First Drive: 2013 BMW 7-series

The BMW 7-series rolls smoothly into 2013 having undergone a relatively minor update, its first since the current-generation car was introduced in 2010.

So Many Sevens
The 7 continues to be offered in a myriad of configurations: six-cylinder 740, eight-cylinder 750, V-12 760, AcvitveHybrid 7, and sporty Alpina B7. Rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive further multiply the variants, as do standard- and long-wheelbase body styles. For 2013, all-wheel-drive can be combined with the six-cylinder engine for the first time, in the 740Li. The ActiveHybrid 7, however, drops back to one body style, as it's now available in long-wheelbase form only.

In all 7s, there are minor -- very minor -- tweaks to the front and rear styling, and newly available LED headlamps. The standard Driver Dynamics Control adds an Eco Pro mode to the previous Comfort, Comfort-plus, Sport, and Sport-plus. Besides relaxing the throttle response, altering the transmission shift patterns, and optimizing the climate control for maximum fuel economy, Eco Pro also enables engine-decoupled coasting.

Ever-evolving iDrive
The latest version of iDrive comes first to the 7-series (and to 5-series models equipped with navigation, and to the ActiveHybrid 3). It's now somewhat simpler to access the various navigation functions; the radio can show album-cover art; and the Bluetooth phone can receive calls from more than one paired phone. Additionally, 3D map models show buildings (in some cities). Still missing: the ability to use the car as a mobile Internet hot spot.

For 2013, iDrive also comes to the rear seats, in cars equipped with the optional rear-seat entertainment package. The single iDrive controller -- located on the fold-down armrest -- can operate either of the dual, 9-inch screens affixed to the back of the front-seat headrests. Rear-seat passengers also can search for points of interest, and then send one to the front screen.

Underhood updates
Both the six-cylinder and V-8 cars switch from a six-speed automatic to an eight-speed, which now is common throughout the lineup. The 750's 4.4-liter V-8 adds Valvetronic, and sees an increase in output from 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, to 443 hp and 479 pound-feet. BMW puts the new model's 0-60 time at 4.7 seconds, down from 5.0/5.1 last year, but, subjectively, the additional 43 hp and 29 pound-feet of torque are easily lost in a car that weighs between 4575 and 4800 pounds. The newly standard auto stop-start (which is in all 7-series except the V-12 cars) helps nudge fuel economy in the right direction. Unfortunately, the chugging restarts can get pretty annoying in stop-and-go traffic -- when they do, you can switch off the system.

Less Active, More Hybrid
The ActiveHybrid 7 gets more extensive powertrain changes, and it trades away some performance for better fuel economy, a sensible move in our estimation, given that fuel economy is the prime motivation for buying a hybrid. Instead of a V-8 engine supplemented by an electric motor, the ActiveHybrid 7 now uses the six-cylinder hybrid system recently introduced on the ActiveHybrid 5 and 3. Predictably, power and torque have dropped significantly, and 0-60 times have climbed. Total system output is down from 455 hp to 348; torque drops from 515 to 367 pound-feet; and the 0-60 sprint now takes 5.5 seconds rather than 4.7. But more important is the fact that the hybrid 7 is now the most fuel-efficient 7. Whereas the previous ActiveHybrid 7 couldn’t beat the EPA ratings of the 740i, the new model claims to be 14 percent more efficient than the standard, non-hybrid six-cylinder. The hybrid base price is $84,895, which is about midway between the 740Li ($78,195) and the 750Li ($90,895). Oh, and it’s also a cool, $17,000 less than last year’s long-wheelbase ActiveHybrid 7.

Amped-up Alpina
In the absence of an M7, the Alpina B7, specially engineered by longtime BMW tuner Alpina, is the sportiest 7-series. The Alpina B7 has been available to U.S. customers since 2007, and is only the second Alpina BMW to be sold in the United States. (The first was Alpina’s special version of the Z8 roadster.) Based on the 750, the highlights of the Alpina B7 include significantly more horsepower, a retuned suspension, and unique styling. With the standard 7-series V-8 adding more power for 2013, the Alpina version also had to pump up in order to maintain its advantage -- and it did. The B7 now gets 540 horsepower from the turbocharged 4.4-liter engine, and 538 pound-feet of torque, compared to 500 hp and 516 pound-feet previously. A redesigned front fascia feeds more air to the engine and creates more visual separation from the 750. The Alpina’s additional output over the standard 7-series is largely due to its larger turbocharger. With a larger turbo, the Alpina suffers some lag, but when the boost comes in this big sedan gets up and moves. Despite the lag, the Alpina’s more measured throttle mapping -- which seems very Bentley-like -- actually makes it very easy to drive smoothly. Mat the accelerator, however, and this luxury sedan charges to 60 mph in a stupendous 4.3 seconds (with xDrive), or 4.4 seconds (with rear-wheel drive). Alpina does not electronically limit the top speed of its cars, and the B7 now reaches 194 mph (subtract 1 mph with AWD), up from 175 mph previously. Like all other 7s, the Alpina now uses the eight-speed automatic, but it alone offers manual shifting via steering-wheel-mounted switches. Notice we didn’t say paddles. Instead, Alpina -- which pioneered steering-wheel-mounted shifters for automatic transmissions nearly twenty years ago -- uses buttons built into the backside of the spokes at 3- and 9 o’clock. It sounds odd, but you get used to it pretty quickly. The Alpina also has its own specific suspension calibration, and twenty-one-inch wheels. The latter might suggest that buyers suffer a harsh ride in the name of style, but that’s actually not the case, mostly because (unlike other BMWs) the Alpina B7 doesn’t use run-flat tires. Offering a truly sybaritic interior and yet able to hang with an M6 on a race track, the latest Alpina B7 is, more than ever, the ultimate expression of the BMW 7-series. Available in standard- and long-wheelbase, prices range from $127,600 to $134,500.

The Specs
On sale: Fall (ActiveHybrid 7); Now (others)
Base price range: $74,195-$140,200
Engines: 3.0L twin-turbo I-6, 315 hp, 330 lb-ft; 3.0L twin-turbo I-6 hybrid, 348 hp, 367 lb-ft; 4.4L twin-turbo V-8, 443 hp, 479 lb-ft; 4.4L twin-turbo V-8, 536 hp, 553 lb-ft; 6.0L V-12,
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel
MPG: N/A

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