There’s this assumption—really more of a hope, if we’re being honest with ourselves—that at some point in our 20s we’ll discover who and what we’re meant to be. It’ll just click sooner or later, or at least, it had better. Wouldn’t want to be staring down the dreaded midlife crisis in our 40s.
Back in its 20s, the BMW 7 Series knew exactly what it was. Sleek, powerful, athletic, the 7 Series was confident. It was the Ultimate Driving Machine for the masters of the universe. James Bond drove one from the back seat, a highlight of an otherwise forgettable movie.
Now in its mid-40s, the 7 Series has lost confidence in itself, in its purpose. Significantly larger in every dimension, it’s packed on the pounds despite the carbon-fiber work it had done a few years back. Sure, it’s still a better runner than the old man from Stuttgart, but it’s not its younger self, either. The S-Class, though, knows exactly what it is: the standard against which luxury sedans are measured. But while S leads the way at Mercedes-Benz, 3 sets the course at BMW.
The 7 thus finds itself careening into a midlife crisis it never expected. Athletic and 3 Series-inspired though it may be, it’s not a sport sedan. BMW has made it abundantly clear that’s the mission of the upcoming 8 Series Gran Coupe just as it was for the preceding 6 Series Gran Coupe. It’s not the ultimate luxury sedan, either, riding too stiffly and offering a 3 Series-evoking interior to the S-Class’ tour de force. It’s not the ultimate technology showcase, either, not with the Audi A8 replacing every touch point with a touchscreen. The 7 tries to compete with both, or at least offer a middle ground, and ends up seemingly confused about what it wants to be.
Take it at its word as the ultimate driving luxury barge, and there are young upstarts still in their 20s and 30s trying to push the 7 aside. That A8 is no slouch in the corners, either, and Lexus modeled its latest LS on the 7 Series. Lexus did such a good job it doubled LS sales and outsold the 7 last year in the U.S. That’s not to mention the Lexus-following Genesis G90 or the plenty sporty Jaguar XJ.
All this, and we still haven’t asked the fundamental question: Does sporty handling mean anything to this buyer? Mercedes-Benz doesn’t seem to think so, and it sold nearly twice as many S cars as BMW did 7 cars last year. The S-Class certainly doesn’t drive poorly, and although the 7 will certainly go around a corner flatter and faster, your emotional reward isn’t joy so much as it is a sense of accomplishment. You’ve made the 5,000-pound luxury sedan go around a corner quickly and without undue drama, and that’s an achievement, but nothing about it makes you want to do it again. You could, but why? The car is much happier driven a bit briskly than flogged like an M product. If you’re the type to drive your big car fast and hard, well, BMW has an 8 Series for you.
Don’t get us wrong: The 7 Series doesn’t drive poorly or unexceptionally. It’s capable, just not enthusiastic. Anyone should appreciate a quick, responsive steering rack that almost never demands you turn the steering wheel more than 90 degrees outside a parking lot. There’s little body roll for a vehicle of its size, and the standard air suspension is sporty stiff but absorbs and disperses the road’s chatter well. The 750Li we spent the most time with is powerful with the latest upgrades to BMW’s familiar 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8, but the engine is neither silent as befits a luxury car nor emotionally stimulating as befits a sports car. It doesn’t waft, and it doesn’t growl, it just gets the job done; a piece of machinery.
You, of course, have options. If you’d prefer silent, the 745Le plug-in hybrid glided us through gilded neighborhoods with nothing to hear but the lap of the tires on the asphalt. When needed, its twin-turbo inline-six started seamlessly and was unobtrusive in the cabin while providing ample power. If you’d rather make a statement, the M760Li continues to offer BMW’s twin-turbo V-12 and M-developed handling. Most, though, will probably opt for the standard, non-electrified twin-turbo I-6 of the 740Li, which wasn’t available to test.
Likewise, don’t take these critiques to mean the 7 Series’ interior isn’t nice. When properly upfitted with the Rear Executive Lounge Seating package, occupants in all seats are treated to beautifully quilted leather in a refreshing new pattern not only on the seats but all the arm rests, as well (a second, symmetrical variation is available through the BMW Individual program). The fully digitized instrument cluster, gesture controls, rear-seat control tablet, and Siri-like Intelligent Personal Assistant are all amusing toys, but none of them is indispensable (and if you’re the type to talk about your car a lot, we recommend changing the assistant’s name to anything but “BMW”). The more intuitive iDrive interface and the driver-facing camera that allows for extended light-touch steering assistance time so long as the driver’s eyes stay on the road are far more practical technologies for everyday operation of the vehicle.
What the 7 Series isn’t is a private jet. Neither the opulent luxury of the back of the jet nor the technological wonder of the all-glass cockpit, it’s an international business class ticket. It’s exclusive, yes, but it’s for the always-moving, all-work, no-sleep captain of industry on the go. It’s the car to be picked up by at the airport and whisked to a very important business meeting in your designer suit, taking important phone calls and sending important emails. It’s a high-tech mobile office space, just what you need on the go.
When the plane lands back at home, though, you’re more likely to find yourself sliding behind the wheel of a pure luxury or sports car, not one trying to be both. In making a car that tried to appeal to everyone, BMW finds the 7 Series without a niche, and simply enlarging the grille by 40 percent because existing customers said “go bold” as BMW tells it (but not “go big” as BMW heard it) isn’t enough to create one. The midlife crisis tends to end when you’re happy with who you are. Let’s hope the 7 Series finds itself in its next generation.
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