2016 BMW 7 Series review: BMW’s luxury limo is rammed with tech

£89494
Price when reviewed

After years of languishing in the technological backwaters, the motoring industry is slowly but surely awakening. Autonomous driving and parking, big screens and virtual dashboards that reflect the modern world of tablets and smartphones, connectivity to rival a well-appointed laptop – cars, like the rest of the world, are being infiltrated and improved by technology, and no car released in the past year epitomises this more than the new BMW 7 Series.

First announced in June 2015, the new BMW 7 Series heralds a number of major milestones. The big engineering advance is its carbon-fibre core, designed to trim weight and improve strength, rigidity and efficiency. But the German automaker also made a big push to incorporate as much technology as it could into its new flagship. This was to be BMW’s most advanced model yet, and boy did it go all out.

This is the latest in our series of car reviews, focusing on in-car technology, which we’re carrying out in association with our sister website Carbuyer.

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Apps and connectivity: 5/5

This big step into the future isn’t immediately apparent from the outside, but as soon as you step into the cockpit or the rear seats, you’ll be immediately struck by the sheer number of screens dotted around.

At the front there’s the enormous 10.25in “Control Display” touchscreen in the middle, a big heads-up display (HUD) above the dashboard and a display between the dials. At the rear there are two 10in displays mounted to the back of the front seats, and an armrest-mounted 7in tablet used to control the heating, seat positions and infotainment. And there’s even one on your car key: a 2.2in touchscreen you can use to see remaining range, park the car remotely and (of course) lock and unlock the car.

Everywhere you look there’s a display, but that’s not to say its brash and over the top. Far from it. The 7 Series’ cabin is, in fact, a calm place to be. As you’d expect from a car in its class, soft, pampering leather abounds, there’s loads of legroom for passengers, and the seats can be heated or cooled and can even massage away the aches and strains of the day.

From the driver’s perspective, however, much of the overall sense of calm is down to the superb BMW iDrive system that remains at the heart of the car’s driver-centric controls.

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This is a system overflowing with features, and connectivity – for starters – is mightily impressive. You can hook up and control your iPhone or Android handset via one of the car’s three USB ports; there’s Bluetooth connectivity; and there’s a built-in wireless hotspot so those with tablets and laptops can hook up to the internet as needed. You get internal storage so you can store your own music in the car, plus there’s HDMI and MHL compatibility, and for rear passengers, there’s also a Blu-ray drive and a dedicated phone, although in the smartphone age the latter does feel like a bit of a throwback.

As for apps, there’s plenty here to play with, too, although BMW’s scattergun approach is initially confusing. First, you have your BMW-branded apps, which include a remote-control app and a lap timer, then you have your “BMW-compatible” apps, which are piped from your smartphone through the BMW Connected app to the screen of the car.

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There’s a decent selection to choose from here. Alongside a selection of further BMW-branded apps, there’s support for AUPEO, Stitcher, TuneIn, Audible, Amazon Music and Spotify, plus the core social network apps Twitter and Facebook, and a handful of others.

What the 7 Series lacks – and this holds true across the range – is support for either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. This seems to be a trend with high-end carmakers right now, with neither Mercedes nor BMW offering the third-party systems as options in their top-end models, and I can’t say I’m not disappointed. It would be nice to have the option – after all, the car can do pretty much everything else.

Display and UI: 4.5/5

I’ve already touched upon the screens and iDrive system in the 7 Series, but they do bear revisiting and examining in closer detail. The star of this particular show is the 10.25in “Control Display” touchscreen.

In terms of outright quality and readability, there’s nothing on the market to touch BMW’s top-end offerings right now. The black level is unsurpassed, contrast superb and brightness (when it needs to be) beyond reproach. It’s mounted at the top of the dashboard so you don’t have to tear your eyes too far from the road when you look at it, and it’s treated with a matte finish and transflexive, so it’s readable at all times no matter what the conditions.

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And although there’s now multitouch support on the Control Display for the first time in a BMW, it’s largely redundant. The five-way rotary iDrive dial, which sits next to the gear stick on the centre console, remains the most efficient way of navigating around the car’s music and entertainment, communications, navigation and settings menus. The touchscreen adds a handy alternative for typing in text that’s quicker and less fiddly than selecting words letter by letter using the dial, and a more intuitive method of browsing maps, but for the most part I found myself sticking with the dial and steering-wheel controls.

The touchscreen isn’t the only new method of interaction BMW has added to the 7 Series, however – there’s also gesture control via a sensor mounted in the car’s dashboard below the main screen, which allows you to perform various tasks with a wave of a finger.

This sounds amazing, and it works well, but it’s not quite as exciting as it initially sounds. Essentially, the system gives you a selection of gestures, both global and context-sensitive, which allow you to perform basic actions without having to reach over and physically touch the screen or press a button. Mostly, you’ll be using it to skip back and forth through tracks when listening to music (split your fingers and flick left or right) and adjusting the volume by pointing a finger at the screen and twirling clockwise or anticlockwise.

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It’s also possible to mute the volume by flicking two fingers down, reject a call with a dismissive wave of the hand and answer it with a pinch. The trouble is, while all this looks impressive, there’s usually a more convenient, quicker method closer to hand – a button on the steering wheel or a knob on the centre console.

And before BMW even considers building gesture control more deeply into the fabric of its in-car control systems, I’d like to see an effort to simplify the rest of the car’s systems a touch. Although on the whole everything works smoothly, quickly and without lag – more so than with in-car systems from many other manufacturers I’ve used – it can be overwhelming in the number of options it presents at times. Notwithstanding its excellence, iDrive is in need of a bit of rationalisation.

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