So it’s come to this: more than five metres of SUV fronted by the biggest double-kidney grille in history. We drive the BMW X7 in the most natural environment for such a behemoth…
LAS VEGAS, USA – Whatever you think of wealthy soccer mums, they have a few things to answer for. Like this, the BMW X7. I’m not even kidding, but I’ll come to that later. For now, just think about how there were precisely zero SUVs in the BMW range in 1998, and now you have seven to choose from. This one, as you can tell from name, or certainly the pics, is the biggest of them all. If a Mercedes GLS is spiritually an S-Class on stilts, then this is the 7 Series counterpart.
(If it's a super-lux SUV like the Rolls-Royce Cullinan you're after, click HERE)
What wants all these SUVs? Apparently everyone. The segment is still exploding, and BMW is merely responding to market demand with the X7. SUVs are already fast approaching half of BMW’s total output (sorry, but I am never calling them Sport Activity Vehicles), so it makes sense for the brand to have a flagship one. Incidentally, I asked an engineer if there would be an X8 next. He laughed, but he didn’t say no.
Anyway, here’s the basic story: the X7 is big enough to be seen from the moon, spanning an epic 2m in width and 5.15m nose to tail. There’s enough square footage for it, so every version has three rows of seats, and in May you’ll see the xDrive40i version in showrooms.
The plot twist is that you can have your X7 in Pure Excellence trim with seven seats (set aside 440 to 450 big ones), or you can choose the fancier Launch Edition model for an extra 15 grand or so, which not only gives you the option of being more stylo with the M Performance package, but ditches the middle row bench for — are you sitting down for this? — two individual chairs. That’s right, you can now have an Alphard’s configuration with a premium badge and the premium stuff to go with it.
There’s an obvious luxury angle to installing fewer seats – that’s why business class in Singapore Airlines has four passengers per row while Lufthansa crams six people in – but it’s something that focus groups apparently asked for because of something else. “It's the classical use case of a soccer mom,” Nina McFadden, the project leader for the X7, tells me. Kids can invade the BMW and slip between the middle row chairs and into the third row, which is apparently a thing. “From a practical point of view we see the competition here in the US, for example the Cadillac Escalade, is offering something like that, so it was a clear request from our customers in the US.” she says.
Yessir, before you blame China for the sheer ostentation of the X7 and its mega bling front grille (the biggest BMW one in all Creation), understand that its home market is more or less the USA. It’s built in the States, and BMW expects half of all X7s it makes to remain in the country. That explains the cross country, coast-to-coast jaunt that BMW arranged for the X7’s launch, starting out in Spartanburg where it’s screwed together, down to Florida on the East Coast, and then a five-week trot West to California.
We weren’t there for every leg, of course, but did somehow finagle what must be the most appropriate stint for a car like this, driving it from the bling-addled excess of the Las Vegas strip to the manicured, soccer mum-infested millionaire enclave of Marina del Ray, just outside of Los Angeles.
Surprisingly, the only people to gawp at our X7s on the Vegas strip turn out to be in another BMW convoy; test drivers from Aptiv, the autonomous car tech company spun out of Delphi Automotive, are passing through town in a row of 5 Series test mules festooned with sensors. I would have thought something as grand and upright as the X7 would have had eyeballs out on stalks, but in the USA it doesn’t actually strike you as being all that enormous. An F-250 Ford driver still gets to look down on you, but at least I get to look down on the gawkers in the autonomous cars from Aptiv.
(Our man takes liberties with the X7's self-driving abilities!)
The X7 does have some self-driving abilities – I take my limbs off the controls for long minutes during a freeway jam, upon discovering that LA traffic is as bad as they say – but there’s no fun to be had that way.
Besides, there’s a certifiable effload of tech in the X7 to make it, well, enjoyable is too strong a word for the experience, but certainly good to drive. Rear axle steering will be standard, and in town it makes the X7 feel a metre shorter, says Daniel Nowicki, a chassis guy at BMW. The wing mirrors are too small on the car, something made up for somewhat by blind spot monitors, but in the US of A, at least, you seldom feel as if you’re boxed into a lane too small for comfort.
Things could be different back home, of course, where driving a big car sometimes feels like walking a tightrope of traffic. But visibility out of the X7 is pretty terrific, and there’s a lightness to the helm that makes it easy to twirl. It’s precise enough to make the BMW easy to place, so this is a burly car that can lie about its size pretty plausibly.
If anything can make a BMW X7 feel small, though, it’s the vastness of the desert between Vegas and LA. A place doesn’t pick up a name like Death Valley because of whimsy; the place is desolate and, in the summer, notoriously hellish, so much so that BMW still carries out hot weather tests there — the highest reliably recorded air temperature in history was measured in Death Valley in 1913, when the mercury hit 56.7°C. In 1972 someone measured the ground temp at a scorching 93.9°C.
The place apparently got its name during the Gold Rush of the early 1800s, when prospectors had to cross the valley and 13 people died in a single expedition. As recently as 1996, four German tourists disappeared in Death Valley, with the remains of two adults from the group only discovered in 2009. The two children in that party have never been found. How daunting and forbidding it must have been to cross the arid place on horse or foot, back when the States was a young country.
The X7, on the other hand, just devours the miles like a fast-swimming whale, placidly ingesting great gobs of ocean through its mouth to sift out the plankton. It weighs just over 2.3-tonnes, which is actually fairly lean for a car this size, but it means the 3.0-litre turbo six has its work cut out for it. Thankfully, 335hp is enough to get the hefty BMW moving, especially once you pass 2,000rpm and turbo lag gets out of your way. It’s quicker than the 3.0 V6 Supercharged Range Rover anyway, or a GLS 400.
But however hard you put the hammer down, this is a car that feels like it’s crawling when it’s flying. It’s almost a cliche to say that a car feels slower than it is, but the X7 shuts out wind noise as if by sheer intimidation, the way a bouncer blocks your way if you’re not on the list for a party. Actually, it’s the opposite of a nightclub, in that all the noise and action stays outside, and nothing happens within.
Meanwhile, the suspension is similarly no-nonsense, steamrolling bumps under the wheels to endow the X7 with a sense of majestic unflappability. There are springs of compressed air, another bit of kit that all X7s will have, and using them opens up the usual bag of tricks; the BMW can raise itself for rough stuff, or hunker down low to let people aboard more easily, with three ride height settings in between.
There’s a switch for off-road settings, too, in case you encounter sand, gravel, your ex-wife, what-have-you. But let’s not be silly. You’ll never take your X7 into the jungle, not even to get away from your ex (unless she shows up with her lawyer, I guess). The BMW might be a giant SUV, but in Singapore it’s going to find use as a family bus.
It’s eminently suited to the role, although I’m skeptical about the six-seater configuration. If you have the seven-seat version and only half a dozen people are on board, they’ll all have the same amount of space, anyway. Getting into the third row is just as easy in either version, thanks to the fact that the middle row chairs bow out of the way electrically. And if you ever want to fold the seats flat to turn the X7 into a giant cargo hauler, you can only do it properly with the seven-seater.
And anyway, if what you’re after is two prime rear seats, you’d be better off with a 7 Series. It actually feels more spacious in the back of one, plus there’s a facelifted range on the way with a grille that’s nearly as big as the X7’s.
Of course, let’s not neglect the novelty value of the thing. People notice if there are six seats, and will realise that you’ve bought something different. Of course, there’s never been an X7 anyway, which means your friends don’t have one, nor has there been a BMW quite so imposing. It might have seemed shrunken somewhat in its natural habitat, where the cars are as upsized as the populace, but in Singapore the X7 is undoubtedly going to be considered a big toy for a big boy.
Do you really need one over, say, an X5? Of course not, because no one does, the same way no one needs a Range Rover. But it’s easy to want one as soon as you see one loom up for the first time, because the X7 espouses something that most men can understand. It’s desirable not because bigger is better, but because bigger is badder.
PHOTOS Uwe Fischer, Barry Hayden, Tom Kirkpatrick
BMW X7 xDrive40i
Engine: 2998cc, in-line6, turbo
Transmission 8spd auto
Top Speed 245km/h
Fuel Consumption 9.0l/100km