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BMW took the wraps off the new 7-series on Wednesday, the first major redesign of its flagship sedan since 2009 and a badly needed reboot as surging tech innovations, from electric power trains to semi-autonomous piloting features, increasingly drive sales and shorten product cycles in the lucrative luxury car segment.
Two models — a 740i and 750i xDrive, priced at $81,300 and $97,400 — will arrive at U.S dealerships this fall. A 740e plug-in hybrid model will be available in 2016.
First introduced to the U.S. in 1978, the 7-series throughout its history has been an early adopter of transformative technologies such as antilock brakes and automatic stability control and helped promulgate the notion that a large luxury car could perform and handle like a sports car. With the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Audi A8, Porsche Panamera and Tesla Model S, the 7 has long been a default Hollywood luxury sedan. (Reese Witherspoon has been spotted driving the exclusive Alpina 7 submodel.)
But sales of the 7 in the U.S. have slid in recent years as the A8 and S550 received overhauls, while Tesla seized the technological and status high ground that Mercedes, BMW and Audi once had largely to themselves.
Sales of the 7-series fell from 12,253 in 2010 to 9,744 last year, although BMW’s overall sales in 2014 were the best in its history and the 7 logged a 55 percent year-over-year increase in May. During the same period Mercedes sold more than twice as many examples of its flagship S-Class and Tesla delivered an estimated 18,480 Model S electric sedans.
The high profit margins of luxury sedans and surging demand in China for cars large enough to be chauffeur-driven make the 7-series crucial for BMW. Mercedes spent $1 billion revamping the S-Class, adding everything from sophisticated lasers and stereoscopic cameras that enable the car to drive itself in certain situations, to fragrances spritzed through the air conditioning vents.
Given the improvements in the competition — the Model S was upgraded in October with dual-motor all wheel drive that greatly boosted performance — BMW had to raise its game with the new 7, especially given the six-year lag since the last redesign and BMW’s legacy of fielding luxurious, technologically advanced cars.
“We still have a very clear-cut image, and that’s the ultimate driving machine,” Ludwig Willisch, BMW’s U.S. chief executive, told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview at the Detroit Auto Show in January. “That’s what we stand for and everybody gets it.”
Last month, BMW gave THR a sneak preview of the new 7 in the marble-floored garage of a private residence high above Beverly Hills. (Security was tight — I had to surrender my smartphone and laptop and submit to an airport-style body scan before entering.) The Alpine White 7 parked inside looked like a blood-relative to the outgoing model that had been given a makeover by an uncompromising style consultant. The new 7 is nearly 300 pounds lighter, thanks to carbon fiber and aluminum in place of steel, the fruits of innovations at BMW’s electric and hybrid-car i division.
With the directly competing Mercedes S550 by some measures the world’s most technologically advanced car, BMW loaded the new 7 with enough tech to choke an IT geek. A redesigned entertainment and mapping system responds to finger sweeps and hand gestures, wireless phone charging is standard and, in a sign of the deep ambivalence carmakers have toward sharing infotainment functions with Apple and Google, a BMW-branded iPad-like tablet allows touch control of seat adjustment, lighting, climate control, entertainment and navigation.
Like the S550, the interior of the 7 is tricked out with indirect ambient lighting in a choice of colors. An LED “light carpet” projects a lighted path outside the car whenever the doors open. Taking a cue from the Rolls-Royce Wraith’s fabled Starlight Headliner, the 7’s glass moonroof can be etched so that it simulates a starry night sky when lit with hidden LEDs.
Less whimsically, the 7 goes all-in on a heads-up display that projects onto the windshield in the driver’s field of vision the road speed, speed limits, directions and infotainment with full-color graphics. Parking assist and active parking control, which automatically hits the brakes when it detects an imminent collision with another vehicle or solid object, now work in both head-in and parallel parking. A host of adaptive and active controls utilize stereo cameras and radar to keep the car in its lane at speeds of up to 130 mph, alert drivers to pedestrians and allow nearly hands-free driving in traffic jams — precursors to fully autonomous driving that bring the 7 up to speed with the automated driving functions found in the S-Class and Model S.
With competition in the luxury car segment set to grow ever fiercer — Lincoln Motors’ revamped Continental drops next year — the Big Bimmer has shed the last vestiges of its ‘aughts design legacy not a moment too soon.
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