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‘The largest kidney grille in BMW history’ says the press note on the BMW X7, like as it there were any doubt of the fact. It’s the grille that will dominate conversations about the big German luxury SUV that has the Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz GLS in its sights. It shocks and awes. It is bold, blingy, brash and in-your-face. It polarises opinion. And in the United States, where it is built and which will be its biggest market along with China, it actually blends in. Everything is oversized in America and on freeways clogged with Ford F-150 pickups (the best selling vehicle in USA), Chevy Suburbans SUVs and rapper-spec Cadillac Escalades, the X7 doesn’t seem monstrous. Its grille doesn’t look out of proportion. In fact after spending a long day driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles via the iconic Death Valley the X7 actually grew on me. Though that said, I wasn’t looking at the kidneys, but instead soaking in the incredible comfort and luxury of what the company says is their SUV equivalent of the 7 Series. So how good is it?
“No effort was spared on the X7 project and to isolate the engine there is even a dual firewall with the gap filled with noise absorbing material”
Have you heard the term handling comfort? Neither had I until I spent time with Dr Daniel Nowicki, the chassis engineer responsible for the dynamics of the BMW X7. Their target? To maintain the sporty DNA of every BMW but at the same time make the X7 the most comfortable SUV ever created at Munich. To that end the X7 gets standard electronically-controlled air suspension on both axles along with an Adaptive mode that uses cameras to read the road ahead and slacken the dampers if it sees a pothole or speed breaker and tighten the suspension when it sees a corner (or registers it via the navigation info). Together it delivers a ride quality, even on the optional 22 inch rims of our test car, that is absolutely fantastic. Not that American roads are anywhere like what we have in India, but the X7 just soaks up everything and isolates occupants to an astonishing degree and without the squishiness you’d associate with comfy cars. At low speeds there is a bit of pitter-patter and the occasional thud on a big pothole but it never jolts the cabin. And the noise isolation thanks to double-glazed glass and the acoustic windshield is incredible. No effort was spared on the X7 project and to isolate the engine there is even a dual firewall with the gap filled with noise absorbing material. Even the bushes are fluid filled and it delivers a hush that is just insane, like you’re wearing noise-cancelling headphones. And then there’s the Bowers and Wilkins sound system that pumps our a total system output of 1500watts via 20 speakers. Did I mention it’s awesome?
“Comfort, it turns out, is not just about ride quality but also the ease of driving and the X7 scores on both counts”
What about handling comfort then? Nowicki points to the steering that has been extensively re-engineered with incredibly tight tolerances — 4 micro meters (your hair is 20 micro meters) — to cut down on friction and making it not just highly accurate and responsive but requiring minimum steering correction and effort for straight-line stability. Of course the X7 gets steering and lane control assistant that, together with active cruise control, drives the big BMW almost autonomously with the driver only required to keep one hand on the wheel. But switch it off and, for such a big SUV, the X7 is incredibly easy to drive, requiring just two fingers on the steering wheel to keep to its lane and tracking straight and true as we cruised down the arrow-straight roads of the Death Valley. Comfort, it turns out, is not just about ride quality but also the ease of driving and the X7 scores on both counts.
Is a question nobody is ever going to ask of a big, 7-seat, luxury SUV. But, if you still insist on knowing, I can tell you that the X7 laps the Nurburgring Nordschliefe in the same time as the E92 M3. Chew on that for a bit. A big SUV weighing over 2.3 tonnes lapping the North Loop of the Nurburgring in the same time as an M3!
“They had a prototype ready in 2 months and immediately 5 seconds was knocked off the Nurburging lap time”
How have they gone about it? By completely re-imagining the xDrive all-wheel-drive system. Chassis engineer Nowicki (“everything below the doors is my responsibility”) tells me that in times past you had all-wheel-drive and then threw tricks like the M differential to make it handle like a car. But while working on the X7 his team had a brainwave, why not make the most agile AWD chassis they could and then use the electronics to calm it down? They had a prototype ready in 2 months and immediately 5 seconds was knocked off the Nurburging lap time. The X7’s xDrive platform, complete with rear-wheel-steer, inherently oversteery and hyper-agile and the electronics are layered over it to calm it down. Of course you can’t completely switch off the stability control aids and oversteer like crazy but with DSC off you can spin all four wheels if you have a slippery enough surface to overwhelm the ginormous grip of the 22 inch 315-section Pirelli PZeros. Safety regulations also mean SUVs have to have tip-over-control always active. And on further prodding Nowicki points to the electronic rear differential and active anti-roll bars and asks,“so much money has been spent on all the tech, why don’t you want to use it?” Fair enough.
What does it deliver on the road? Frankly, astonishing handling. The turn-in and steering response is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced on a 5.2-meter long 2.3-tonne SUV. Climbing out of Death Valley is a wonderfully surfaced mountain pass and the X7 carves up those corners at terrific speeds with minimal body roll and a mountain of grip. Yet the X7 isn’t a blunt instrument either. The agility is brilliant and the ‘handling comfort’ engineered into the steering ensures you can drive it inches from mountain walls without requiring you to be hyper-alert and constantly fidgeting with the ’wheel. Is it as fun to drive as a Cayenne? Not really. But that isn’t the X7’s rival either. The Range Rover is, and the Rangie isn’t remotely as quick round bends.
“This is a very big and very fast SUV and you can’t but help love it for that”
Of course the BMW X7 had to have a big V8, the X7 has been designed for America, the land of the V8. There is a smaller 340hp turbo-charged straight-six petrol and as for the diesels you can have the 265hp 30d straight-six or the quad-turbo (yes, four turbos!) M50d with 400hp and 760Nm. We are in America though so it was only good and proper than we drove the V8 — 4.4 litres, two turbos, 462hp and 650Nm that peaks at 1500rpm and stays flat till 4750rpm. And BMW’s engineers have given this engine character. There is the low-speed rumble of American V8s and there is the pin-you-in-the-seat acceleration of European V8s. It sounds powerful, not just on the inside but also from the outside, and when you put your foot through the twin firewalls the digital tacho struggles to keep up with the revs flashing past. 100kmph takes just 5.4 seconds and the top speed is limited to 250kmph. This is a very big and very fast SUV and you can’t but help love it for that.
Finally, the X7’s cabin. The layout is familiarly BMW but the quality, materials, luxury, everything is the best I’ve seen on any BMW, 7 Series included. The days of analogue dials and needles is long gone and the X7 gets the digital cockpit that we first saw on the X5, allied to another 12.3-inch display above the centre console. The screen is touch and gesture-enabled, there’s Siri-like “Hey, BMW” voice commands for everything, there’s a pad to scribble on, but if you’d like to go old school there’s still the iDrive controller to navigate through the menus. It might sound over-complicated but it is the most intuitive system of all its rivals. And with CarPlay and Android Auto operated via Wi-Fi you don’t need any cables to connect your phone to the X7.
“The third row isn’t just for children. Adults can also fit in though not for a road trip from Vegas to LA”
As for the equipment, where do I start? The X7 can be had in 7 and 6-seater layouts, the latter being the more sensible option with two individual bucket seats in the middle. All the seats are electrically controlled, the driver has controls on the doors to adjust the middle row. The front seats are heated, cooled and massaged. There is 5-zone climate control, the fifth for the third row. The third row isn’t just for children. Adults can also fit in though not for a road trip from Vegas to LA. The boot space can be expanded from 326 litres to 2120 litres with both rows of seats folded. LED lights are standard, laser lights that double the range of the high beam from 300 to 600 meters is optional. There’s a full length glass roof. The seats are large and swathed in soft cosseting leather. And the X7 will remember the last 50 meters you drove before parking it and will reverse out of the parking spot so don’t have to squeeze into the car if somebody has had the temerity of parking too close to your ginormous SUV.
“Look past the kidneys though and you have an SUV that is lavishly appointed, immensely comfortable, amazing agile (for its size) and a mighty companion for big road trips”
Like most of you, I rained hate on the X7 and those oversized kidneys. Have BMW’s designers gone blind I hollered. But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, in the environment it was designed for the X7 grows on you. Sure you will never call it beautiful or elegant but it looks fit for the purpose, to hold its own against all the other giants roaming American freeways. Look past the kidneys though and you have an SUV that is lavishly appointed, immensely comfortable, amazing agile (for its size) and a mighty companion for big road trips. Lavishly priced too, at Rs 1.2 crore or thereabouts when it is launched in India by the middle of the year. Will it be too big for Indian roads? I don’t think so, after all the problem is only finding a parking space and the X7 will always have a driver to take care of those menial chores while you soak in the ambiance of BMW’s Range Rover.