MIRAMAS, France — BMW freely admits it benchmarked the Audi A8 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class when developing its new 2016 BMW 7 Series. The present generation of BMW’s full-size luxury sedan went on sale in late 2008, well before the current A8 and S-Class debuted, so it was long overdue for serious redo. Not surprisingly, BMW says the latest 7 Series will have what it takes to tackle its German rivals head on, thanks in large part to it being lighter, more comfortable, and easier to use than the outgoing model.
A carbon diet
The 2016 BMW 7 Series, codenamed G12, employs technology similar to BMW’s Project i cars (the i8 and i3) to help it shave weight over its predecessor. Like in the production of those cars, carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) parts made in Moses Lake, Washington, are shipped to Germany for final assembly. But unlike the i cars, only part of the passenger compartment is made from the lightweight material. Instead, the new 7 Series features what BMW calls a Carbon Core design, where strategic placement of carbon-fiber elements helps increase strength and crash protection, all while dropping pounds.
As a result, the body shell alone is roughly 88 pounds lighter than before, and BMW says the entire car should weigh up to 286 pounds less than the current 7 Series, depending on spec. Based on the weight of today’s long-wheelbase model, the 2016 7 Series should weigh in somewhere between 4,064 and 4,279 pounds.
The vast majority of the body is still aluminum and steel, but elements such as the top of the transmission tunnel, braces for the B- and C-pillars, the parcel shelf, and the roof crossmembers are all made from CFRP. A long CFRP reinforcement tube also runs the length of each roof rail, starting at the base of the A-pillar and ending near the trunk. Other weight-saving measures include smaller wheel hubs and suspension knuckles, aluminum hats for the steel brake discs, and new four-piston brake calipers designed to require less structural bracing, shaving up to 5.5 pounds each. All told, unsprung weight drops 15 percent versus the outgoing 7 Series.
Ride and handling
To provide a wider range of adjustability in the suspension, four-corner air springs and adaptive dampers are now standard on the 2016 BMW 7 Series. Stereoscopic cameras at the top of the windshield can detect big obstacles like speed bumps and proactively soften the adaptive dampers when the system deems it necessary.
The new car will also come with an optional electromechanical anti-roll bar adjustment function. BMW was coy about how it works, but from what we could gather the system essentially allows the car’s computer to change the level of roll resistance to prioritize either sportiness or comfort. By decoupling the anti-roll bars, the system can prevent a hard impact on one side of the car from unsettling the entire body. Reconnecting the anti-roll bars predictably firms up the handling.
We had a chance to test out all the new suspension updates around a handling course and came away suitably impressed. First, we dialed in Comfort Plus mode to see just how luxurious a ride the suspension provides. This setting adjusts the dampers and anti-roll bars to their most comfortable mode, allowing the 2016 BMW 7 Series to float over choppy pavement. Though there’s a moderate amount of noise from the 245/45/R19 Pirelli P-Zero tires, the ride in our car was serene even over broken, deteriorating concrete. Switching to Comfort (the car’s default driving setting) reduces body movement over rough pavement, but it’s still a remarkably plush ride.
Finally, we tried Sport mode, which sets the anti-roll bars and dampers to their stiffest settings and lowers the air suspension by 0.39 inch. The car dove through a coned-off slalom far more eagerly, enabling us to arc through turns quicker and with less body roll. The overall ride is still quite good, a trait BMW attributes to keeping the air springs relatively soft and dialing in more aggressive damping. Calling it “sporty” handling is a stretch, but the car is much more composed than its soft ride quality may imply.
Can’t decide which mode you want? Simply use the new Adaptive driving mode that “predicts” which setting will best suit the current conditions and automatically adjusts among Comfort Plus, Comfort, and Sport. The Adaptive function not only measures how the car is currently being driven (for example, cruising in a straight line will call up Comfort Plus; steering and braking hard will call up Sport), but also uses information from the navigation map to proactively switch into Sport if the car is approaching a series of switchbacks, for instance. The transmission also pre-emptively downshifts and holds gears if the car is approaching a sharp bend.
Under the hood of the 2016 BMW 740Li prototype we piloted is a new inline-six TwinPower engine codenamed B58. BMW isn’t ready to share any specifics about the engine but admitted it is part of a new engine family with three-cylinder (B38, used in the i8 and new Mini Cooper) and four-cylinder (B48, in the Cooper S) variants. Based on that, the new base mill for the new 7 is almost certainly a version of BMW’s well-worn turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six. An eight-speed automatic remains the only transmission, although BMW says it has reduced internal friction and widened the ratio spread for better fuel efficiency.
Park from afar
Sadly, the most gee-whiz feature that will be available for the 2016 BMW 7 Series won’t be offered on our shores. A new key fob with a color touchscreen allows owners to drive the 7 Series forward into a garage or narrow parking space, and then reverse it out afterwards, all while standing outside the car. The system worked seamlessly in a demonstration with the car starting, selecting reverse, and slowly backing out of a makeshift garage. On the way back in, the car steers to center itself within the garage and automatically stops when its parking sensors detect that it’s near a wall or parking stop. The system currently only works with forward parking and cannot reverse into a space remotely.
BMW believes U.S. laws prohibit this feature because our regulations don’t allow a car to shift out of Park unless the brake pedal is physically depressed. But we hear BMW is petitioning the U.S. government for a workaround and will offer remote parking here as soon as it is legal.
Touching and pointing
The inside of the 2016 BMW 7 Series sees the first application of a new touchscreen iDrive interface. In addition to the standard rotary controller on the center console, the infotainment system now responds to pushes on its dash-mounted display. As a result, the main menu now consists of large rectangular boxes rather than the small lines of text (Radio, Telephone, etc.) on today’s iDrive systems. The climate controls also now use a touchscreen interface to change the air vent settings or activate the heated seats, although you still use physical knobs to adjust the temperature.
You can also now use gestures to control the infotainment system, although perhaps not the gestures you typically use while driving. A small infrared camera mounted near the map lights “watches” for hand motions near the shifter. Rotate your pointer finger to adjust the audio volume, and point at the screen with two fingers splayed like a peace sign to start navigation to your home address. When you receive a call over Bluetooth, waving your hand to the right dismisses the caller, while pointing toward the screen answers. Given that all those functions can also be performed by using the steering-wheel buttons, gesturing seems more like a cool gimmick than a useful upgrade.
Among the new safety features for the 2016 BMW 7 Series is an update to the adaptive cruise control designed to help drivers stick to posted speed limits. Using data from the navigation system and cameras that read traffic signs, the car prompts the driver when the speed limit is about to change. To adjust the cruise speed accordingly, you simply push the speed up or down button (depending on how the limit changes). On an oval test track at Miramas, we put the system to the test when approaching a 70 km/h zone from a 90 km/h one. The instrument cluster warned of the limit change about 20 seconds before we reached the 70 sign, and after pushing the down button, the car promptly braked and slowed to 70 km/h. Speedy drivers can preselect by how much they’d like the system to automatically exceed the speed limit, up to 15 km/h (9.3 mph) over.
Other safety features include a self-steering system that keeps the car centered in its lane at speeds up to 210 km/h (130 mph!), forward collision warning and auto braking, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-departure warning and prevention. The car also actively prevents you from leaving your lane if there’s a car in your blind spot. When we signaled and deliberately started to move right toward a BMW X1 in the adjacent lane, the system vibrated the steering wheel as a warning and then steered left to re-center our car.
Coming to America this fall
BMW is mum on many important details about the 2016 BMW 7 Series. We don’t have the car’s dimensions, for instance, and both the interior and exterior of these prototypes were camouflaged. But it’s clear the new luxury car has plenty of big innovations to help it attract well-heeled buyers. Cutting weight should help the large sedan meet tougher emissions targets, the wide range of chassis settings is designed to appeal to everyone from chauffeurs to enthusiasts, and the new technologies could help lure shoppers away from the gadget-laden A8 and S-Class.
Powertrain choices in the U.S. are likely to roughly mirror those of the current car, starting with the aforementioned new inline-six in the 740Li we drove. That means we can likely expect an eight-cylinder 750 and a 12-cylinder 760 in the near future. A plug-in hybrid is also possible in a few years’ time. For now, BMW plans to sell only the long-wheelbase (Li) version of the car in the U.S., mirroring Mercedes’ decision to skip importing the standard-wheelbase S-Class.
The 2016 BMW 7 Series starts production in Germany late this summer and will likely be shown at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September. BMW expects to deliver the first cars to the U.S. this fall.