Driven: X7 is a step into (and out of) BMW's comfort zone
Tallahassee, Florida - This was always going to be an entirely appropriate place to meet the first-ever BMW X7.
Welcome to America, where everything is supersized. Even the black-bumpered municipal 'bakkies' with poverty spec steel wheels are V8-powered hulks that would dwarf the double cabs that main manne in South Africa like to prowl around in. And we haven't even gotten to the full-sized SUVs with names like Escalade and Expedition.
Yet even in this kind of company the BMW X7 oozes presence. That's down to more than just the giant kidney grille and wheels up to 22 inches in diameter depending on how you attack the options list - yes, even the bog standard versions roll on 20 inch alloys.
But is the X7 really applicable to life outside of the US of A?
This became one of the first points of debate as my driving partner and I set off from Tallahassee in Florida, on a road trip that would take us through three state borders in a single day - because this vehicle is all about road tripping, ain't it?
While my co-driver quite rightfully remarked how un-BMW-like it seems in concept, the more I thought about it the more it became apparent that there are BMW drivers out there that have big families or junior soccer teams to haul around, and if BMW doesn't build a vehicle for them then they are simply going to migrate to another brand.
Measuring just over 5.1 metres in length and exactly two meters in width, the X7 is large and in charge, but form follows function here and the X7 is the first BMW that can truly accommodate seven people in reasonable comfort.
Yes, the X5 offers a seven seat option but those are more suited to kids. The X7's claim to fame is that its third row, with full-sized seats, is said to be comfortable enough for adults, even on long journeys. So while my co-driver enjoyed some time behind the wheel, I climbed into the back to test that theory for myself. Perched in the third row, my knees were only slightly raised and there was a tolerable amount of legroom. I certainly wasn't uncomfortable, but a Joburg to Durban dash might be pushing things a bit - although a child should be happy enough.
The middle row seats can be shifted back and forth, but if you're leaving enough legroom for those behind, then it's not exactly stretch-out spacious, but tolerable perhaps. Buyers can also ditch the three-person middle-bench for twin individual chairs, featuring arm rests and exactly the same adjustment functionality as the front seats.
With all seats in place the X7 offers 326 litres worth of stashing space in the boot, which is fairly small but enough for your shopping or a few small weekend bags, but the back seats can be folded at the touch of a button from the boot, liberating up to 2120 litres.
The other thing that strikes you as a passenger in the X7 is just how light and airy it feels inside, something you can thank those large windows for, as well as the standard three-part panoramic sunroof that extends all the way to the third row. A six colour ambient lighting system is also part of the deal here.
As for controlling the climate, a four-zone system serving the first two rows is fitted as standard, and buyers can order an additional climate system, with separate controls, for the third row.
All seven seats are heated, but only the front seats can be ordered with internal ventilation and massage functions and believe me, they've hidden a decent masseuse in those chairs, something that starts to come in handy towards the end of our 600km trip to Baton Rouge.
What kind of roads can it handle?
Our journey was a largely flat and smooth one, but it's worth noting that the X7 was designed to perform admirably on just about any surface. xDrive permanent all-wheel drive is fitted to all versions, as is a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic gearbox, and the vehicle can operate in rear-wheel-drive mode for added efficiency when AWD grip is not needed.
If your usage requirement is twisty roads at speed then the M50d is the model to go for, with its M Sport differential that curbs understeer by sending power to the wheel on the outside of the bend when required.
The M50d is powered by BMW's monstrous quad-turbo 3-litre diesel engine, which produces 294kW and 760Nm, enough to shunt you from 0-100km/h in 5.4 seconds, BMW insists.
Your other option in South Africa will be the xDrive30d, essentially a single-turbo version of that aforementioned engine, pushing a not inconsiderable 195kW and 620Nm, which is still good for a seven-second 0-100km/h time.
The 30d is the one you want if any kind of off-road driving is on the agenda, as this one can be ordered with BMW's optional Off-Road package, as the one available in the X5. Apart from more rugged underguard elements, this pack gives you four driving modes - xSnow, xSand, xGravel and xRocks as well as some unique off-road assistance graphics and camera displays in the cabin.
But even if you don't tick that option, you can still automatically raise or lower your X7 by 40mm, thanks to the standard air suspension on both axles.
What's it like to drive?
Only the xDrive40i six-cylinder and xDrive50i V8 turbopetrol models were available for our test drive (this is America, after all), and because it was a long-distance road trip across four states, no off-roading was on the agenda, although having experienced the Off-Road package in the X5, we can vouch for it being surprisingly capable in the rough.
As with most modern BMWs you can choose from various driving modes for the vehicle's dynamic systems, including Sport, Comfort and Eco Pro, and there's an individual mode that allows you to mix things up. Dial it into Sport on a twisty road and the X7 feels surprisingly agile for its size and the steering is nicely weighted as we'd expect from a BMW.
What we mostly ended up testing out was the X7's ultra-smooth ride quality, thanks to that aforementioned air suspension, and its impressive insulation properties - it really is quiet on the open road, and road noise is minimal. By the end of the 10-hour journey we were not nearly as fatigued as we would have expected.
The X7 also has four 'vitality and relaxation' modes that adjust the music, climate, massage function and even fragrance.
Oh, and there's a butler on board too.
BMW's Intelligent Personal Assistant, also standard, is perhaps the feature you might appreciate most when road tripping. AI systems like these, which respond to "hey", are becoming all the rage these days, and you can even give this one a name. I'm not sure how it would respond to "Frikkie, find me koeksisters" (and for obvious reasons we didn't end up attempting that command in Alabama, although it also didn't have answers for "where can I hunt ‘gaters" or "how do I play a banjo".
Jokes aside, there is a wide range of functions that this system can respond to. Tell it "I'm cold" and it'll adjust the temperature for you and ask it what time you'll reach your destination and it'll do just that, and as you go along it'll learn more and more about you and your preferences, making it a better butler. However, it proved to be a bit of a hit and miss affair for us on the trip. We ask it to play some music and it actually asked what genre we were interested in, but neither of us got it to understand what rock music was. Kids of today...
The 'personal assistant' forms part of the X7's standard seventh-generation BMW operating system, with the Live Cockpit Professional interface featuring as standard, and which includes a digital instrument cluster and central infotainment screen, both measuring 12.3 inches, as well as adaptive navigation and a multimedia system with 20GB of memory.
If you want seven relatively roomy seats and you don't want to stray out of the BMW fold, the X7 does everything it says on the box, with more comfort than you would expect, and a slightly more dynamic feel than you'd get in most rivals. We're not in love with the exterior design (and have yet to come across anyone who is), but as a practical and lavishly luxurious package, albeit at a rather princely sum of money, it certainly does the trick and more.
BMW X7 xDrive30d - R1 562 849
BMW X7 M50d - R1 862 308