Can BMW's tech-loaded, plush 7 series take on Mercedes S class?

NEW YORK — BMW’s redesigned 2016 7-series sedan illustrates that even the brand that touts itself as a driver’s car has succumbed to the gadget and semi-autonomous driving trend.

In fact, BMW has outdone the Mercedes-Benz S-class sedan with gizmos. The 7 series offers gesture controls, a perfume air ionizer with eight scents and 15,000 lights in the panoramic roof. BMW says the redesigned 7 series has 13 innovations not offered by competitors, including wireless charging and a body core made of carbon.

Hildegard Wortmann, senior vice president of BMW Group product management, said BMW could not ignore the autonomous driving buzz that’s grown louder in the past six to 12 months.

BMW owners still want to drive their cars, Wortmann added. But, she said, “What has changed is there are more and more situations where it isn’t fun to drive. It is nice to have the hassle taken away.”

BMW lists 27 features that are new on its car — and already used by some competitors. These include the semiautonomous features of active lane-keeping assist and cross-traffic alert, which not only warn about a possible collision, which BMW’s previous-generation technology does, but help prevent the crash. The 7 series also breaks with its driver’s car tradition by exuding luxury, such as ambient lighting in a choice of hues and massage seats that show blood flow on a 10-inch screen. Such interior pampering is aimed at the Chinese chauffer-driven market, which BMW expects to be the biggest for 7-series sales.

“When you enter the car, you do not touch anything plastic,” said Karim Habib, head of BMW design. “This is the first time we have this kind of level of overtly offering comfort and focus on the rear.”

“We are a driver’s car, but we know some customers do not drive the car.”

Mercedes started trend

It’s also a sign that BMW is seriously taking on the S class, the U.S. sales leader in the over-$ 80,000 sedan segment. Mercedes started the trend of ultra-high-tech and over-the-top interiors with the redesigned S-class sedan that debuted two years ago.

BMW executives don’t deny that the S class was one of the brand’s benchmarks, along with the Porsche Panamera and, to a lesser extent, the Audi A8.

Why the shift? BMW is responding to the changing market that is demanding more technology and luxury at the top end, said Ian Robertson, BMW AG board member for sales and marketing. BMW wants the kind of leadership in innovation and luxury that it’s had for performance.

In the luxury segment, BMW is already ahead of the pack with its lightweight carbon-fiber technology and electric vehicles — the i3 EV and i8 plug-in hybrid.

“Luxury and the materials used were a strong target feature of the development of this car,” said Robertson.

The integration of the new technology, ranging from stereo cameras to lasers and radar enabled BMW to improve semiautonomous features.

BMW’s $ 1,900 “drive assistant plus” includes a surround 3-D view, blind-spot and daytime-pedestrian detection, frontal-collision warning and mitigation and lane-departure warning.

It offers a second package for $ 1,700 with active cruise control, active lane-keeping assist with side collision warning and traffic jam assistant that follows the car in front and works up to speeds of 81 mph.

New markets, new tastes

Early in the development of the 7 series, Wortmann and a team that included engineers traveled the world holding focus groups with dealers, customers and potential buyers. The goal was to show engineers, in particular, that Germany was no longer the biggest market and that demands where BMW sales were growing quickly were different, she said.

“Luxury has changed from the old world bling-bling and the more the better,” she said. “It has changed with simplicity, ease of use and integration and merging voice and touch so that it happens naturally.”

Small things became evident, hence the perfumed air ionizer. “Perfume is an important criteria for the Middle East,” she said. “They want to put in their own fragrance.”

Air ionization is essential for China, with its rampant air pollution, she said.

The rear seats can be reclined like those in an airplane’s business and first-class sections. A touch pad can not only control temperature, massage features and lighting, but stream Netflix movies from an owner’s account onto the 10-inch monitors mounted on the back of the front seats. An airlinelike aluminum tray comes out of the center rear console. When the front seat is pushed all the way forward to increase rear-seat room, a footrest also pops down.

The three optional rear seat packages can add a whopping $ 12,570 onto the $ 82,250 base price, including shipping, of the 740i.

Robertson said he, Wortmann and Klaus Froehlich, board member for development, made significant changes in the last six months alone. But the team didn’t mess with the car’s performance, especially the Sport mode — one of the driving styles along with Comfort, Comfort+ and ECO PRO.

Said Robertson: “When you do put it into Sport mode, it does everything you expect it to and becomes a much more aggressive BMW.”

7 high-tech 7-series highlights

BMW’s 7 series adds several technology features. Here are 7:

Gesture controls

Hand movements can be used to adjust audio volume and adjust or reject phone calls without touching the screen. A two-finger gesture can be customized, for instance, to tell the navigation system “take me home.”

Wireless charging

A holder in the center console can wirelessly charge compatible Android phones and iPhones.

Display key

The key has a full color screen with Gorilla Glass and can be used to control car functions, lock doors and monitor fuel levels. It has a backup battery and can be charged wirelessly in the car.

LED “light carpet”

A light pattern is produced by the LEDs incorporated into the side skirts when the doors are opened for better visibility in the dark.

7-inch Touch Command tablet

The tablet lets passengers adjust seats, interior lighting, air conditioning and infotainment as well as stream information and movies from owner/passenger accounts using the vehicle’s Wi-Fi.

Carbon core

The 7-series is 290 pounds lighter than its predecessor, and the carbon core is a key to the weight reduction. It uses carbon-fiber reinforced plastic and high-tensile steel for the B-pillars and other key areas.

Active kidney grille

The new grille opens when additional air is needed for cooling the engine. When closed, it improves the car’s aerodynamics.

You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at dkurylko@crain.com. — Follow Diana on Twitter


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