THE N222 is a 28km stretch of road between Peso de Regua and Pinhao in northern Portugal. Earlier this year it was rated as the best driving road in the world by car rental company Avis. According to the company’s Avis Driving Ratio, the ideal road for enthusiasts should have 10 seconds of straight for every one second of cornering. The N222 comes the closest with a ratio of 11:1.
So it should be ideal for tackling in a Porsche 911, a Ferrari 488 or even a BMW 7 Series. A BMW 7 Series? Yes, I found myself on what is supposedly the best driver’s road in the world, in a luxury barge.
Before I get to how it handled the N222, there is the matter of technology and gadgets, lots of them. The new 7 has a carbon fibre reinforced plastic core in its construction which reduces its weight by 130kg over its predecessor. It has adaptive air suspension. Then there is the gesture controlled infotainment system, which uses a sensor to allow you to swipe away those irritating calls from people wanting to sell you stuff, give a virtual tap in the air when you want to take a call from your other half, or circle your finger in the air to raise or lower the volume. It takes getting used to, but is rather cool.
Clearly aimed at the Chinese market, there is a greater emphasis than ever on the rear seats. On top of seats that recline, massage and heat or cool you, there is a new removable Samsung tablet mounted in the centre armrest which allows you to control almost every aspect of the vehicle’s interior as well as surf the net, watch movies and even send content to one of the headrest screens mounted on the back of the front seats. You can also annoy your front passenger by moving their seat if you are in a mischievous mood.
The car can also park itself. I don’t mean in the way you push a parking button in other cars and the vehicle controls the steering into the space. Get out and select through a series of menus on the new smartphone style smart key. Push a button and the car will pull into an alley dock parking space all on its own. Pop off for a coffee and when you come back you simply ask it to pull itself out again and it will start the engine and pull out ready for you to jump in.
Clever stuff but initially it will only be available on the 730d. On the subject of the key you can also check the status of the car, its location and set up the climate control and other settings.
Other clever stuff to have tech addicts salivating includes laser headlights such as those that debuted on the new i8, wireless phone charging and an LED lighting carpet, which rolls out along the car’s side at night.
Why all the tech? Well according to the car’s exterior designer, Nader Faghihzadeh: “BMWs are inspired by technology, but you can see how it all comes together.” It comes together in a design which was inspired by dancers, he says, with Oliver Zipse, member of the board of management of BMW AG for production, saying that it “embodies combined passion and skills of our designers and engineers”.
Those engineers have had to work hard with the new model, although they have not been successful in every area. The new air suspension system has an adaptive mode which automatically adjusts according to driving style and road conditions. In comfort it is extremely wallowy, like an old American model. It should just be called American mode. It is best left in sport, which is still supremely comfortable.
The steering has lost that typical BMW feeling. It has none of the usual heaviness which is associated with a driver’s car. Instead it is light like a city car, with a complete lack of feedback. Like the suspension, it shows it is geared to a particular market, in this case China, where the company sells a huge number of 7 Series models.
These two issues detracted from the experience on the N222, but came into their own on the highways. Interestingly they were almost totally empty, with Portuguese motorists choosing to avoid them after a tolling system was implemented by the government and run by the same company that runs the controversial system in Gauteng.
However, the empty highways showed how comfortable the new model is, allowing occupants to sit back, relax and enjoy all the technology on board. The engines remain the same with marginal hikes in power and claimed improvements in fuel consumption. We drove the 730d and the long wheelbase 750iL. The 730d was responsive and quiet. The 750, of course, was equally quiet, even during the occasional period of instant torque enjoyment when pushing on the accelerator.
The new 7 Series will be in SA in January 2016, starting at an indicative price of R1,319,500 for the 740i. Next up will be the 730d followed by the 750i and 750Li. You can also have a cosmetic M-Sport version. If you like your luxury to be green, then later in 2016 the company will launch the 740e, a plug-in hybrid version.
The big question is whether BMW can unseat the S-Class as the leader of the genre. In terms of the interior, luxury and technology then most definitely yes. In terms of dynamics, possibly.
Finally, what about other derivatives? With Mercedes recently announcing its S-Class convertible, can we expect the same from BMW? “If Mercedes make it,” was the response from Faghihzadeh. He would not con-firm the rumoured X7 though, saying simply: “Of course, we are looking at other classes.”
MICHAEL TAYLOR SAYS: The 7’s steering is really strange at speed, overly quick, no feedback, no cohesion. The long wheelbase is a lot better, but it’s still rubbish. It is agile at low speed, though.
The interior is also made from quality materials, but it seems like it was designed before the latest wave of gadgetry hit it. The switches are clear in the day and night, but in between you can’t see the buttons, and there is a lot of glare off the black centre console during the daytime so you can’t always see mode buttons.
Awesome body control, though, and an S-Class wouldn’t see where it went on a winding road.