BMW 7 Series, i7 EV Prototype Review: BMW Joins the Hands-Free Driving Fight

I went to Germany to drive prototypes of the next-gen 7 Series and all-new i7, but they kind of ended up driving me.

byApr 4, 2022 6:01 PM
BMW 7 Series, i7 EV Prototype Review: BMW Joins the Hands-Free Driving Fight
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Down here in the Land of the Poors, sedans may be going out of style and are being replaced by crossovers but there’s one relatively niche segment of sedan that I suspect isn’t going anywhere any time soon: the full-size luxury executive limo. The Mercedes-Benz S-Classes of the world. The Audi A8s. And, yes, the BMW 7 Series...es. These are the flagship models filled with the latest and greatest tech automakers have to offer. And though still just at the prototype stage, I can already tell the new 7 Series will be something to reckon with.

The current-generation 7er has been with us for seven years now, which means an all-new version is due and shall be revealed later this month. Before that happens, though, BMW graciously offered to fly me out to Munich, Germany, for guided prototype drives of not just the next gas-powered 7 Series but also the new electric i7, a direct competitor to the Mercedes EQS. The ultra-early verdict? BMW's latest flagship sedans are probably better at driving than you are. Some seriously advanced, autobahn-ready, semi-autonomous tech and improved self-parking capabilities mean the new 7 can feel more like a machine driver rather than a machine meant to be driven. 

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And, believe it or not, I'm actually okay with this. If this were the new M2 or M5, sure, we'd have a problem. But this is the new 7 Series. A luxury barge where comfort and ease are supposedly king. An S-Class alternative that's as enjoyable to experience from the back seat as it is from the front. And if you can't quite afford a human chauffeur, this new 7 promises to be as close as BMW has come to offering a digital one. That said, when you do decide to go old-fashioned and drive the new 7 Series yourself like it's 2007, it's pretty good at that too. 

If the photographs didn't already make it clear, the BMWs experienced here were still very much development cars. Interiors were mostly covered up, a lot of the exposed switchgear was cruder than what will likely end up on the showroom floor, and, it has to be said, things can change between now and when production officially begins later this year. But, nevertheless, let's unpack.

BMW

The Initial Basics

For now, BMW is remaining mum on concrete technical or powertrain facts and specs but did confirm that the 7 Series will come with a fairly wide selection of powertrains, including a six-cylinder and a U.S.-only V8—both making use of 48-volt mild-hybrid systems. The V12, of course, is donezo. A diesel, however, will exist (in its home market of Germany, at least), as will a plug-in hybrid version. As for the full-electric i7, the company says to expect range to exceed 300 EPA-certified miles and zero to 60 mph in under five seconds from an enhanced version of the iX xDrive50's dual-motor powertrain. That crossover boasts 516 horsepower and 564 pound-feet of torque from a 200-kW front motor, a 250-kW rear motor, and a 106.3-kWh battery.

Instead of separating its flagship gas sedan from its electric one like MB has with the S-Class and EQS, BMW's big electric i7 sedan looks like it’ll very much be an electric 7 Series—a lot like how the i4 is essentially an electric 4 Series Gran Coupe. For this prototype drive, BMW let me have a go at both ends of the 7 spectrum: the V8 7 Series and the i7.  

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In terms of styling, the test mules in question were still heavily camouflaged but it looks like the seventh-gen 7er will continue to take on a conventional Bavarian sedan shape that, to my eye, looks even more square than the car it replaces. The front end appears to ditch the quad-circle halo lights for dual-horizontal strips that remind me of Genesis’ head- and taillight styling. The kidney grille looks like it’ll be big, and the rear end looks like it’ll be very conservatively—perhaps even generically—designed, with simple, horizontal, BMW hockey stick-style lamps, a normal-ass sedan shape, and classic Hofmeister kinks. 

As mentioned, most of the interiors were heavily covered up and I was not allowed to take photos but I can tell you that it looks like the cars will feature much of the same crystal controls as well as the same curved, superwide instrument and infotainment screens seen in the iX crossover. Sitting in the back seat, I also spotted smaller, portrait-oriented, smartphone-like screens embedded in the door cards near where your hands naturally fall that control audio, climate, and show a host of other information. This was not present in any of the development prototypes on-site but production models will be available with a 31-inch, 8K, ultra-wide, Amazon Fire TV Stick-integrated entertainment touchscreen for the rear passengers that folds down from the roof, which sounds like the IMAX version of those foldout DVD players your rich friend's mom had in the back of her minivan.

I’ll save stylistic judgment for when the car is fully revealed but I predict it’ll go down like any other modern German luxury car reveal: some may call it ugly, some may call it boring, but I suspect most of the folks actually in the market for this car will either quietly love it or not give a hoot how it looks. 

On that note, let’s move on to a more important matter: the drive. 

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Driving—And Riding In—the BMW 7 Series Prototype

Setting off in the V8-powered 7 Series prototype, one of the first things I noticed is that it drives much more compactly than it is. Rear-wheel steering of up to four degrees and a light rack means low speed crawling through German villages is a lot less unwieldy than you might expect. 

The mystery V8 engine (BMW refused to tell me what it specifically was) felt very smooth, as it should. It’s a torquey, quietly capable, very likely turbocharged powerhouse that does not need to rev very high to propel the big BMW sedan to equally big speeds. This being a luxury car first and foremost, the sound of hard acceleration here is a subtle purr rather than an angry roar. 

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Introduce it to some corners and the new 7 was a more-than-decent handler, like any good BMW should be. A double-wishbone front axle maximizes the contact patch while the appreciably light steering was fairly precise but, of course, not especially feelsome—a non-issue for this genre of car, if you ask me. The 19-inch M Sport brakes were appropriately strong while the pedal felt natural and never jerky. In Sport mode, not only did the throttle become more eager and the whole thing more lively to pilot but the driver's seat bolsters pinched inward, holding me in as an E60 M5 did. 

Par for the proper German car course, sitting at a constant 110-or-so mph on the autobahn felt completely stable, like it could do it all day (which it probably, literally could). Getting up to those speeds was similarly trivial. 

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After that satisfying behind-the-wheel shakedown, BMW’s accompanying engineers offered to drive me around for a bit while I sat in the back in order to show off its prowess as a chauffeured product. This executive-style ride to nowhere only lasted a few minutes but it was enough for me to tell that the new 7 Series rides very comfortably as a passenger, with air suspension and the same 48-volt Active Roll Stabilization system employed in the Rolls-Royce Ghost smoothing over bumps and undulations.

Driving—And Not Driving—the BMW i7 Prototype

After sampling the V8, I climbed into the electric i7. This will come as a surprise to absolutely no one but puttering around town and guided on and off highway ramps, the i7 accelerates like pretty much every other luxury EV—impeccably smooth and instantly brisk—while remaining confidently nimble and planted in the corners. As far as I can tell, it didn't feel massively different to drive compared to the Mercedes EQS, although I'd be interested in experiencing them back-to-back to see just how different (or similar) they really are. Believe it or not, though, most of my time behind the wheel of the electric 7 Series was, in reality, spent not driving it. Not really, anyway, because the upcoming flagship Bimmers will debut the company's latest iteration of semi-autonomous highway driving tech, and as a trip onto the autobahn in the i7 proved, the system is indeed extremely capable. 

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Level 2 hands-on Assisted Driving performed a very stable and reassuring rendition of adaptive cruise with lane-keep and did so at up to 112 mph, even in a bout of heavy rain. (Fun fact: this 112-mph limit is a U.S.-spec regulatory thing because Germany-spec cars will be able to do this at speeds of up to 130 mph.) The system was reliably good at detecting cars cutting in front of it while the automated braking was reassuringly firm but not so aggressive as to feel abrupt. This being a hands-on system, taking your hands off the steering wheel for too long means the car will prompt you to put at least one hand back on. Unlike other, similar systems, however, BMW's approach uses capacitive sensors in the steering wheel rim to detect this instead of mandating actual steering input which, y'know, may not be ideal while the car is cruising at over 100 mph.

Keep it under 85 mph, however, and a Level 2+ Assisted Driving Plus system can be engaged, providing hands-off semi-autonomous highway cruising similar to GM's Super Cruise, Ford's BlueCruise, and Tesla's "Autopilot" technologies. You still need to keep your eyes on the road—and the car will audibly and visually tap you on the shoulder if it detects you looking away or closing your eyes for too long—but in terms of actual steering, accelerating, and braking, the car was able to do all of the work very competently, naturally, and independently. It'll perform turn signal-triggered lane changes, too—which the Ford system cannot yet do—that happen with little hesitation. The movement from one lane to the other was sure-footed and quite quick, something BMW says was optimized for cars to be sold in the U.S. as German market cars will apparently change lanes more gently. Something about American drivers being less, let's say, predictable

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Once it was time to exit the autobahn (or Interstate) as dictated by the car's built-in navigation, the car prompted me to start moving into the rightmost lane via a little lane-change symbol on the dash. I signaled right once and the BMW i7 began automatically moving over one lane at a time before reverting to hands-on Level 2 driving as it entered the actual off-ramp. The function is genuinely quite impressive but, of course, isn't a silver bullet for still being in the fast lane a stone's throw away from your exit. If the car deems the maneuver too last-minute or the traffic too heavy, it will do the reasonable thing and abort. As another caveat, the multi-lane-changing highway exit function only works if you're navigating with BMW's native system and not with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

Anyhow—because it'd almost be rude not to—taking back manual control of the i7 on an unrestricted section of the autobahn, moving back over to the fast lane, and burying my foot in the accelerator, the electric BMW limo hit what I suspect was an electronically limited top speed of about 134 mph in not very much time at all, and stayed there without breaking a sweat. No, it wasn't able to get to the commonly accepted German car top speed of 155 but perhaps BMW is saving that for the not-yet-announced but inevitable M Performance model. Slowing back down to either 112 or 85 mph means the car will then revert back to whichever semi-autonomous driving mode you were in before without any additional input, incorporating sudden bursts of manual driving with long, mostly autonomous highway journeys more seamlessly.

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BMW says Level 3 autonomy at up to 37 mph—that is, driving in which the driver does not need to pay attention but must still remain in the driver's seat—is coming to German-market versions of the 7 Series and i7 in the future. U.S. availability is up in the air but, for what it's worth, the company says it'll use what is apparently the most powerful LIDAR in the automotive industry, a full-range radar with vertical separability, and an eight-megapixel windshield camera. Finally—get this— it says it will also take on legal liability in the event of a crash a lot like how Mercedes did earlier this year. The company did not elaborate much further on the subject but it's definitely something to keep an eye on going forward. 

Look, I don't necessarily doubt that BMW is capable of developing a system that can pull this off from a technical standpoint. But as is my approach to every piece of promised future tech, especially those that relate to the legal can of worms that is so-called "self-driving," I'll believe it when I see it.

BMW

Parking the BMW i7 Prototype

In addition to mindless highway cruising, BMW also wants to automate the mostly irritating act of parking. Granted, automatic parking systems are nothing new but, in my experience, ones that actually freakin' work are. After a demo of the new i7's apparently more accurate Professional Parking, Reversing, and Remote Maneuver Assistants, it seems like BMW is indeed onto something new.

Pull up to an open spot—perpendicular or parallel—with the function on and the car is able to detect the spot's presence. Confirm on the center touchscreen where you'd like to park, select whether you'd like it to back in or head in if applicable, and modulate the entire operation with the brake while the car does all of the steering for you. New to this system is the addition of an augmented reality path overlay in the real-time camera view that shows you exactly where the car intends to go, something that definitely increased my confidence while the i7 maneuvered itself around several fairly expensive parked cars. 

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Daniel Kraus

Y'know how the Corvette can use GPS to remember where your driveway is and lift its nose automatically every time? Well, the new BMW i7 can also recognize when you've arrived home but instead of lifting its nose to make pulling into your driveway easier, it'll travel down your entire driveway and park inside your garage for you. Set a starting point location (like, for example, your gated entrance), program the route up your long, winding driveway by driving through it manually once, park, and the car will memorize that entire routine and ask if you'd like it to do it semi-autonomously every time you arrive at that set starting point. 

Judging from a pre-made demo that simulated pulling into a tight, snaking driveway and backing into a garage (as well as a custom route I was able to program slaloming through a series of cones), this function appears to work as advertised. As a bit of a party trick, the car can even be controlled here via BMW's smartphone app while you stand outside, a bit like Hyundai's Smart Park system but instead of just moving forward and back, the i7 will go up and down your whole damn pre-programmed driveway, curves and all. Pre-programmed routes can be up to 200 meters (approximately 219 yards) long. Similar to BMW's ADAS, small manual corrections from behind the wheel (like moving slightly out of the way as an oncoming car drives past) does not automatically cancel the function.

Daniel Kraus

This all may sound a little gimmicky if your driveway is regular-sized but as someone who lives in a condo, I'd love to see if and how the i7's automated parking system can simplify my daily routine of snaking down four levels of underground parking garage. In that same vein, I'm gonna reserve final judgment about the rest of BMW's updated auto-park capabilities too until I can test them outside of a manufacturer-controlled demo area. Like, say, at the pedestrian and stray cart-riddled parking lot at Costco on a Saturday afternoon. 

The Very Early Verdict

We've yet to see what it fully looks like inside and out, and a lot of the specs remain a relative mystery. But based on my brief behind-the-wheel encounters with both the gas-powered and electric i7 versions, the next-gen BMW 7 Series is shaping up to be the quality, technologically advanced entry into the big luxury sedan space that the 7 has always been.

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As long as it holds up on American roads as well as it does on German ones—and I have a feeling it will—the semi-autonomous driving tech here could very well become among the best in the business, a more-than-worthy competitor to GM's Super Cruise and Tesla's Autopilot. It's extremely capable, stable, alert to situational changes, and seamlessly integrated. There are a lot of ways to hit otherwise obscene speeds on the autobahn but doing it semi-autonomously in a big, quiet, and electric torque-strong 7 Series BMW is probably one of the easiest. And once you reach your destination, the Mk7 7er should be able to park itself better than you can. 

Ignore all of the self-driving and self-parking doodads, though, and both the i7 and V8 7 Series thankfully feel fairly good to drive. And provided the full, uncovered backseat amenities live up to the raw comfort, they should be pretty great things to pair with a hired human who drives you around as well.

The 2023 BMW 7 Series and i7 will fully debut on April 20, start production in the middle of this year, and go on sale worldwide in November. 

BMW

Got a tip or question for the author about the upcoming 7 Series and i7? You can reach him here: chris.tsui@thedrive.com.