Germany, Munich - In recent years ‘downsizing’ has become a familiar term in automotive vocabulary as the race to increase efficiency and reduce emissions has seen naturally-aspired engines replaced by smaller displacement forced-aspirated units.
Thus, V8 engines have given way to V6 or i6 motors, while sixes have in turn been replaced by fours. And where entry-level vehicles were previously powered by small displacement fours, they are now often supplanted by even smaller three-cylinder turbocharged motors.
While Volvo, with its comparatively stolid image can get away with using turbocharged fours in its flagship models the same is not true for the “Ultimate Driving Machine.” It was no wonder that eyebrows were raised when BMW launched their 740e/740Le Plug-In hybrid in 2015 with a mere 2.0-litre four providing the combustion engine part of the mix.
Pitched as both a zero emissions limousine with extended range, and a comfortable, rapid autobahn cruiser, this first 7-Series hybrid could be regarded as two cars in one. Power came from BMW’s ubiquitous 2.0-litre TwinPower turbocharged four-cylinder petrol motor tuned to its highest ever state for 265hp, underpinned by 400Nm of torque. This was supplemented by an electric motor sandwiched between the engine and eight-speed automatic gearbox for a combined system power of 322hp and 500Nm.
Thanks to xDrive 4WD the 740e sprinted to 100km/h in a rapid 5.3 seconds, while at the other end of the performance scale its claimed maximum range of 46km on a full battery charge, and combined fuel consumption of 2.5L/100km did its bit for the planet.
The downsides of the 740e/740Le were not unexpected. When not plugged into the mains the battery gains its charge from regenerative braking, which means it was at its most efficient in town and during journeys that require brake application.
As long highway stints do not recharge the battery and high-speed driving drains it rapidly, you then have a two-ton plus vehicle pulled along by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol motor whose sporty voice perfectly fits the 3-Series but is out of place in a flagship luxury limousine.
From an aesthetic point of view the G11/G12 7-Series looked good to us at launch in 2015. It also drove very well, being sportier and more engaging behind the wheel than the Mercedes S-Class. At the same time the latest generation of BMW’s air suspension further closed the rear seat ride quality gap with its nemesis from Stuttgart.
However, some customers were not totally convinced. In Europe some opined that the 7-Series lacked a sumptuous enough cabin and the ethereal rear seat refinement of the S-Class. Meanwhile Chinese owners for whom visual gravitas is everything wanted the car to make a bigger visual statement.
As 40% of 7-Series sales are in China, you can understand why BMW would take notice, and while they were at it they also increased the potential comfort in the rear by adding an extra 140mm to the LWB version.
We rather suspect that BMW’s design department, justifiably proud of their new flagship, were taken aback by the sentiment that it lacked presence. But as the old adage goes, the customer is always right, and so BMW’s management signed off one of the costliest mid-life facelifts in its corporate history.
Unveiled in January 2019 for the 2020 model year the revised 7-Series with its new bonnet, slimmer lights and 40 percent larger kidney grille. At the rear, new LED tail lights are joined by a central stripe, while a new bumper matches the more aggressive one in front.
The facelifted car immediately courted extremely polarized opinions. Some said the new front was gauche and hideous, while others thought it gave the flagship BMW the presence it had lacked before.
This argument will no doubt run and run, more so as the face-lifted 7-Series introduced a new large grille face for the whole BMW range that was concurrently applied to the X7. While the big grille certainly looks more at home on the massive BMW SUV, traditionalists should be rightly concerned about the fallout of its application on bread and butter BMW models.
Other than the grille, the rest of the news about the revised 7-Series is good, especially in the updated interior, which is a really fine place to be. The basic cabin architecture is the same, but the new highlights in front of you are the latest generation 12.3-inch instrument cluster and 10.25-inch infotainment screen.
The leather seats, and console and door armrests benefit from parquet leather and even the seatbelt outlet covers now have wood veneer trim. It all looks and feel plusher and in keeping with the car’s flagship status.
Road noise intrusion was carefully addressed, and the areas above the rear wheel arches, the seat backrest and the B-pillar benefit from additional sound insulation. Further decibels are trimmed by thicker laminated glass all round.
BMW has come a long way since the clunky first generation iDrive, and the latest infotainment interface is intuitive to operate either from the iDrive knob on the console or using the touchscreen in the case of the latter. As with the previous model you can also enter navigation destinations with the touchpad on top of the knob.
The usual spread of 730i, 750i (V8) and 760iL (V12) petrol engines are present along with the popular (in Europe) six-cylinder 730d and 740d turbo-diesel models. But when we learned that the 740e/740Le had been replaced by the 745e/745Le iPerformance we were keen to see just how much difference ‘upsizing’ to the smooth 3.0-litre TwinPower turbocharged straight six has made to BMW’s eco-friendly flagship model.
On its own the B58 turbocharged six makes 282hp and 450Nm of torque. Once married to the electric motor the total system power is a healthy 394hp with 600Nm of torque. That drops the 0-100km/h sprint to 5.1 seconds while the new 12kWh battery pack increases the EV range to a claimed 58km running on battery power alone, which it can do at speeds up to 110km/h.
There are a number of ways to control the engine and electric power delivery. These come under Pure electric, Hybrid and Sport modes, with the latter using both the engine and electric motor to deliver an impressive accelerative punch. There is also a ‘Battery Control’ button that can charge up the battery while you’re driving, and this even allows you to choose the level – from 30 to 100 per cent – to which you want the engine to charge the battery.
Put the 745e/745Le on the scales and you will find that all the hybrid hardware adds 200kg over the 740e/740Le that shares its combustion engine. So when the battery is depleted you can expect fuel economy to suffer commensurately.
Another negative aspect of hybrid and Plug-In hybrid cars is boot volume lost to the battery pack. This is particularly galling for VIP chauffeurs wishing to use a hybrid limousine for airport transfers as the reduced luggage capacity can sometimes render the vehicle unfit for purpose.
Compared to its rivals BMW has done a fine job of keeping the boot shape rectangular with no awkward lumps and bumps, but the 100-litres of luggage volume sacrificed in the 740e/740Le is carried over to the 745e/745Le. This includes lost space in the secondary compartment under the boot floor, where the charging cable pack lives. As before you can drop the aft part of the boot floor, but the cable pack then has to find a home somewhere else.
The change to six-cylinders has made a world of difference to the hybrid 7-Series, which now has a sense of engine refinement missing from its predecessor. It is also considerably faster and more engaging when you want to get a move on.
As before the car moves off on battery power if there is sufficient charge, and this is a very pleasant experience around town that adds to the perception of gliding along ensconced in leather and wood luxury.
When it is required the combustion engine cuts in seamlessly, exhibiting cultured smoothness and enough muscle that you do not miss having a V8 under the bonnet. At the other end of the scale when you demand full throttle to overtake on a country road, or drop the hammer on the autobahn the combustion and electric power combination delivers a convincing enough punch to keep enthusiasts happy.
BMW has done a good job with the chassis too. Hybrid cars often have inferior handling and ride no thanks to their added weight and its distribution. This is not the case here and the air-suspended 4WD chassis is balanced nicely for fast driving, allowing the 745Le to feel quite nimble for a car of its size and weight.
The extra poke from the electric motor is translated into unerring traction that allows you to rocket out of bends even in the wet. It rained on two of the days when we had tenure of this car and the xDrive system provided surefooted grip on some winding country roads and we had no trouble keeping up with the Porsches being driven quite rapidly by some of our friends.
Comfort, performance and refinement are seldom bed-fellows with decent economy, but the 745Le proves that it can be done. The more we drove this car during our week in Southern Germany the more convinced we were of its qualities as a well-rounded package, both from behind the wheel and in the back seat.
The only thing we will never come to terms with is that huge gaping maw up front. Fortunately you don’t see it when you are inside, so we are happy to let it be the concern of others.