a while, even when the better times come. We’ll see.

On the press launch I met the exterior designer of the new Seven – a Canadian called Karim Habib. He’s a nice chap and we had a thorough and wide-ranging discussion about the auto industry generally as well as design issues. He’s very well aware that these are difficult times when I ask him about them. He makes a good point that in turbulent times, people are drawn to those who are calm and don’t panic. And he feels there’s a parallel with the new Seven’s design.

“I think the design of the car has a kind of inner strength. There’s a little bit of calmness, but it’s strong on the inside,” he says.

I’m reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…

BMW has at least kept its head with the development of the new Seven.

Dave Leggett