As I lowered myself into the new BMW 7-Series' micro-perforated, climate-controlled, buttock massaging passenger seat, I noticed that my diminutive driver seemed a bit, well, lethargic. He had the half-lidded laid-back look of the seriously pampered. Not what you'd expect from a professional race driver about to hurl 1945kg's of somebody else's luxury car around a racetrack. One chicane later and I shared his complacency. The new 7-Series can be driven at maximum velocity with no more drama than an episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Which is to say none at all, then a bit, then not at all. Hell, you could phone it in.
Or perhaps not. That depends on whether or not you know how to remove the sim card from your mobile phone. To use the 7's on-board telephony, you have to extract your sim card, open the phone drawer, take out a tiny plastic holder, fit your sim card into the holder and insert the holder into a small slot. Then, and only then, you can you use BMW's detachable 'portable' phone, or the new iDrive controller, or wheel-mounted buttons, or a separate (and miniscule) keypad, to phone a friend. I don't think the police would call the process 'hands free'.
Never mind the safety implications. Is this something you'd want to do every time you get into your £56k+ luxury car? In the world of expensive cars, the word 'luxury' is synonymous with 'ease'. The best examples are so effortless that drivers arrive at their destination with no more memory of the journey than a drugged lion transported across the Serengeti. As the phone-a-thon reveals, there's nothing easy about the new 7-Series. Just to start the thing, you have to insert the key, keep your foot on the brake, hit a poorly positioned starter button and jiggle a small, stalk-mounted transmission controller. Oh yes, don't forget to switch off the parking brake with the dashboard button.
Which raises an interesting question: what's wrong with a standard auto box? Nothing. BMW needed the space for their wacky iDrive knob/dial/thingy. Close observation of some brand-loyal plutocrats confirms my suspicions: they treated the iDrive with more disdain than a Vauxhall driver and used the 'backup' manual controls.
Well, if the target market can ignore iDrive, so can we. Let's get back to the big Bimmer's underlying strengths: speed, handling and charisma.
Concentrate on such mundane matters as driving, you'll be well pleased. BMW's power brokers have been generous. The new 7 features an all-new alloy engine with adjustable intakes and exhaust camshafts, fully adjustable intake valve lift, continuously variable induction, six speed electronic gearbox, and the rest. Translation: it's one seriously swift motor. The entry-level 735i wafts to 60 in under 7.5 seconds. The new 745i makes the same trip in 6.7 seconds. That's faster than the old five litre 12-cylinder car. The significantly increased shove is accompanied by improved MPG, and handling that verges on the miraculous.
As my track stint proved, the new 7 corners with mind-numbing ease. A raft of driver's acronyms- I'm sorry- 'aids' obliterates the big car's bulk. The DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) offers three settings: Nanny, Supportive Friend and You're On Your Own Mate. Choose the middle setting from the steering wheel, use the iDrive to switch the adjustable EDC (Electronic Damper Control) from 'Comfort' to 'Sport' (not forgetting to buy that particular option), and the beast is more agile than Fantasia's dancing hippos. And if you have to stop, by God you will. Provided you don't intentionally aim at anything solid, rapid progress is assured.
No wonder BMW touts the new 7 as the ultimate 'Ultimate Driving Machine'. Sure, but how many 7 owners do any Ultimate Driving? They're more likely to be found sedately motoring in The Bermuda Shorts Triangle (home, office and golf club). For that role, the new 7 is perfectly suited. It's a refined cruiser with all the space, comfort and refrigerated glove boxes you'll ever need (one). And it looks the business: as sharply tailored as an Armani suit. The shape says you've arrived- and it didn't take you long to get there.
If you look beneath the new 7's technological over-kill, you'll find a car-a BIG car- with an immense range of talents. It can thrash, cruise and pose with equal aplomb. Which makes BMW's biggest car an automotive oxymoron: the least user-friendly luxury car ever made. But that doesn't stop it from being the best.