DAVE MOORE Test drive: BMW 740e a plug-in hybrid that pleases despots and greenies alike

BMW’s silent achiever

Munich-built flagship uses next to no fuel, has a tiny carbon footprint and can still show a clean pair of heels to most other cars out there, writes DAVE MOORE.

There’s something so smug about driving a car that most would look at and regard as a gas-guzzler, when in reality it’s using no gas at all. The Government has enjoyed some that smugness with its turbodiesel 730d BMWs which are so efficient that their EU consumption rating is about the same as a mid-range Honda Jazz, which confounds opposition parties that don’t do their research.

Now BMW has come up with a version of its 7-series flagship that uses even less gas, and yes, if you do your planning right and your daily commute is 40km or less (most of the working world travels less than that distance to the office) you’ll only need to move from pure electric power at weekends. That would be when the car’s staple internal combustion engine kicks-in, to take you beyond your natural EV range - removing that ‘range-anxiety’ quotient from proceedings, the element that tends to make pure electric cars less than attractive to some drivers.

Labelled the 740e, the plug-in hybrid version of this biggest of BMWs employs a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine to conspire with its clever electrickery to deliver up to 240 combined kilowatts and 500 Newton-metres of torque. While you might think that an engine that size is not nearly enough to propel such a luxurious and inevitably large motorcar with any authority, when you mash the throttle and ask for performance, on-board drive system computers will allow the petrol and electric elements to combine and catapult the car to the horizon as if it were V8-powered, reaching 100kmh in 5.5 seconds.

It’s an addictive and mesmerising experience, though it’s probably not the best way to use the least amount of fuel - you might need three or four litres of fuel for every 100km, rather than the 740e’s ultimate EU-verified, and frankly astonishing 2.1L/100km. The sidebar to all this is a minuscule carbon footprint of just 49gm CO2/km.

The 7-series, BMW's flagship range has always made great technological leaps, being a model through its six generations that has pioneered some major advances in the car industry. It was the first BMW to use a modern V8, in-car telephony, satellite navigation, lighter materials, twin-power engine technology and now a level of luxury communication and entertainment support that probably puts the car at the top of the tree technologically, in a segment that isn't exactly short of it already. And while its line-up consists of a phalanx of engines with six, eight and twelve cylinders some of which are deemed sufficiently fine to power Rolls Royces, the 740e’s relatively small hybrid-2.0litre unit is irrefutably the star of the show and a technical tour de force in BMW’s complex and ever-expanding manifest.

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It looks wider and more hunkered than the previous model 7-series, with a new linked grille-to-headlamp design, that ties the car's lamps and grills - BMW calls them ‘kidneys’ elegantly together to give it a much more emphatic stance than before. This style was introduced on the current 3-series sedan and it conspires with a new integrated exhaust tip surround at the rear to make the car look wider than before, though it's just about the same size.

The visual suggestion of extra width comes from having the car's rubber pushed further out and a muscle and bone like styling crease that is not merely a ridge, but more a ribbon, that works with a hockey stick-like lower side garnish (black or chrome to choice) to toughen-up the whole stance of the car. A subtle curve is worked into the body over the rear wheelarch that is barely perceptible in paler colours - even when you look for it - to contain the wider rear track.

The car's new Carbon Core platform cuts up to 40 kilos in the bodyweight alone. With the doors and bonnet made of the same stuff, they conspire with aluminum-intensive lighter weight suspension components to remove 15 per cent of the model's unsprung weight and maintain an ideal 50:50 weight distribution.

Inside, the 7-series takes the same themes established for the 3 and 5-series, with the instrument panel and dash reinforcing the exterior's wider-set look, and decorating it with satin-like metallised finishes. It's brighter, even in darker colours, than the current 7-Series, though BMW has managed to give it a soothingly formal appeal, eliminating any suggestion of painted metal with leather and alcantara flourishes that even link the side rails above the windows and the inner surfaces of the C-pillars so there are neither convex or concave corners to break the cabin design's softly executed lines.

BMW also imbues some of its minor controls with satin metallics and the car has all the glimmer and sophistication of a stately-home, but without the fustiness. By cleverly widening the dash fascia and elongating some of its elements like the vents and perimeter brightwork, BMW makes the cabin seem even more capacious than it is and those who fancy an even longer wheelbase will also be catered for if they wish. However, it hardly seems like many will need the extra space, firstly because most Kiwi 7-series owners would most of the time like to drive themselves. When they don't the rear seat area is what you might call "business-premium" with well-shaped seats, space galore and adjustable ambient light and a fragrance dispenser to capture just the right mood.

In ordinary cars, heated seats are not uncommon, but the new 7 adds heated armrests front and rear, while rear occupants can be cooled or warmed to choice in their compartment, and are afforded a detachable wireless tablet to use while the seats' massage function calms them down. If they need to be kneaded back into sharpness on arrival at that important business meeting, a so-called "Vitality" function can be requested too.

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Among the debuting technology is a "Gesture Control" set-up that allows us to use the swipe and pinch movements we have become used to when browsing tablets and phones for the iDrive interface. These can still be accessed and used with the rotating knob if you wish or by voice and signature recognition. While driving, a practised twirl of the fingers, a swipe, point or pinch can adjust and select almost anything, as long as you make your movements in the confines close to the lower dash area. Any higher and it may now be picked up, while passer's-by could think you're conducting a hidden orchestra or worse, making rude road-rage gestures.

The standard Bowers & Wilkins sound system is able to power out 1400 watts through 16 speakers, though if you wish it the car is refined enough to send you to sleep in its sumptuous rear cabin. For all its comfortable, sumptuous ride the 740e also possesses levels of grip and adjustability - as well as a Comfort, Sport and Adaptive drive modes, with a new Comfort Plus setting, where the new BMW 7-series is quieter and noticeably smoother on the open road than its predecessor, coping brilliantly with surface breaks and rough roading. It might be a cliche, but it really does and mop up most bumps as if they aren't there.

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Dial-in Sport and it's like slipping out of loafers and into sprint spikes. Solid and yet comfortable body control is exhibited and truly impressive high-speed nimbleness even for a big but up to 150kg lighter car than before. That 50:50 front-to-rear weight balance helps as does the rear-wheel steer function. It turns like a smaller, shorter car with the car's steering gently weighting-up when pressing-on.

The new 7 Series is probably than most improved over its predecessor than any other 7-series has been. The styling may be evolutionary in some parts, but the huge engineering work that has gone on under its wide-set look has enabled the car to course around fast roads like no 7-series before, with a fantastically improved interior, and a mixture of technology that's clever and sensible, the 7-series because is just now as desirable for limousine duties as it is for playtime on favourite backroads and more capable in either situation than we'd have ever believed.

The extended-range 740e does have a small number of drawbacks. The battery pack at the rear means the boot floor is not as flat or deep as it is in conventional 7-series, while charging points are rare outside Wellington and Auckland. But that’s about it really, you can preserve your charge more or less indefinitely by choosing to drive in Sport, slipping into electric drive for when you’re in town or wanting to be a little stealthy on your home territory.

The new sixth-generation 7-series is now able to add to its expected poise, balance and performance a level of technology luxury that it can hold its own among all the traditional luxury flagships, including the one with a big silver star in its nose.

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BMW 740e

- Four-cylinder twin-power turbocharged 1997cc four with electric hybrid, combined 240kW and 500Nm, 8-speed automatic.

- Max 240kmh (combined), 120kmh (electric only). Zero-100kmh 5.5 seconds.

- 2.2L/100km, 50g/km CO2.

- $199,000. Other 7-series models from $199,000 to $239,500.