It has taken a while — pretty much 20 years — but finally BMW is going to have a crack at tackling the Range Rover conundrum head-on. It was 1999 when BMW made its first foray into the SUV marketplace with the X5, a vehicle that, along with its closely related X6 sibling, has sold more than two million units worldwide.

And BMW wasn’t that slow in recognising the commercial success, following up the X5 with the smaller X3 in 2003, before also adding the X1, the X4 and the X2 to its portfolio, in order to fill in all the gaps in the sequence. However, that still leaves the X5 as the biggest, most practical and most luxurious of the BMW SUV offering, what with its ‘5+2’ seating arrangement and array of powerful engines. Nevertheless, for some buyers, the X5 is not opulent enough, certainly not in a world that now contains SUVs from brands with the cachet of Maserati, Porsche, Bentley and Rolls-Royce.

 

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Thus, BMW has at last got around to doing what it always intended to do, once it had launched the X5 in the very last embers of the old millennium: that is, to make a bigger SUV than its long-reigning flagship. Here, then, is the BMW X7, and while that numbering neatly places it atop the pre-existing six SUV lines BMW already has, it also pertains to two more facts. One, BMW reckons the X7 is like ‘a 7 Series in SUV form’. And two, it encapsulates the number of full-sized seats on board; seven, in a 2-3-2 formation as standard. Rather ruining the numerical tidiness of BMW’s newest high-riding machine, though, there’s an option to have six seats instead, the middle row going from a bench to a pair of captain’s chairs that are actually the front seats from the forthcoming BMW 8 Series GT.

The X5 will continue to come with a seven-seat option, but whereas its rear-most two chairs are mere occasional-use items, BMW has put real effort into making the six and seventh occupants of the X7 feel like they’re not in the cheap seats. There’s definitely enough room for two six-foot adults right back there, even with the middle row in a normal position (where all three seats have acres of legroom), while two panoramic sunroofs, one big and one small, ensure light floods into all corners of the massive cabin.

 

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Beyond that, we can’t talk much about the visuals. BMW allowed us to drive the big SUV around six months before it will hit global showrooms, so the 5.1-metre-long exterior was swathed in eye-twisting grid-like camo markings and the interior had lots of black cloth obscuring all the main surfaces. What we do know is that the styling is pretty impressive at masking the bulk of the X7, as it doesn’t seem physically gigantic when standing next to it, and inside there are new digital displays, including the largest iDrive infotainment screen for the seventh (there’s that number again) iteration of BMW’s brilliant in-car software and also a new digital instrument cluster.

Elsewhere in the world, BMW will launch the 2,300kg X7 with a couple of diesel engines, but we’re going to concentrate on the petrol models. Continuing its coy behaviour, BMW would only say that these would be ‘turbocharged six- and eight-cylinder units’. Extrapolating from what’s already in service in the German manufacturer’s fleet, that means a c.340bhp/500Nm twin-turbo straight-six for the xDrive40i and then a c.456bhp/650Nm twin-turbo V8 in the xDrive50i. While it would neither be confirmed nor denied by officials on-hand at our pre-drive, there’s the intriguing thought that any M-badged variant might use the 6.6-litre V12 biturbo from the M760Li, while it is almost 99 per cent certain that a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) will follow the launch models — the X7 sits on the ‘Clar’ chassis, which is ready for electrification. If a PHEV X7 does come, it will, as with the 7 Series, be the only four-cylinder model we’ll get in this part of the world.

 

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All X7s get twin-axle adaptive air suspension, a new, faster-acting xDrive four-wheel-drive system, an eight-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox sourced from ZF and Gesture Control inside. Options will include Integral Active Steering (BMW-speak for four-wheel steer), an active anti-roll bar system and a Sport exhaust. Finally, one confirmed spec item we do know: the X7 will be the first BMW in history to come with the option of 22-inch alloy wheels.

We sampled a variety of prototype X7s in the USA, which is where this leviathan SUV will be built, and they had (variously) all or some combination of the chassis options above. Our preferred choice is for the fully-laden variant, with the active anti-roll and the four-wheel steering. Thus equipped, the X7 is remarkably nimble for such a large vehicle. It turns in keenly, corners flat, has mammoth traction and also has a real feeling of exciting handling, backed up — in the form of the twin-turbo V8 — with a really potent, smooth and fantastic motor that provides rapid performance.

The ‘standard’ trim X7s are excellent too, though, because for all the BMW handling traits, the company said its aim was to make its new flagship SUV luxurious and comfortable first and foremost, and then good in the corners as a pleasant bonus. Judged by that yardstick, and with the car only ’80 per cent’ finalised ahead of launch in early 2019, you have to say the X7 should be a phenomenal success. Already, the sumptuousness of its ride quality and the totalitarianism of its noise suppression is proof that the five-seat-only Range Rover ought to be very, very worried indeed.

It might have taken BMW a while to surpass the X5/X6 with the X7, but now it’s almost here, we can definitely say the grandiose SUV was worth the lengthy wait.