It may not be the sportiest or the best-selling car in BMW’s lineup, but the 7-Series is still the brand’s flagship in some very real ways. It’s often overlooked by enthusiasts, overshadowed by the performance of the M5, or the gorgeous looks of BMW’s sports cars, but for nearly 40 years, the 7-Series has been the company’s bulwark against the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Jaguar XJ, and Audi A8, and it’s done remarkably well.
It’s the tech-laden alternative to the opulent Mercedes, the traditional Jag, and the stylish Audi. It’s a full-size executive car that BMW has always made sure lives up to its Ultimate Driving Machine standards. This week, the company unveiled the latest car to carry the 7-Series mantle, and from the outset, it looks like it’s more than capable to handle the job. The design of the new car (pictured above) may not be exactly groundbreaking, but underneath its conservative styling lies a technological marvel that has officially put its world-class rivals on notice.
From the chic ’70s E23 to the next-generation G11, here’s a brief look at the evolution of BMW’s ultra-luxury flagship.
1. 1977-1986 E23 7-Series
Introduced five years after the 5-Series, and two after the 3-Series, the E23 7-Series joined the BMW lineup as its most modern attempt to date at an executive car. Compared to the baroque Mercedes S-Class, it was a sports car, and next to contemporary American cars, it was a spaceship. In its day, the E23 was as cutting-edge as you could get, with anti-lock brakes, onboard computers, a fuel-injected straight six, and later on, an optional driver’s side airbag. It may not have been the sales success that later cars would be, but the clean lines and luxurious athleticism of the first 7-Series set the tone for the next two generations of big BMWs.
2. 1986-1994 E32 7-Series
The E23 may have been able to keep up with the world’s best, but with the E32, BMW was aiming for luxury car supremacy. The result of seven years of development, the second generation 7-Series was one of the most beautiful cars of the era, and laden with technology that would take years to reach lesser models. On top of ultra-luxury options like a car phone, fax machine, double-glazed glass, and a wine cooler, the E32 could also be had with electronic stability control, a V12 engine borrowed from the 850i coupe, and after 1991, the world’s first Xenon high-intensity headlights. The E32 shared its minimalist good looks with the smaller E34 5-Series, and it handled just as well, easily putting its full-size competitors to shame in the performance department.
3. 1994-2001 E38 7-Series
Considered by many to be the greatest 7-Series of all-time, the E38 carried on the tradition of blending technology, performance, and luxury like the older models – it just did them all better. It’s clean, modern looks were cutting edge, yet remaining true to BMW’s classic design language, and its wide, low-slung stance made it handle like no executive car that ever came before. Its exceptional performance and good looks even made it a movie star, with major roles in The Transporter, and the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. With features like an active suspension, navigation system, and more than enough power, the E38 feels ageless 21 years after its debut, and has become the standard against which all other 7-Series are judged.
4. 2001-2008 E65/E66/E67/E68 7-Series
Few Bimmers are as infamous as the E65-E68 7-Series. Known as the “Bangle Cars” after BMW’s then-design chief Chris Bangle, his rounded avant-garde styling language sent 7-Series buyers into a panic, and sales of remaining the E38 cars skyrocketed after the new car was released. The E65 was laden with more cutting-edge tech than any BMW ever built, but it led to a host of problems from engine timing to the completely baffling first-generation iDrive infotainment system. The electrical gremlins and polarizing styling – critics called the car’s odd bustle-back rear end the “Bangle Butt” – effectively poisoned the fourth-generation car’s legacy, but BMW’s constant tinkering with the car did eventually pay off. By the time production ended in 2008, it had become the best-selling 7-Series of all-time.
5. 2009-2015 F01/F02 7-Series
After the polarizing looks of the Bangle-era 7 Series, BMW went conservative with the F01 cars. The fifth generation 7-Series never quite earned the breathless praise of the E38, but its fantastic combination of luxury, tech, and athleticism made it a true heir to the 7-Series line, and it’s still one of the best executive sedans on the market today. Offered with the available all-wheel drive xDrive system, head up display, and a host of other gadgets, BMW ironed out the kinks from the Bangle cars and restored the 7-Series’ reputation as the car of choice for tech-obsessed luxury buyers. In 2010, BMW added the ActiveHybrid 7 to the lineup, making it the first full-size hybrid in the company’s history.
6. 2016 G11 7-Series
With the next-generation 7-Series, BMW is staying conservative in the styling department and letting its tech do the talking. The G11 is built on the new 35up platform, which will underpin every sedan in the BMW lineup from the 3-Series up. It’s also the first mass market car to utilize carbon fiber reinforced plastic structural elements, helping the car shed nearly 300 pounds while growing an inch over the outgoing model. Inside, it’s the first production vehicle to offer gesture control to for the infotainment system, along with “Remote Control Parking,” a feature that BMW says allows the car to “manoeuvre (sic) itself in and out of the garage or a parking lot, without the driver behind the wheel.” It may not have the timeless looks of the first three generations, but the G11 could be the most forward-looking 7-Series of all-time.