The 2012 BMW 7 Series sedans look sleek and expensive, and for the price they should. What's better, virtually all of the odd, sometimes awkward design cues from the 2002-2009 models are now just fading memories.
In front, the vertical bars in all 7 Series grilles are spaced wider than those on other BMWs, for distinction, though we're not sure it improves its appearance. It doesn't make a car look more stylish by increasing the gap between its teeth. From the driver's seat you don't see that, anyway. What you see is a really nice power bulge on the hood, subtle and sweet.
The 760Li has several discrete styling appointments to distinguish it from the 750Li and 750i. Its kidney shaped grille is trimmed with a wider chrome surround that is slightly concave. The 760Li's side gills, located where the doors meet the front fenders, have a chrome finish and V12 badges.
The 7 Series looks best from the side or front three-quarter view. The hood is long but front overhang is short. Nice. The sheet metal contours, blending concave and convex surfaces, are still there, but they're more subtle than they've been on BMWs of recent years, and they don't shout for attention. The fenders are chiseled upward, nicely. This 7 Series has the maturity and sophistication appropriate to a car of its stature.
The long-wheelbase L models have their own roofline, creating a different profile from the shorter wheelbase models. The L roof travels sensuously along with the rest of the car in order to keep it from looking like a stretched 740i/750i with a long tail. The result is a beautiful shape that also creates a tad more headroom.
Also beautiful are the standard double-spoke alloy wheels. We've seen many lovely cars that don't have wheels that meet the aesthetic standard set by the rest of the design. BMW pays attention.
From the rear, there's little to tell the world that the BMW 740 and 750 models are remarkable luxury cars. The back end looks like any other car on the highway, with big taillights and a horizontal chrome strip. A small lip on the trunk lid only adds accent to the car's lines when viewed from the side. Maybe it's good not to attract attention by those behind.
The 760Li is spiced up a bit in back. An additional chrome bar connects unique dual tailpipes below the bumper line. The 760Li's quad tailpipe tips are rectangular and integrated in the rear air dam. The 760Li comes with unique star-spoke light-alloy wheels that further distinguish it from the sides.
The ActiveHybrid 7 has some special exterior characteristics. It gets unique badging and an exclusive paint color, Blue Water Metallic. Aerodynamic 10-spoke, 19-inch alloy wheels are an exclusive option.
The Alpina has more exclusive exterior content. It features 21-inch 20-spoke BBS wheels, front and rear spoilers that improve stability at speed, a unique rear valance, two double exhaust outlets, and a ride height that is lowered 15 mm up front and 10 mm in the rear.
The BMW 7 Series interior offers the best contemporary automobile craftsmanship and technology have to offer. Unfortunately, it also offers some of the most complicated. Whether the good outweighs the bad depends on personal taste and predilection. We sometimes find it overwhelming. Many owners adapt to it, however, and have no complaints.
First, the good: Great interior lighting, and the world's best rearview video camera, including those that incorporate top and side views. The doors open way wide, for easy entry and exit. The dash is low, thin and lovely, with a great instrument cluster featuring a clean, crisp speedometer, tach, temp and gas gauges. The large 10.2-inch screen with navigation and all its menus is very readable. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is just about perfect, and some drivers will find its audio controls close to salvation.
The 7 Series models deliver the luxurious feeling cars in this class are supposed to create. Comfort, whether in the front seat or rear seat, is superb in the long-wheelbase Li models. Short-wheelbase models have front seats that are just as comfortable. The difference is in the back seats: The standard models offer just 38.9 inches of rear legroom, compared to a luxurious 44.3 inches in the Li models. There's still enough space for most folks in the standard models, including people up to about 5-foot, 10 inches, even when tall occupants are up front.
More good: luxurious leather, even in the base Nappa trim grade, and genuine polished wood available in several choices. We absolutely loved the stitched leather dashboard that's optional on the 750 models and standard on the 760Li.
Other amenities exclusive to the 760Li include stainless-steel door entry trim with an illuminated V12 sill, Alcantara roof lining and sun visors, and individual inlays of exclusive burled walnut.
We'll start the bad with the worst: The 2012 7 Series has the fourth generation of BMW's point-and-click iDrive control, and it's accurate to call it the fourth attempt to get it right. The new version incorporates Menu, CD, Tel, Radio, Nav, Back and Option buttons around the central controller. These buttons cut down on the number of steps it takes to access various functions, but it's still awfully complicated. There are also eight programmable buttons that look like radio presets. They can be used as presets or to program commonly used functions, such as favorite phone numbers and important navigation destinations. Program those to your lifestyle and maybe you'll be golden.
BMW boasts repeatedly that iDrive is clear and intuitive. In our opinion, it is not. This latest version is better than before but still bewildering, and it consumes enormous amounts of concentration while you're trying to focus on the road in front of you. We have, however, talked to 7 Series owners who have learned how to operate iDrive effectively, and some like it.
We give iDrive the big thumbs down. We wish it would be replaced with something simpler. We never figured out how to listen to the radio and hear the navigation commands at the same time, unlike the blissfully easy to understand Dodge we tested the previous week. We couldn't blow up the navigation map nor find streets that might or might not have been there. We were dismayed by the array of questions that had to be answered when we pressed Menu. There are loads of options we never knew we needed or wanted, all with strange names that didn't describe any function we know of. Ditto with icons.
BMW's redesigned, console mounted gear selector isn't much better. It looks like the joystick for a flight-simulation video game, and company engineers have re-invented the Park position, putting it where Reverse is on other cars.
Generally, there are a lot of surprising and significant inconveniences inside the 7 Series. The seatbelt pretensioner annoyingly pretensioned us when we wanted to lean forward for visibility when pulling onto the highway. The standard climate control system offers up to four separate temperature zones, but we drove the 750Li during a heat wave, and the air conditioning on max couldn't make the cabin cool enough. Furthermore, it reset itself at 70 degrees each time the engine was shut off. Maybe we didn't program it correctly. Those wide-opening doors need a grab handle to easily close them, because without the optional soft-touch feature you can barely reach the notch in the armrest to pull them in.
Cubby storage is in short supply, disappointing in such a big car. Not counting the spacious glove compartment, there are so few storage places for basic things that you have to use the cupholders. All we had was a micro cassette tape recorder, a set of keys, a garage door opener, and some bridge toll tickets, and it was too much to ask of our $100,000 car to find us spots to store them. Try to use the over-engineered center console, and there will be a small wing awkwardly flipped up under your elbow. Small door pockets help little.
The 7 Series isn't the greatest for hauling big things, either. Its trunk is large compared to that of a compact sedan, but not when compared to the full-size luxury competition. With 14.0 cubic feet of space, the 7 Series trunk is smaller than those in the Lexus LS or Mercedes S-Class, although a little larger than that of the Audi A8.