2016's Top Ten Tech Cars: BMW 7 Series

Bells and semiautonomous whistles

The BMW 7 Series is the world’s first production car that can operate with no driver aboard, if only to dazzle the neighbors when it eases into your home garage.

It’s more than just a gimmick. Press a button on the remote, with its palm-size LCD readout, and watch the BMW drive itself into a garage or back its way out. With its camera and ultrasonic sensors, the BMW can fit into small or stuffed garages that are too tight to allow opening the car’s doors. This roboparking feature is offered only in Europe for now, but BMW is pressing U.S. regulators for approval.

The car can thrill when you’re behind the wheel, as I discovered on a track test at Monticello Motor Club in New York’s Catskills region. As a riposte to the S-Class, Mercedes’s technical tour de force, BMW’s flagship sedan is faster and sharper handling. It also brings several technical firsts of its own.

One of them is an infrared camera that converts hand signals into action: Twirl a finger in the air to adjust audio volume. Point at the central touch screen to accept an incoming phone call, or wave a haughty hand to dismiss it. Pinch fingers to pan a 360-degree exterior camera view for parking.

And while controlling the many gadgets in some luxury cars can be as enjoyable as a tax audit, the BMW offers a clever back-seat solution. It’s a pop-out Samsung tablet, nicely integrated into an aluminum-framed center console. The Wi-Fi–connected tablet manages just about everything, including a Bowers & Wilkins audio system with 1,400 watts and 16 speakers, and a panoramic roof with 15,000 LEDs forming a starlight pattern. While you’re stargazing, choose one of eight onboard perfume scents, including the water-fresh fragrances of the “Blue Suite” and the woodsy notes in the “Green Suite.” Or you can ionize the atmosphere—especially nice if you are cruising around in polluted China. On the road, as opposed to parking, the driving can be semiautonomous. The BMW will steer itself along highway curves at up to 210 kilometers per hour (130 miles per hour), with hands-free operation for up to 15 seconds—at which point the car flashes an alert to get you back into the loop.

BMW, whose electrified i3 and i8 pioneered the carbon-fiber chassis in mass-produced cars, follows up on the 7 Series with what it calls carbon-core construction. The company says it’s the first production car to bond carbon fiber with both steel and aluminum. The woven fiber forms the 7 Series’ central tunnel, roof pillars, and other components, stiffening the structure and melting away some 135 kilograms (300 pounds) versus the previous edition, getting down to a svelte 1,915 kg (4,225 pounds) for the 740i version.

Crank up to the 750i version and you get a new 4.4-liter V-8 with dual turbochargers that nestle cleverly between the cylinder banks for an especially compact engine and maximum thermal efficiency.

An active version of BMW’s famous twin-kidney front grille opens only when cooling air is needed, reducing drag. Active electric four-wheel steering turns the rear wheels opposite the fronts for a remarkably tight low-speed turning radius; then, it steers four wheels in tandem to boost stability and confidence at autobahn speeds. And both robust cornering and comfy cruising are aided by a satellite-based navigation system that adjusts the air suspension, including blissful bump absorption whenever it knows there are no curves ahead.

For those who’d rather save fuel than burn it, a forthcoming plug-in hybrid version will charge up on the home BMW i Wallbox; BMW says it will cover 37 km (23 miles) on electricity alone at up to 120 km/h (75 mph). Slated to become the first four-cylinder luxury flagship sedan ever sold in America, the 740e xDrive gets its urge from an efficient 2.0-liter turbo with a boost from an electric motor integrated into the eight-speed transmission.

All that tech doesn’t come cheap. But this 7 Series impresses whether you’re sitting in the front seat or in back. Or even watching it park itself.