BMW, the Bavarian company built on a reputation of driving dynamics, has completed one of its biggest challenges to date: the development of a huge, three-row SUV that still drives like a BMW.
The 2019 BMW X7 easily becomes the biggest beast in the BMW lineup. Offered as a six- or seven-passenger SUV, it was designed to keep customers from heading to other automakers when they want a full-size family vehicle. Despite having a seven-seat option, at best the X5 is really a 5+2 and will remain so until the introduction of the X7 as the true 7-seater.
When it goes on sale in the first quarter of 2019, the X7 will join one of the most profitable segments of the market – especially so in the lucrative U.S., China, Russia and the Middle East. The X7 will also be sold in parts of Europe but its sheer size makes navigating the Continent’s narrow rural roads a harrowing experience. It is late to the big-SUV party in the U.S., but it could still account for 40-50 percent of the brand’s global sales.
BMW first showed the X7 as a concept at the 2017 Frankfurt auto show where its sheer mass was almost off-putting, and the kidney grille downright intimidating. The production model is expected to be shown in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which is roughly the time production models will start rolling off the line at the Spartanburg, S.C., plant that will be the sole source of the SUV.
Motor Trend was invited to an early test drive of prototypes wrapped in camouflage, with yards of felt covering interior features. So we will tell you all we can, with the proviso that we did not see or experience everything and that these were early builds, subject to change and improvement prior to sale.
New architecture key
The secret to the new X7 is that it rides on the same CLAR flexible architecture that underpins rear-drive cars from the 3 Series to 7 Series and the rear-drive SUVs from the latest X3 to X7. Only the current X5 is not on the new platform but it migrates over with the next-generation X5 coming soon.
Putting X7 on CLAR makes many things possible. It is engineered for a more diverse driving experience from Comfort to Sport as well as off-road capability. CLAR also has the electrical wherewithal to offer more features, many of them driver assist and other safety systems, as well as more advanced connectivity. Sharing underpinnings makes it possible to build the X7 in the Spartanburg plant that also makes the X3, X4, X5, and X6 – which should promote quality while using economies of scale to help reduce cost and keep pricing reasonable.
BMW put its best guys on the X7, a divergence from the usual practice of having a mix of senior engineers mentoring their juniors who are still learning. It is a testament to the importance of getting this vehicle right.
The uptick from X5 to X7 largely parallels the bump from 5 Series to 7 Series. The U.S. will get the 3.0-liter turbocharged I-6 inline-six gas engine that generates 320 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque in the 7 Series and the 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 (445 hp/480 lb-ft in the 7 Series). BMW is not yet revealing horsepower or torque figures but engineers say the engines have been updated and optimized for the X7. Europe gets two versions of the 3.0-liter turbodiesel. There are no plans to offer a diesel in the U.S. All are mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission that has been improved to shift faster and use less fuel.
No diesel or 4-cyl. for U.S. but plug-in hybrid expected
A plug-in hybrid is expected but will not be available at launch. The idea is still the subject of some debate, given that China does not like hybrids. A four-cylinder also makes sense for China, but would not be offered in the U.S. What makes more sense is a V-12 but there has been no confirmation yet. And no talk of an X7 M, although there will be an M performance package offered. Also, there are no plans yet for a coupe (X8) unless there is customer demand, executives say.
The I-6 is the engine BMW has in mind for the U.S. market. Even in a vehicle likely to tip 5,000 pounds, it provides nice, even, smooth acceleration. It is pleasing to listen to, reminding you there is ample power, although not as blunt as the louder and more audacious V-8. Exhaust notes are a combination of the real thing and some sound enhancement.
When the I-6 is not working hard, it is remarkably quiet; sometimes drowned out by some errant wind noise over the hulking X7 body. If the goal is a soothing and comfortable five-hour drive with the family, this engine does the job nicely. The one we drove had 22-inch wheels wearing 315/35 R22 Continental Premium Contact SSR tires.
The V-8 prototype had 21-inch wheels shod with Pirelli P Zero 285/45 R21 Pirelli P Zero tires. The X7 will offer a choice of 20-, 21-, and 22-inch wheels. The V-8 felt and sounded more powerful but somehow the vehicle also felt bigger on the road than the one with the I-6, not ideal in a segment where the goal is to feel smaller and more agile.
Air suspension standard
Like the 7 Series, the 2019 X7 will have a two-axle air suspension standard on all trim levels and body height adjusts up or down 3.1 inches in total. By contrast, the base X5 has steel springs front and back. Also standard on the X7 is Dynamic Damper Control to sop up the road’s imperfections.
The big SUV has BMW’s Integral Active Steering (or X Steer). It felt vague in testing of the 7 Series sedan, and the sensation carries over into our first drive of the X7. It does its job holding a straight line well, but there is no excitement transmitted via the fingertips. It did feel more agile than the vehicles we tried with only two-wheel steering.
We applaud the differentiation between drive modes. Sport lowers the SUV by 0.4 inch, tightens the steering, and immediately raises the decibels on the engine sounds coming into the cabin. Body roll is noticeably reduced in Sport, but on bad stretches of road, the suspension is too stiff and rear-seat passengers feel the bumps the most. Put lids on those sippy cups.
Comfort mode did a much better job of smoothing out the chatter on uneven surfaces and sopping up the bigger bumps on bad pavement. Adaptive mode detects where and how you are driving and adjusts the throttle accordingly. In Eco Pro mode, the suspension stays in comfort, the throttle essentially goes dead, the vehicle finds its glide path and dials down the air conditioning. The dash graphics turn blue and show mpg and battery info—info you will want when a hybrid is added to the lineup.
All-wheel drive is rear-focused for better steering and cornering but it is a stretch to describe this huge SUV as playful. But the X7 was designed to go off-road. There are terrain modes for sand, gravel, and rock—but not snow. Active anti-roll bars and a limited-slip differential are optional. The off-road package includes more robust skid pads and rear axle lock. We tested the mettle in an off-road park where the X7 did surprisingly well on a packed mud course that articulated the wheels off the ground in places.
Expect a full suite of safety and driver assist systems that brake, steer, and accelerate, with a vibrating steering wheel to warn you when you drift out of the lane. Also likely to appear: an optional camera to monitor the driver’s eyes for signs of fatigue or inattention, especially with autonomous features.
Much of the interior was covered in felt on these prototypes. But in one top-end trim model the gear shift was exposed and, to our surprise, it was trimmed with Swarovski crystal. Also uncovered: the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and a second 12.3-inch touchscreen. The X7 has the latest iDrive, a new head up display, rear seat entertainment and connections for gamers and other devices. The sound for the turn signal comes out of the speakers, not the dash.
The X&’s front seats are exclusive to this model—fully adjustable, heated, cooled and offering a massage en route. The 7-passenger version has a bench in the second row, but those who opt for the six-passenger configuration get a second row with the front seats borrowed from the 8 Series, but wider and more comfortable. The third row is also exclusive to the X7, not surprising given this is the first true third row in the lineup. It works for adults but with little room to spare—best to keep the kids back there. And although the second row slides easily to crawl to the back, it is as awkward as every other three row in the segment. All seats can be folded up and down with buttons accessed from the back cargo loading area.
The X7 has a slick two-piece tailgate. Push a button to open just the top or customize it to open top and bottom simultaneously. It can also be opened with the swish of a foot under the rear bumper. Running boards are available and a standard panoramic sunroof provides sunlight for all three rows.
Exact dimensions have not been released but the X7 is about 201 inches long, 79 inches wide and 71 inches high. Weight is about 5,070 pounds. The most direct competition is the Mercedes-Benz GLS that is reaching the end of its lifecycle, the Audi Q7, the Infiniti QX80 which was recently refreshed, and the Lexus LX 570. Even though BMW does not see American automakers as competition, BMW should be wary of the new Lincoln Navigator. BMW expects some 7 Series customers will migrate to the X7, and some X5 buyers will trade up, but the target is conquest buyers.
We are a long way from learning pricing but the 7 Series will remain the priciest vehicle in the portfolio as long as it has the 601-hp 6.6-liter V-12. But if the day comes that the X7 gets the V-12, the price mantle could shift.