Driving the BMW X7 in the land of excess
BMW’s press handout says, like as if we were blind to the fact, that the X7 has the largest kidney grille in BMW history. And it is that grille that will dominate every conversation about the Range Rover and Mercedes GLS rival. It shocks and awes. It is bold, blingy, brash and in-your-face. It polarises opinion on the Interwebs. And in the land of Trump, where it is built and which will be its biggest market (after Trump’s favourite sparring partner, China) it actually blends in!
Everything is oversized in America. A regular Coke is a bucket. Unless you’ve been starving for days, I challenge you to wipe out a regular burger. On freeways clogged with Ford F-150 pickups (the best-selling vehicle in USA), Chevy Suburban SUVs and rapper-spec Cadillac Escalades, the X7 rocks a sense of proportion and understated elegance that is rarer than a sensible word out of Trump’s mouth.
In the X7 from Sin City to the City of Angels, via Death Valley
Las Vegas is what Dubai was modelled on. If you thought there was zero taste and only bling in the Middle East, oh man, Vegas is absolutely decadent. All that nonsense in the Hangover movies, there’s very little in the way of exaggeration. People come to Vegas not just to let their hair down but their pants too. It is the home of debauchery. We went to what they call the old quarter of Vegas and the street side party was what ends marriages. I bumped into a nun who’d forgotten to button up; there was not a pole left unmolested by dancers of the very flexible variety. And in the midst of all this, the X7 gets the thumbs up.
I’m not kidding you, we had people pull up and pepper the X7 with praise. As the sunlight glints off the Sphinx, Eiffel Tower and all the bling-y buildings, the X7 actually looks fit for the purpose. It works well, in a city where blending in is not part of the agenda. It looks expensive. It is what a high-roller would, erm, roll up in to bomb his credit card. It works.
How’s the X7 on the inside?
The layout is familiarly BMW but the quality, materials, luxury, everything is the best I’ve seen on any BMW. The days of analogue dials and needles are 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.
As for the equipment, where do I start? The X7 is a full-size three-row SUV and 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, and the driver has controls on the doors to adjust the middle row. The front seats are heated, cooled and massaged. There is five-zone climate control, the fifth zone 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 metres are 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 metres 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.
The X7 on the go
Vegas is in the Mojave Desert, and the first part of our drive is over flat, utterly flat and featureless roads, past vast areas of nothingness, and leading to the Death Valley. Of course, this isn’t the quickest route from Vegas to LA but we’re in no hurry and BMW wanted to educate us on something new — handling comfort. Dr Daniel Nowicki, the chassis engineer responsible for the dynamics of the BMW X7, says their target was to maintain the sporty BMW DNA, 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. But if that isn’t enough, there’s the Bowers and Wilkins sound system that pumps out a total system output of 1500 watts via 20 speakers.
What about handling comfort then? Nowicki points to the steering that has been extensively re-engineered with incredibly tight tolerances — 4 micro metres (your hair is 20 micro metres) — 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 cruise 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.
Reaching Death Valley in the X7
They say it is the hottest place on earth but, at least in March…. puh-lease! For an Indian it’s nothing. What it is, though, is remote, desolate, and lonely. For miles and miles you don’t encounter anything going your way or coming at you. The roads runs arrow straight to the horizon, and despite what I’d heard, there are no cops. In the middle is Badwater Basin, which is actually below sea level, and there the old mining company has set up a nice little hotel. But that’s that. Remember to fuel up before you get here, and remember to stock up on water and food in case you’re driving a piece of junk.
What we are driving is quite the opposite. It’s over-engineered, just like we want our German cars to be. And they’ve not only worked hard on the comfort but they’ve even lapped the Nurburgring Nordschliefe in the same time as the E92 M3. Chew on that for a bit.
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 two months and immediately five seconds was knocked off the Nurburgring lap time. The X7’s xDrive platform, complete with rear-wheel-steer, is 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 because SUVs have to have tip-over-control always active, 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. 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-metre long, 2.3-tonne SUV. Climbing out of Death Valley and into California 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. The agility is brilliant and the ‘handling comfort’ engineered into the steering ensures you can drive it inches from mountain walls without requiring 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.
Extra large under the hood
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 335bhp turbo-charged straight-six petrol and as for the diesels, you can have the 261bhp 30d straight-six or the quad-turbo (yes, four turbos!) M50d with 394bhp and 760Nm. We are in America, though, so it was only good and proper that we drove the V8 — 4.4 litres, two turbos, 456bhp 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.
In fact after two days in America with the X7, I find it hard to rain hate on the kidneys too. No, I haven’t gone blind, but there’s nothing like spending time in the American heartland to put things into perspective.