A prestige car for a cash-rich market

Wed, Jul 25, 2012, 01:00

FIRST DRIVE BMW7 SERIES:IN A COUNTRY where it is not unusual for someone to walk into a car dealership and buy a new car in exchange for a bag of cash and where cars of almost every brand are selling in huge numbers, it is small wonder that the world’s car manufacturers are circling the Russian market with determination, in particular the luxury car makers.

The deep troubles evident in the rest of Europe are not reflected there – as the gulf between the haves and the have-nots grows, so too do the sizeable profits shared by big companies from Range Rover, Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Ferrari even, to Ford, Hyundai and Kia. Side by side with cars that have had body repairs done by the owner at home (masking tape is very common) are the Range Rover Evoques, the BMW 5 and 7 Series models and the Audi Q7s.

BMW, for example, allocated 1,500 cars to its Russian subsidiary for this year, 70 per cent of which were sold before the end of June. It has also opened Europe’s first M Sport dealership just outside St Petersburg, where sports versions of its standard models retail for between €76,000 and more than €200,000. According to Eugen Korner, who heads its sales team, customers there range from a 24-year-old IT professional who bought his car for cash to a 60-year-old businessman who came to buy an M5 but changed his mind upon encountering a younger man interested in the same car. He later left behind the wheel of an M6. Irish BMW dealers may have seen some eyebrow-raising deals during the boom, but they never saw anything like this.

Russian car buyers aspire more to a prestige car than they do to a prestige holiday or home, according to local market experts, and those who buy executive or luxury cars insist on three things: leather upholstery, wood trims and metallic paint, all preferably in dark colours. And they pay handsomely. That is why BMW recently launched its revamped 7 Series in St Petersburg. It was an opportunity to significantly raise its profile on the local market with a flagship event.

In truth, the 7 Series has not changed significantly for its latest incarnation, at least not at first glance. The 7 is ageing well and, without an over-abundance of lines, it is well defined enough. Like Audi, there is much emphasis on LED headlights, which are now incorporated into the circular design but probably only noticeable at night. The traditional kidney grille has been revised and there are now nine slats instead of 12. All subtle changes that won’t upset anyone but will only challenge the eagle-eyed BMW expert.

Much attention has been paid to the interior, with an eye on the competition from Audi and Mercedes – all of the German giants fight fiercely competitive battles in the leading markets of the US, China, South Korea, Germany, the Middle East and so on. Now with the revised 7 Series customers are being wooed with new leather seats with lumbar support but, more revealingly, it is the rear seat passengers who get the most improvements. The 7 Series is, after all, more often a car to be driven in than to drive.

A new rear-seat entertainment package includes a 9.2-inch flatscreen monitor that displays everything normally shown on the front area screen and there is a self-levelling suspension system at the rear axle to ensure maximum comfort. There are also acres of room in the rear, with head and legroom extended for a unique experience.

Engines in cars like this (apart from their capacity) are an academic subject. They need to be huge to carry the weight and they need to be quiet, but economy does not really enter the equation. Even the hybrid 7 version offers no really impressive consumption, coming in an as it does with a saving of about maybe 10 per cent or so over the 5-litre petrol version.

The range begins with the 3-litre diesel and petrol versions and continues on into the 4- , 5- and 6-litre range. The impressive six-cylinder diesel version was not available to us and both the 5-litre petrol and 3-litre hybrid versions proved more interesting than strictly relevant. There is also the question of the relevance of the 7 Series on the Irish market – it will sell perhaps a dozen. The truth these days is, even if people can afford a car like the 7, they fear the opprobrium it may bring.

It is nevertheless quite a package. It is quiet and refined, as would be expected, and BMW has gone all out to cram it with everything in its technical and safety arsenal. Cruise control, an eight-speed gearbox that can whoosh the car with ease, brake energy regeneration, ECO Pro fuel saving, a stop-and-go starting function, pedestrian recognition technology, lane departure warning and an endless stream of information about the car and its performance are all features.

The driver now has a 10.2-inch screen and the instrument panel has high-resolution 3D graphics to complete the impression of technical advancement.

Given the prices for the new 7 Series, all of the above may sound far removed from the Irish market. And that is because it is. But when it comes to a car like this, BMW does not really see markets like Ireland on the horizon. It is far more interested in continuing to exploit the markets where “high-net-worth individuals” (there were said to be more than 12 million in the world worth more than $1 million in 2010) are most likely to be found. Companies like BMW have already found them and this car is designed to coax them into parting with more of their cash.

It doesn’t matter if it comes in plastic bags.


ENGINESEntry-level 3-litre diesel produces 258HP and is followed by a range of diesel and petrol options of 4-, 5- and 6-litre capacity with up to 544HP. The Active Hybrid produces 320 horse power, complemented by a 55 HP motor.

FUEL CONSUMPTION3-litre diesel is said to be capable of 5.65 litres per 100km (just over 50 MPG) in its efficient dynamics set-up

EMISSIONSStarting at 148g/km for basic diesel, up to 314 for largest petrol. Entry-level tax band C (€330)

PRICESFrom €88,200 to €192,260 for September launch

VERDICT8/10 for novelty and for the engineering that provides such low emissions and fuel economy in the entry level version of such a large car

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