FIRST DRIVE | How does BMW's new electric i7 makes sense with SA's Stage 6 load shedding?

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  • The new 7 Series is a tech fest, but does it keep the legacy limousine values of BMW's apex model range?
  • Beyond the dramatic styling, there's an advanced platform that accommodates petrol, diesel and battery powertrains.
  • Does a turbo-petrol-hybrid or battery-powertrain make the most sense for South African 7 Series customers? 

For South African buyers, a battery-powered limousine would appear to be the ultimate luxury car paradox in lieu of Eskom. But it isn't, writes News24 Motoring contributor Lance Branquinho.

The South African luxury limousine market has always been a duopoly between BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

But even in the most competitive of duopolies, there's always the question of ascendancy. And when it comes to limousines, that ascendancy has always been for S-Class. The unintended consequence is that the 7 Series is the rarer limousine. And in a market segment where selectness and statement are everything, exclusivity matters.

In the ultra-luxury limousine market, selling more is not necessarily the brand outcome you want. That brings us to the seventh-generation 7 Series. This is a car of immense presence in the metal. It might be less elegant in proportion or detailing than its predecessor, but with limousines, statement supersedes aesthetics. And the latest 7 Series makes a statement.

DRIVEN | We drive the extraordinary new i7 – BMW’s limousine that changes everything

The world of 'new' luxury

Limousines have an implied sense of expectation and occasion relating to their cabin architecture.

Wealthy drivers and passengers expect a pampered experience with uncompromised trim and finishing. Where the limousine market had relied on wood inlays and plush leather trim to create the look and feel of true luxury motoring, that's changed quite dramatically with BMW's latest 7 Series.

Reflecting global customers' evolving sense of 'luxury', synthetic materials are now desirable instead of traditional leather and wood. BMW's new range of 'Merino' trim fulfils this demand.

BMW i7
BMW i7

The 7 Series cabin also dazzles with more touchscreens than an iStore. Wealthy drivers and passengers require to be seamlessly connected and entertained. BMW avails with new the 7 Series. Its 31.3-inch rear-seat theatre screen is a R78 000 option, but in an era where screens dominate our attention span, this is an upgrade of inarguable value.

The automatic doors add a lot of theatre to the limousine experience, but I remain unconvinced by their actual utility. In principle, doors are a security feature on any vehicle. Automating them goes against what I know about personal security for VIPs and vulnerability points in and around a vehicle.

Absurd acceleration

The i7 is terrifically quick from 0-100km/h, measured at 4.7 seconds. That's not surprising as the i7's electric motor spins 400kW of power and 745Nm of torque. Its usable real-world roll-on acceleration, ranging from 30 to 120km/h, is staggering.

Where the i7 shares a similar issue with all other electric vehicles is high-speed cruising and acceleration. Why? How can there be an issue with its acceleration to that vaunted 240km/h top speed? Easy. It doesn't have gears.

BMW i7
BMW i7

Without gearing, the i7 doesn't operate in its ideal power band at higher speeds, as would be the case with a previous-generation 760Li turbocharged V12, thanks to its eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. Expect the next generation of luxury electric vehicles to start featuring two-speed transmissions, enabling better use of their electric motor potency.

BMW has undone any ownership anxiety, regarding the electric vehicle range, with the i7. Regardless of driving style, the real-world range is beyond 500km. Trust us. It is. With a full complement of passengers onboard and driving all day into a headwind, you won't suffer range anxiety.

Between S-Class and 7 Series, the latter has always been more of the driver's limousine. And the dynamic fluidity and responsiveness curated through seven generations of BMW's ultimate luxury car remain present with the latest version.

It is incredible how agile the advanced air-suspension and four-wheel steering make the i7 feel, despite its enormous 2.7t kerb weight. I range against the idea of overweight cars, but with its low centre of mass and trick suspension, the i7 challenges perception regarding weight and lateral agility. Its responsiveness and driver feedback bode well for the future of BMW's electric vehicles and driver enjoyment.

BMW i7
BMW i7

Is the 740 a better deal?

There's no cost logic of value offering with cars priced in the 7 Series segment, but the intra-model competition is noteworthy. Where the energy value equation becomes curious is the price discrepancy between 740i and i7. The latter car has a tremendously more advanced powertrain and is much quicker from 0-120km/h. But it also costs R665 000 more than the 740i, equating to about 665 tanks of fuel. The rough calculation of that fuel is 300 000km of petrol driving range.

But does running cost matter to a limousine buyer? Probably not. Off-grid i7 drivers also have the agency to exert greater control over the total cost of mobility than any petrol or diesel limousine owners, who must abide by the fuel tax whims of government.

Still no M7 version – but what of an Alpina?

Despite much speculation and interest group agitation, BMW has never built an M7. Mercedes-Benz generated huge profits with its S63 and S65 AMG limousines, despite these high-performance versions being less harmonised to drive than any non-AMG S-Class.

For BMW, the 7 Series has paradoxically remained its most premium car, but also beyond the influence of M-Division. That might change in future since BMW's acquisition of Alpina.

BMW i7
BMW i7

The German BMW specialist has a proven history of creating more performance-focused 7 Series derivatives without sacrificing their limousine attributes. Very much the antithesis of AMG.

Could an official Alpina i7 be in the works? It's pure conjecture, but we'll take the XB7 Alpina as a trending indicator to the positive.

Doesn't stage 6 load shedding undo the appeal of an i7?

The i7 is an unquestionable technology benchmark for BMW, but the South African context for a battery-powered limousine, is theoretically troubling due to Eskom.

"Why buy an i7 when stage 6 load shedding could be the new normal, and electricity is about to increase by 18.65%?" The answer is simple: i7 customers are already off-grid. Because they can afford to be.

In the context of that customer profile and its reality of resources, i7 has ironically arrived at the perfect moment for South Africa's limousine buyers.

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