It seems as though BMW never puts a foot wrong. Think about it. When the original 1 Series debuted in 2004, it took flak for its decidedly odd looks, limited legroom at the back, cut-price materials and lofty asking price. Yet it went on to become a huge success. And how about that i3? Sure, the Nissan Leaf arrived earlier at the electric-car party. But the Bavarian entrant made the concept of urban, electric mobility that much cooler.
Then we had the fourth-generation E65 7 Series — possibly the most controversial-looking thing in the marque’s history. You would have expected it to flop. But, according to Wikipedia, it was the best selling generation of the model. And many now regard Chris Bangle’s styling efforts as forward-thinking and revolutionary. The latest version of the large luxury saloon landed in South Africa earlier this year. It is armed with an impressive arsenal to better tackle what most (ourselves included) consider the benchmark in this segment: the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
For starters, it finally looks the part. Gone are the strange proportions and bulbous fixtures. This model recaptures the aura of the timeless E38, which was good enough for James Bond in the 1997 film Tomorrow Never Dies. And some of the technologies that wowed us on the silver screen nearly 20 years ago have become a reality. Remember when 007 drove his Beemer around using a touchpad on that oversized Ericsson? The remote-control parking on this car operates on a similar principle. One can initiate parking manoeuvres from outside the vehicle using the key fob. Unfortunately, there were no units equipped with this function for us to try.
But we did get to sample the steering and lane-control assistance feature — ironic considering that this is a semi-autonomous car from the company that promises “sheer driving pleasure” to all who buy its products. But what a fascinating system it is. On the freeways of the Western Cape, the 7 Series virtually drove itself. It does require that both hands remain on the wheel, but you can feel the steering move under your palms as the car handles slight curves by itself. Coupled with adaptive cruise control, which accelerates and brakes in accordance with the traffic situation, not much input is required from the person at the helm.
When you do take the reins fully, you find that the big BMW feels far nimbler than the wide, lengthy bruiser that it is. Rapid, comfortable progress is what you can expect. Air suspension comes standard, and the new 7 Series is 130kg lighter than the previous model, thanks to the extensive use of carbon fibre replacement plastics. Overall, there’s an air of composure and dignity that was missing in the old car. Actually, you could liken the driving experience to that of the S-Class. A long-wheelbase version is on offer and there are three engine choices, starting with the 730d which serves up 195kW and 620Nm. This is followed by the 740i, powered by BMW’s superb six-cylinder turbocharged unit, producing 240kW and 450Nm. The top of the range is the 750i, offering 330kW and 650Nm. The diesel engine makes the most sense, offering brisk performance and excellent economy. For an oil-burner, it even delivers a pleasant engine note. But, ideally, you’ll want to spend your time sitting in the back of this car, which means you have to get the optional Executive Lounge package. This adds electrically adjustable seats, four-zone climate control, rear seat entertainment, a fold-out table — and each seat gives you a massage.
So, should the Mercedes-Benz S-Class be worried? After our brief stint behind the wheel (and in the backseat) we say yes. Of course, a head-to-head battle is in order, for a more definitive verdict. But BMW has narrowed the gap considerably. Standard prices range from R1 339 000 for the 740i and R1 932 200 for the 750Li.