A question of balance

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If you can’t make your mind up between a luxury car and a sports saloon, BMW may have the answer. The 740 offers a rare combination of the two

The central information display on the BMW 740 looks quite impressive. Were you in Japan, you might expect it. It would house an electronic routeplanner to help you avoid the worst of the traffic congestion, and a Sega games console to keep you amused when you can’t. In the near future, BMW’s system might indeed incorporate a satellite-controlled navigation system in the UK. It is under development in Germany, where it will soon be launched.

For the moment, though, it contains nothing more fancy than a television set…

There was a time, not so long ago, when teenagers wore flared trousers with tartan turn-ups and car radios with a pre-set analogue facility were positively avantgarde. Then car cassette players became the subject -of envy. More recently, CD multi-changers have become a status symbol of rather more consequence. Next stop, the automotive TV set, now available as an £1815 accessory on a £48,700 car.

Impressive technological showpiece? Yes, and all the more so as the picture disappears as you move off, theoretically eliminating the possibility that you’ll have an accident because you were monitoring the stock market on Ceefax, or wondering how on earth Robin Smith managed to get himself out to a delivery like that.

A necessary motoring accessory? Indubitably not. Even on the northbound M6 on a Friday evening, it’s unlikely that you’ll be stationary long enough to take in a full episode of whatever banal quiz show happens to be offering a holiday in Crete to anyone who can spell the word ‘receive’ without hesitating…

Fortunately, there’s more to the BMW 7-series than such techno-frippery. Much more.

There are two versions available, positioned neatly either side of the long-since departed 735. The 730i and 740i both feature sublime 90 deg V8s, pushing out 218 and 286 bhp respectively. The 4.0 is also blessed with prodigious torque; 295 lb ft/4500 rpm. In addition to extra performance, the 740i tested here gains more sophisticated air conditioning (which whips up heat even when the car is parked) and wider wheels than its £41,520 cousin.

The svelte, ‘new shape’ 740i is overtly more sophisticated than its immediate antecedent in a number of ways, and it is also bigger on every dimensional plane. It does not look it, though, and nor does it feel it. On the road, it offers the driver an assuring blend of solidity and stability, but it has the handy knack of ‘shrinking’ around you. This is not a difficult car to place accurately, nor to manoeuvre. Everything about it is beautifully weighted: the steering, the brakes, the throttle action… even the switchgear.

Ultimately, it is perhaps not quite as agile as the old 735, or indeed the older-style 740, both of which were possessed of extraordinary flair for cars of their size, but it still offers impressive handling finesse for something over 16 ft long, turning into corners with the effortless poise you might expect from a sporting hatchback around half the size.

It is also blessed with a huge amount of grip, via 235/60 tyres and a new multi-link rear axle (with passive rear wheel steering) derived from that on the 8-series. And that’s before you switch on the optional (£1345) traction control system.

The exceptional tautness of the chassis is a by-product of what BMW claims to be a 100 per cent increase in torsional rigidity over the old 7-series. And that was no crisp packet.

The ride quality is exemplary, and there is precious little wind noise. About the only sound which can be forced to invade the cabin 10 speaker hi-fi apart is that from the 32-valve V8, if the mood takes you. Flick the transmission into ‘sport’ mode and allow the engine to carry on all the way to its power peak at 5800 rpm, and you can just about hear the muffled essence of TVR.

For the record, theoretical top speed is electronically governed to 155 mph, but in Gatso-infested Britain you’re unlikely to use much more than half of that. (And has anybody else noticed that the vast majority of grey metal boxes are located not where enforced speed reduction might actually enhance safety, but usually where there is the greatest scope for fund-raising?) Standing start acceleration is particularly impressive, the 740 reaching 60 mph from rest in around seven seconds. Despite its combination of weight and performance, however, BMW estimates that the average user should be able to return over 25 mpg. Even with an excess of urban usage, We recorded 22.4 mpg, so the claim seems reasonable.

Traditionally, I have always preferred manual transmission to automatic, but there are exceptions, and this is one such. The five-speed gearbox is equipped with a brain which allows it to alter its characteristics to suit particular driving styles, or conditions. Its change action is impeccably smooth, and – particularly in ‘sport’ mode – it does not ‘hunt’ for gears in the way that many automatics will suddenly drop a ratio on the exit of a corner, when you really don t need it.

Inside, leather and wood blend with plastic which, in BMW tradition, is made to look – and feel –like a quality material. Our test car was fitted with the optional ‘comfort’ seats, on which the upper half of the backrest is independently movable, to maximise the number of available positional possibilities. One supposes that the extra £2615 will hardly matter if you are in the market for a near £50,000 car…

The 740, which also came with the effective adjustable damping (£1280) isn’t just a question of expensive options. Time was when standard BMW specification wouldn’t include a radio, but the company has a somewhat more enlightened approach nowadays. Yes, you can pay over the odds for glitzy seats, but the showroom specification does include ABS, air conditioning, anti-theft alarm, a pair of airbags, the aforementioned multi-information display (minus TV, but with a number of other toys, including a warning system to advise you when the battery in your key is running low), electric everything, seatbelt pre-tensioners, remote central locking with deadlocks, CD autochanger and myriad other laboursaving devices.

Verdict

The likes of Lexus have given BMW and Mercedes-Benz food for thought in the past few years, but the fact remains that BMW retains an edge for those who place as much emphasis on sheer driving pleasure as they do on creature comforts.

The concept of value for money may seem absurd when talking about a car that costs as much as a two-bedroom flat in south London, but taken in context the BMW fares reasonably well, thanks to a standard specification which almost rivals anything Japan can put forward.

It says something about the target clientele that BMW places almost as much emphasis on the fact that you can get four golf bags in the boot as it does on chassis dynamics. But, even if some of the old 7-series’ panache has been lost, the combination of a rasping engine note and a still well-balanced chassis make this more of a sporting luxury saloon than any of its immediate rivals. That ought to give BMW a fighting chance of meeting its target of acquiring 25 per cent of the UK luxury car market, which is currently growing once again, even though overall sales are around half what they were seven years ago, prerecession.

The television I could live without, but the rest of the package appeals. It may remove much of the effort, but it still allows you to enjoy driving, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

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