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First drive: 2016 BMW 7-Series [Review]

The future has arrived in the form of the 2016 BMW 7-Series.

This is the all-new 2016 BMW 7-Series but we might as well call it what it really is — the future.

Gloss over the 7-Series' specs and you might think you were reading the build sheet for the Star Ship Enterprise. Highlights of this sixth-generation 7er include carbon fiber chassis components, Motion Gesture control, Autonomous drive and even a key fob with its own LCD screen. Fusion power is just about the only thing BMW omitted.

So it's clear that the 2016 7-Series is impressive on paper, but how is it in real life? Come with us as we put BMW's flagship sedan to the test on both road and track.

Less can be moreNo matter what you're building, it's always important to start with a solid foundation. To that end BMW redesigned the 2016 7-Series from the ground up with an all-new chassis that makes use of high-strength steel, aluminum and carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, the latter of which is the first of its kind for a volume production vehicle.

The result of all that chassis work is a new model that, despite being equipped with enough LCD screens to qualify as a miniplex movie theater, is up to 290 pounds lighter than the car it replaces. Moreover, BMW smartly cut weight up high by using carbon fiber in the car's pillars and roof structure, giving the 2016 7-Series a lower center of gravity. And it's a BMW, so weight distribution is a near-perfect 50/50.

To that stiff and light-weight chassis BMW engineers added a new suspension system that consists of a double wishbone setup up front and five-link kit in the rear. The 2016 7-Series also benefits from a standard air suspension with electronic dampers and an all-wheel steering system that uses electronic actuators rather than hydraulic pumps.

Taking a page from the Mercedes-Benz S-Class' playbook, this new 7-Series includes an available Active Comfort Drive with Road Preview system that scans the road ahead and then adjusts the suspension accordingly. Drivers can also take matters into their own hands by selecting from Sport, Comfort and Comfort Plus suspension settings.

Here in the U.S. we'll only get the long-wheelbase version of the 2016 7-Series, but buyers will have a few options when it comes to the vehicle's drivetrains. Things start off with the 740i, which uses an inline six-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive. The rear-wheel drive 750i is the next step up the food chain, offering 445 horsepower from a 4.4L twin-turbocharged V8. All-wheel drive can be fitted to the 750i for an additional cost. Our drive time was limited to the 750i xDrive model.

Eventually BMW will offer an all-wheel drive version of the 740i, as well as a plug-in hybrid version of the sedan known as the 740e. The V12-powered 760 and the diesel 740d, however, are not slated to make a return appearance.

Shifting duties for the 740i and 750i are handled by an eight-speed automatic transmission with adaptive capabilities. BMW also borrowed some tech from its Rolls-Royce luxury brand, adding a GPS component to the eight-speed that allows the transmission to pick the right gear for the terrain ahead.

Inner trappingsWith the Ultimate Driving Machine stuff covered, BMW turned its attention to all the luxury appointments that are required of a flagship sedan.

The interior design of the new 7-Series is very familiar, but there's a lot going on behind the scenes. The large LCD readout that sits atop the dash has been updated with a new touchscreen that recognizes advanced gestures like pinch to zoom. If you're concerned about fingers prints mucking up the look of your new 7-Series, you can also interact with BMW's latest iDrive 5.0 infotainment system via the console-mounted dial or voice commands. But the coolest way to interact with the 2016 7-Series is with its new gesture control interface.

As of now the number of gestures recognized by the system is fairly limited, but what's there is useful and generally seamless to use. For phone calls, a one-finger point in the area above the center console answers the call while a swipe of the hand rejects it. When the audio system is in use, a clockwise hand gesture cranks up the volume while a counter-clockwise motion quiets everything down. A two-finger point can be customized to the driver's preference, such as setting the navigation for home.

When reversing a two-finger pinch can be used to alter the camera view displayed on the center screen. This feature is particularly useful when parking near wheel-scraping curbs.

During our day with the 7-Series we found both the phone call and volume gesture controls to be intuitive and mostly responsive. If the system didn't pick up on our intended gesture the first time, it would get it by the second. The pinch-and-drag camera feature was a little more finicky and perhaps could benefit from a redundant physical controller. Nonetheless, we found it useful in practice.

The 7-Series' tech story doesn't stop there. When spec'd with the Rear Executive Lounge Sating Package the 7-Series adds two 10-inch video screens and a 7-inch tablet to control everything. And when we say everything, we mean everything - controls for seating position, ambient lighting, air conditioning, radio, navigation and much more are just a swipe and a click away. Owners can also take the tablet outside of the vehicle and use it as a normal tablet.

Unfortunately for long-term owners, the Samsung tablet isn't upgradeable when the next big thing arrives. But you should at least be covered if Junior breaks the tablet 5-years down the road when Samsung no longer makes the unit; Since it's technically a vehicle component, BMW dealers must stock the tablet for at least the next 10-years.

An optional BMW Display Key allows you to show off your car's tech even when you're not in it. Similar to a smartphone display we're all familiar with, the key features a 2.2-inch touchscreen. Good for about a 1,000-foot range from the car, the key can be used to keep tabs on things like remaining range and whether you remembered to roll up the windows (even if you didn't, the car will automatically close the windows if the rain sensing wipers detect a drizzle). The display runs on a separate battery than the lock/unlock buttons, so you don't have to worry about a flat battery keeping you out of your car. The key fob can be charged wirelessly via a pocket in the center armrest.

An interesting note: European buyers can use the Display Key to remotely park their vehicle. Laws prevent BMW from offering that handy feature here in the U.S. Europeans also get laser headlights while we have to make do with LED units.

The 7-Series contrasts its cutting edge technology with old school luxury. High-quality leather and wood accents abound in the car's interior, even in places where you might not expect it, like on the inside of the C-pillar. Knobs are covered in galvanized metal to give an extra feeling of quality.

There isn't a bad seat in the house with the 7-Series, with each of the four outboard thrones providing plenty of comfort and support. It also helps that there are eight massage functions to choose from, in addition to heated and cooled seating functions. An air fragrance system ensures the cabin of the 7-Series always smells sweet. A large panoramic sunroof enhances the mood even after the sun goes down thanks to an integrated LED lighting system that bounces off hundreds of laser-etched elements in the glass.

The passenger's side rear passenger benefits even further from the Executive Lounge Package. Thanks to a passenger's seat that slides farther forward, the lucky back-seat occupant gains an additional 3.5-inches of legroom over the 7-Series' already generous accommodations. That sliding front seat also includes an integrated power-operated footrest and there is an airline-style pop out table should you need to get some work done.

Adding it all upFor our drive of the 2016 7-Series, BMW invited us to the race track at the Monticello Motor Club just north New York City. Monticello is the natural playground for cars like the BMW M3, but a big luxury car like the 7-Series? We were intrigued to say the least.

After a few laps of the 1.8-mile section of track, it became apparent why BMW was keen to show off its biggest limousine at a performance venue. Despite weighing 4,610 pounds, the 7-Series drives like a much smaller car, part of which can be attributed to the four-wheel steering system that seems to shorten the car's wheelbase. In Sport mode body roll was evident, but not to the point that it detracted from the driving experience. And on the straights, the 750i xDrive felt like a rocket ship. BMW says the 750i can accelerate from 0-60 in 4.3 seconds, which is just a tenth-of-a-second slower than the mighty M5. The 7-Series certainly wasn't in its comfort zone on the track, but it didn't embarrass itself either. We doubt we would be able to say the same of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

But the 7-Series really shines on the public roads that it'll see on a daily basis. Unlike the S-Class, which is happiest with its suspension in Comfort mode, the 7-Series is best enjoyed with the air suspension turned to Sport. Although somewhat firm, the Sport setting still does a fine job of soaking up small to medium size bumps. We also prefer the Sport steering, which adds a bit of weight and feels more direct.

Comfort mode softens everything up, which kind of spoils the 7-Series' sporty overall demeanor. Comfort Plus was far too floaty for our tastes, turning the 7-Series into an old school Cadillac.

The 2016 7-Series comes with all the latest driving aids, including adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist. All work as well as advertised and put the 7-Series just one step away from fully autonomous driving.

Leftlane's bottom lineA sports sedan for the one-percenters, the 2016 7-Series offers an engaging alternative to the calm and comfortable Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Throw in a tech suite that would make a Silicon Valley executive jealous and there is a lot to love about the 7-Series and the future of the automotive industry it ushers in.

2016 BMW 750i xDrive base price, $97,400.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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