After a sneak peak of the new electric i7 a couple of months ago, BMW invited the Mail & Guardian to get behind the wheel of its first electric limousine at the international 7 Series launch in Palm Springs, California.

The 7 Series is powertrain-agnostic and thus will be available in a range of combustion engines, plug-in hybrids and all-electric drives. The diverse line-up is a result of the German manufacturer’s flexible vehicle architecture strategy to electrify models in every series, globally.

BMW’s pricing for the variants headed to the local market this year will start at R2.1-million for the 740i; R2.28m for the 740d; and R2.82m for the i7 xDrive60. The base model X7 will come in at R1.94-million.

The flagship electric i7 will be available in three choices: standard, M Sport Package, and M Sport Package Pro, which goes up to R2.94-million.

Its closest rival in the segment, the Mercedes-Benz EQS, launched at the Festival of Motoring at Kyalami in August, comes in two variants: the EQS 450+ priced at R2.6-million and the AMG 53 coming in at R3.4-million. The M&G has yet to drive the EQS.

At the launch event, the i7 xDrive60 was on offer, which has a total output of 400kW and 745Nm of torque. It has a 107.8 kWh gross battery, of which 101.7kWh is usable, and a range of up to 635km, according to WLTP figures. The i7 can go from 0 to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds.

A striking appearance

The luxury sedan has a striking front design with split headlights featuring Swarovski crystals on the daytime running lights and an illuminated kidney grille that stands out in a crowd. When compared directly to the iX, it is not as large.

At 5.39m in length, it is a vehicle that demands attention; it is impossible not to take notice of it on the roads. Next to the combustion engine 7 Series, they look identical except for the subtle BMW “i” logo on the grille. The front of the 7 Series is proportionate to the overall look of the car, which is on the large side.

The 7 Series also introduces an optional two-tone paint, as seen on a Rolls Royce, which is a subjective choice. I wasn’t blown away by the look of the red and black duo on the 750i that we drove to the Joshua Tree National Park. It was certainly striking against the desert backdrop and made for unique photos, but I preferred the solid grey on the i7.

Other exterior design elements include futuristic automatic doors that open for you, and a geometric 3D pattern on the rear headlights.

Inside the vehicle

Our first encounter with the i7 was to hop into the back seats and enable “Theatre Mode” to watch a presentation about the vehicle. This was done using a 5.5-inch touch panel on the door handles that give passengers control of the vehicle. It lets you adjust temperature, seating, entertainment, blinds, lights and so forth.

With theatre mode enabled, the blinds close on the side and back windows, along with the glass panoramic roof blinds, while the huge 31-inch screen folds down to create a cinema experience, taking up the entire passenger row for both guests to enjoy. If you press it again, the front passenger seat folds and moves forward, reclines your seat and props down the leg rest to deliver the ultimate cinematic experience.

The test vehicles were kitted in various options but the leather finish when compared to the cloth was undoubtedly the superior choice; and a firm favourite for the local market.

BMW describes the 7 series as having elements of luxury, technology, and comfort, and you experience exactly that when you sit in the back. There are multiple textures on the door panel: leather, textured leather, cloth, metal, surrounded by screens and buttons, which opens the door for you. With all the head- and legroom, it feels like a first-class lounge.

A digital experience unlike any other

Before I go into anything further, it must be noted that the 7 Series has been kitted with some of the most advanced technologies seen on any car, let alone an electric vehicle.

It has the same curved display and operating system 8 that debuted on the iX, which takes up two-thirds of the dashboard, but it now has an enhanced and upgraded user experience. It introduces a fully functional YouTube app but usable only when the vehicle is stationary, like while you’re waiting for the vehicle to recharge.

My Modes let you easily toggle between comfort, eco, sport, and others but the 7 Series introduces the aforementioned theatre, and art mode. There’s an interactive head-up display that integrates new driving assistance systems; an augmented view on the information display; and an interaction bar that is multifaceted and transparent, which houses touch panels to adjust the vents, climate control, hazards and opening the glove compartment.

The 31.3-inch theatre screen at the back is an 8K panoramic display that is touch sensitive, with a 32:9 format that adjusts to where you are seated. Apart from being able to stream YouTube, it has Amazon Fire TV built-in, accessible through a 5G antenna. There are also 5.5-inch control panels on the doors for the passengers.

Getting into the driver’s seat

As luxurious as the back seats were, I was most excited to get into the driver’s seat, which I could easily adjust for my height using crystal buttons on the door.

One of the first things I noticed was the augmented view on the information display behind the steering wheel. It pulls a camera view of what’s in front of you but also helps with navigation using AR layers. This was useful for driving on the right side on a left-hand drive.

As with any new technology, there will always be trial and error. I accidentally got into theatre mode while driving off on one of the pre-programmed routes and to my horror, the back blinds closed and obscured my view.

In that moment of panic, I did the most natural thing, I said, “Hey BMW, open the back blinds,” and within a few seconds without repeating myself, everything was back to normal.

Voice interaction has never been my default, but I appreciated it in a car packed with tech that would no doubt take time to navigate and figure out.

While cruising along the interstate 10 highway, I thought it would be a great time to test My Modes, and before I knew it, I was getting a massage while driving, and my information display had digital art all over it. I did not like the feeling while driving so immediately switched back to sport mode, but would prefer it when seated at the back.

After spending a fair amount of time between the iX and now i7, I found the curved display less of a distraction but rather a tool to give me as much information as I need, depending on the situation.

I also tested Driving Assistant Plus that was live in certain parts in California for speeds up to 130km/h where I could take my hands off the wheel; a feature that won’t be available in South Africa. The head-up display provides more info in this mode.

The vehicle speaks to you when you can access it. Once your hands are off the wheel, there is an internal camera monitoring you and as soon as you turn — that is, to face your passenger in conversation, it prompts you to put your hands back on the wheel. As cool as it was to test, I preferred having my hands on the steering wheel.

Range and power

Eventually we got off the highway and went through a mountain pass, which required a fair amount of power, but with its 101.7kWh usable battery that yields between 500km tp 625km, I didn’t even focus on my range or need to stop at a charger. For such a large vehicle, its acceleration speed from 0 to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds was seriously impressive.

We drove the i7 in various conditions: traffic, cruising and uphill while toggling between driving modes most suitable for those conditions but sometimes not yet did not experience range anxiety. When we completed the route and got back to our starting point at the Ritz Carlton Rancho Mirage, we had 60% left on the battery, which managed to recuperate on the downhills.

BMW claims the 7 Series is the best car to be driven, but I’d argue that you will be torn between being driven or driving yourself. The luxury, comfort and technology can be enjoyed simultaneously, front or back.

At a R2.8-million entry point, the i7 is reserved for a niche market who may not even truly appreciate the technology packed inside it but would rather be seen in one. It is expected to launch locally at the end of the month.

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