Better late than never, as they say. BMW was one of the first manufacturers to leap into the luxury SUV fray with its first-gen X5 back in 1999, yet it’s taken an eternity for the Bavarian brand to dip its toes in the full-size seven-seater segment.

When quizzed on the apparent tardiness, BMW execs say the company had opted to take a step-by-step approach with its SUV expansion program, filling the market niches below the X5 with the X1 through X4 over the past two decades, while also adding the SUV-coupe X6 to its line-up. Consequently, designing and building an X7 was relegated to the back of the queue while the rest of the X family sprouted up.

However, with the prospect of healthy sales in China, the US and the Middle East — where demand for luxo-laden full-size SUVs is robust — this is a segment BMW could no longer ignore. Identifying the Mercedes-Benz GLS, Range Rover and up-spec versions of the Cadillac Escalade, Lexus LX570 and Infiniti QX80 as its key competitors, BMW set about developing an X7 that embodied all the traditional ‘X’ ingredients while adding an extra dose of opulence and techno wizardry in line with its positioning as the flagship of BMW’s SUV range.

Although using the ‘Cluster Architecture’ (CLAR) platform of the latest G05 series X5 as a starting point, the X7’s design brief called for a generous stretch in overall length, wheelbase and height to liberate an interior with enough space to accommodate seven adults, as well as their paraphernalia. I’ll elaborate more on this later, but the 5,151mm long X7 is nothing if not roomy, and its 3,105mm wheelbase and a roofline that tops out at 1,805mm means the cabin feels almost as cavernous as your living room. Throw in a full-length panoramic glass roof and the result is a great sense of airiness in the cabin. And while the X7’s luggage capacity might be a modest 326 litres with all seven seats in situ, that ramps up to a gargantuan 2,120 litres if you fold down the third-row seats.

 

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The initial X7 line-up will comprise xDrive40i and xDrive50i variants when it launches in the UAE in a couple of months — the former is powered by a 3.0-litre turbocharged six-pot, while the latter is propelled by a 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8. The 40i will be priced from Dh496,000, while pricing has yet to be revealed for the 50i (we could speculate it will kick off around Dh600k, but best to watch this space for exact pricing once it’s announced).

There’s no shortage of grunt in either model, as the 40i pushes out 335bhp and 450Nm for a 6.1sec 0-100kph split, while the 50i ups the ante to beefy outputs of 456bhp and 650Nm for 0-100kph dash in a brisk 5.4sec. But more than the raw numbers, it’s the effortless refinement with which the X7 piles on speed that’s most impressive.

Although the turbo powertrains and eight-speed ZF auto transmission might be common to both X5 and X7, the big daddy’s differentiators include standard adaptive dampers, air suspension on front and rear axles… and that grille. The X5 is hardly lacking when it comes to the gob-smacking impact of its oversize grille, but the X7 takes it to a whole new level with the trademark twin-nostril motif embiggened to almost caricature-like proportions.

I have to admit even my initial reaction was “What the…?” when I first laid eyes on the X7’s schnoz but — if you’ll excuse the pun – it grows on you. After I’d spent a full day of scrutinising the X7, both while static and on the move, the grille was no longer a nagging concern, at least in my mind. To put it in perspective, the grille is no larger than the ones worn by the GMC Yukon, Lincoln Navigator or Infiniti QX80, but it’s just that we’re not used to seeing BeeEms with such gaping apertures in the front fascia. It’s a big departure from the marque’s traditional design language.

While on the subject of beaks, BMW design boss Adrian van Hooydonk recently explained to this scribe that large vertical grilles would from now on be a hallmark of the brand’s SUV models, as well as the flagship 7 Series saloon, while sporty offerings — such as the latest Z4 and recently launched 8 Series — would be distinguished by slim-line grilles that stretch horizontally. Van Hooydonk says this is in line with the design team’s aim to move away from the cookie-cutter styling formula that has made several BMW models almost indistinguishable from one another. In any case, these aesthetic matters recede to the back of one’s mind after firing up the engine and clocking up a few kilometres in the X7. The drive route at the international launch would take me from Savannah, Georgia (about 400km from the Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant in the US where the X7 is built) down to the swampy tropical environs of Orlando, Florida. It was a schlep of about 500km but, as luck would have it, I scored an xDrive50i loaded with all the bells and whistles, including optional 22-inch rims, rear-wheel steering, electronic locking rear differential and ‘active roll stabilisation’ – electrically activated anti-roll bars that benefit both ride and handling by tightening up when cornering and loosening up when travelling in a straight line, thereby maximising the suspension’s versatility.

There’s a full 80mm of ride height adjustability via the self-levelling air suspension, as in off-road modes the X7 raises 40mm above the standard setting, while there’s another button in the luggage compartment that activates a loading mode whereby the car lowers by 40mm from the normal ride height, making it easier to heave heavy objects into the cargo bay. Loading is further simplified by an electrically activated two-piece tailgate that’s activated by a button-press (the top section glides up, while the lower half drops down).

If you’ve sat in the new G05 X5, you won’t find any surprises in the X7, as the basic layout is much the same. But, as alluded to earlier, there’s loads more sprawling space, and even the third-row seats are not of the usual token variety. Two normal-sized adults can plonk their frames into the rear-most pews without having to fold themselves in half.  A three-person bench seat is standard fare for the middle row, but ticking an option box gets you a pair of captain’s chairs with arm rests in lieu of the bench. It’s probably the way to go if you don’t need seven seats as this layout also makes access to the third row easier.

 

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Perched behind the wheel, there’s very little to complain about as the seating position is excellent, with a commanding view of the road ahead. Lateral visibility is also good, but the view out the back is limited, so you need to use the rear-view cameras whenever reversing the big wagon. There’s the newest version of iDrive, a snazzy digital gauge cluster, head-up display, and a Siri-like voice-command system that responds to the prompt “Hey BMW!” There’s a ton of standard collision-prevention systems, and lots of optional semi-autonomous driving assists. There are even optional laser headlights that illuminate the road for 500m ahead. My test vehicle was equipped with the optional crystal gear lever, which I find a bit chintzy to look at, but you can arrive at your own conclusions as far as the knob goes.

The X7’s forte is being able to effortlessly eat up miles while taxing the driver little in the process. I kept the twin-turbo V8 percolating at a steady 140kph cruise, and at this clip there’s only the slightest trace of wind rustle from around the A-pillars to disturb the silence. The X7 isn’t as whisper-quiet as a Bentley Bentayga or Range Rover Vogue, but it’s not far off. The BeeEm also doesn’t have the silky-smooth ride of the Bentayga, but it feels a tad more agile and eager to attack corners. It’s obviously no Lamborghini Urus, but the BeeEm feels decently light on its feet for a 2.5-tonne behemoth. As a result, even after eight hours of driving – the last two in heavy traffic as I reached the outskirts of Orlando — I emerged from the cabin relatively refreshed.

Verdict? The X7 delivers everything you’d expect of a full-size premium SUV from BMW, and it seems even the initially polarising effect of that grille won’t hamper its sales prospects — especially in the US and Chinese markets, which will swallow up the vast quota of global volume. It’s no secret motorists in our region warm to such vehicles, too, and why wouldn’t they when we have wide open roads and relatively cheap fuel? That said, the X7 itself is anything but cheap, and its half-million-dirham entry point may be one of the few deterrents for many buyers.