2006 BMW 7 Series first drive

Entering its fourth year, BMW’s flagship 7 Series is getting a mid-cycle makeover. While the cosmetic upgrades are subtle – a reworked face with a taller hood line and larger kidney grilles, freshened headlights, new taillights and stronger-looking side sills along with a redefined lip spoiler on the trunk lid and a new rear diffuser, both of which increase the down force by 15% – the overall effect is pleasing to the eye. What makes the biggest difference, however, are the engine enhancements and the changes to the controversial iDrive.

The 730i earns BMW’s latest 3.0L inline six, which is the same unit used in the 6 and new 3 Series cars. Along with a lighter magnesium/aluminum block it brings a rewarding 258 ponies to the party. More significant is the new 4.8L V8 that replaces the previous 4.4L engine. Not only does this change the model designation – from 745i to 750i (in both the regular and long wheelbase versions) – it delivers some serious performance to what is first and foremost a full-zoot luxury car.

Upping the horsepower and peak torque to 360 (up from 333 and 332 respectively) makes a tremendous difference to both the turn and sense of speed. True, the off-the-line performance is not as visceral as, say, the M5, but for a large, leather-lined luxo cruiser the response to throttle input is seriously quick. Indeed, imbuing the big 7 with the ability to sprint to 100 kilometres an hour in 5.9 seconds transforms it into somewhat of a sleeper.

The use of BMW’s Valvetronic (a system that gives the intake valve ultimate throttle control), double-Vanos (variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams) and a chic continuously variable intake manifold not only gives the new eight a silky work ethic, it spreads the power out over a much wider range while reducing both emissions and fuel consumption. When compared to the 2001 BMW 740i, which was powered by a 4.4L V8 engine, the horsepower is up by 29% and torque is up 11% while the fuel consumption and emissions both drop by a whopping 9%, which is remarkable considering the time frame at play.

The new 7 Series is also remarkable for its uncanny ability to carve a corner at alarming speeds, and yet still coddle the passengers. This is particularly true of the car equipped with the optional Adaptive Drive suspension. The interaction between the active anti-roll bars (Dynamic Drive) and the continuously variable, electronically-controlled, shock absorbers (EDC-C) delivers extraordinary handling and an impeccably smooth ride in a single system. Simply, the variable dampers deliver the right control for the circumstances – firming up to enhance handling or softening down to relax the ride. All the while, the active anti-roll bars are at work eliminating practically all traces of body roll. For example, when pulling an enthusiastic 0.75g the amount of body roll is limited to just 4 degrees.

By keeping the body flatter than gravy on a plate while delivering the right damping characteristics also delivers a fast response to steering input and an eerie stability through a series of switchbacks. When pushed, the large and heavy (2,035 kilograms) 7 hunkers down and behaves (and feels) like a much smaller and lighter vehicle – the large 245/45R19 front and 275/40R19 rear tires helping enormously. Indeed, it would not be out of place on a racetrack, which almost makes the optional sports suspension redundant.
When understeer or oversteer does surface, it is quickly dealt with by the standard electronic stability control system. It’s a combination that is very difficult to beat regardless of the car’s price or perceived station in life. Ditto the brake performance. Even after some long, fast downhill sections the 7’s brake pedal remained commendable crisp under foot and there was not a hint of fade.

This technical prowess is then balanced with a major dollop of luxury. The leather is aromatic to the smell and buttery to the touch, the new interior trim is brighter and classier to the eye, and just about every comfort/convenience item known is in place – this includes a very comfortable set of front seats that come with more adjustments than you can shake a stick at (I gave up counting at 16, plus the heating and cooling functions!). Throwing a little more cash at the 750Li version, which stretches the wheelbase by 140-mm, adds multi-adjustable rear seats and a cooler box that sits behind the centre rear armrest. It is just the thing to keep the champers and chocolate-dipped strawberries at a suitable temperature.

When the fourth generation 7 Series debuted, it was shrouded in controversy – many complaining that the all-encompassing iDrive system was just too complicated for its (and the owner’s) own good. In an effort to stem the negativism, BMW has modified the system to make it simpler (colour coding the main menu items and the ensuing screens) and, ultimately, easier to operate. While some of the functions are still buried beneath layers of inputs and software, the general format does make far more sense.

The key to the upgraded performance, at least for this aging scribe, is the addition of some stand-alone buttons for the audio system. The new AM/FM and mode (which allows the driver to switch between the radio, CD and DVD) buttons eliminate the need to delve into iDrive for these very basic adjustments. The neatest part of the long wheelbase 750Li is the optional rear seat iDrive controls and its LCD screen. On the one hand, the screen displays DVDs or can be tuned into a TV station, which keeps the kids quiet. On the other, the extra iDrive controls provide sufficient entertainment to keep the most strident back-seat driver occupied! Nice one.

Pre-makeover, the 7 Series was a delightful car to drive. The revisions to the new-named 750i and its long wheelbase derivative transform it into a dynamic automobile that both handles like the Dickens and pampers the riders in an elegant style.