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Click to view picture gallery“You might look at
  BMW’s long-wheelbase
  7 Series and think it
  looks impressive.
  But drive a turbo-
  diesel 730Ld for a week
  and you’ll be thinking
  ‘Magnificent Seven’.
  And you most definitely
  won’t want to give
  it back...”

IN AN EVER EXPANDING world everything, it seems, is getting smaller. Take, for example, the iDrive system that has replaced countless knobs and buttons on many BMW models with menus on a screen operated by just one control knob. Conversely, while most of the technology fitted inside today's cars is shrinking, their bodies are growing bigger.

When the current generation of BMW's 7 Series first appeared out of Chris Bangle's design hat just a year into the Millennium, its styling came in for quite a bit of criticism. Although by all accounts a lot of people bought one. However, following its recent and very well-considered mid-life facelift, it's now an altogether more fanciable proposition. Better still, it's bigger.

In long-wheelbase guise, as tested here, it measures an imposing 5.2 metres (17 feet) long. Surprisingly, the extra inches — added solely
to increase the already generous leg-room of the standard car —
have created a graceful body style that is enhanced by the re-profiled, swept back front lights and wider kidney grilles and the visually soft-ened twin-layer boot. Finished in metallic black, our test car exuded palpable on-road presence. Size is everything.

Why did we choose to test the 730 diesel? Quite simply, the 730d has always been the most popular choice for UK 7 Series buyers. And for some very good reasons.

The latest six-cylinder 3.0-litre diesel engine powering the 730d models is a real gem. As well as more efficient piezo injectors and the latest-generation turbocharger, it also makes use of an aluminium block and weighs 20kgs less than its predecessor. All of which is good news for performance as well as economy.

With a power output of 231bhp at 4,000rpm and peak torque of 384lb ft available from 2,000 to 2,750rpm, the 2,993cc unit delivers smooth and responsive acceleration. Power is transmitted to the rear wheels via a six-speed Steptronic auto 'box which the driver can alternate between standard, sports or manual modes depending on requirements. Performance is also impressive, with 0-62mph taking just 7.8 seconds and a top speed of 149mph. Squeeze the accelerator and the in-line six revs smoothly and cleanly all the way to its red-line. Economy is equally impressive — especially given that the 730Ld weighs in at 1,940kgs. The official combined consumption figure is 34.5mpg. But while town driving should see 25mpg, long extra-urban runs can return as much as 44.1mpg. Extraordinarily good, considering this is a large, substantially-built and luxuriously-equipped motor car.

If you think a long-wheelbase car such as the 730Ld is purely for people who like to lounge in the back and be driven by somebody wearing a peaked cap, then think again. The 730Ld will appeal to discerning owner-drivers looking for luxury transport with plenty of space and low running costs.

When you spend this much on a car, you expect superb accommod-ation and first-class ambience. Sit in the 730Ld and you're assured of both. Build quality is faultless. All four seats are supremely comfortable and the interior décor is first-rate. With the iDrive having removed the need for banks of switches, those that remain are neatly laid out and easy to find. Chrome bezels to some of the control knobs are a subtly elegant reminder of BMW's thorough attention to detail.

Even the single-fob electronic 'key' is a delight: smartly-made with individually-shaped alloy buttons for each different function, it 'docks' into a slot in the fascia to the left of the steering column. Starting (and stopping) is then accomplished at the touch of a button. Other nice features include the sliding lids on the pair of front cup-holders ahead of the iDrive controller. Not only are they neat, but they open and close with an engineered precision. Alternatively, they make perfect storage bins. And you won't need to worry about somewhere to store oddments or your sunglasses as there are two satisfyingly-damped slide-out trays in the lower half of the wide centre stack.

Electric adjusters for the supportive front seats are sited on the seat-facing edges of the broad centre arm rest, which features handy and efficient split 'butterfly' pop-up lids. The multi-section storage is cooled by the A/C. The seats are multi-adjustable with memory, as is the steering column, which also features an automatic Easy Entry/Exit function. As you would expect, a perfect driving position is attainable in seconds. The three-stage seat heating is brilliant, with full heat in seconds — and it reaches all the way up to the top of your back. The temperature distribution pattern can also be customised via iDrive for your own personal mix of seat cushion and seat back heating. The rear view mirror is auto-dimming, as are the power fold-back door mirrors. Once in the driver's seat you feel an integral part of the car.

A cleverly-integrated cover in the fascia just above the glovebox houses the 6-CD magazine (there's also a 6-CD/DVD magazine in the boot). Close to this is a miniature pop-out 'phone key-pad. Alternatively, voice dialling is on the menu. Voice control can also be used for recording (and reading out) messages and for managing the navigation and entertainment. More welcome touches include the pleasant double-chord audible warning if, for example, you forget to turn something off, the ability to check the oil level without opening the bonnet, an easy-to-set speed limit reminder and stepless 'braked' doors that stay open in any position you leave them.

Pride of place dead-centre of the top of the fascia is the 8.8-inch iDrive colour display screen, which functions as the high-tech command and control centre for numerous functions including the on-board computer, telecommunications, entertainment and the Professional grade SatNav which, incidentally, is a cinch to use. Directly in front of the driver are two crystal-clear main dials: 160mph speedometer to
the left; rev-counter, red-lined at 4,400rpm, to the right.

Fitting the iDrive knob where the gearlever would normally be has entailed the rearrangement of other controls; specifically the selector lever and the handbrake. The parking brake is now button-operated and you can, should you wish, programme it via the iDrive to auto-matically apply itself whenever the car stops and release when you press the accelerator. The parking brake, incidentally, works on both the front and rear discs, making it far more effective in an emergency than a traditional handbrake. Another button activates auto-hold to prevent the car rolling back on a hill. All clever stuff, and surprisingly useful.

The transmission is controlled electronically by a small selector lever set high on the right-hand side of the steering column. Selecting P, R, N or D is easy: nudge the stalk up for Reverse; down for Drive and press the end for Park. Selecting reverse automatically brings up the foolproof parking display on the screen and auto-dips the passenger mirror to show the near-side kerb. With accurate colour-coded displays for each corner, parking is straightforward. Another button on the three-spoke multi-function steering wheel cycles the transmission through fully-automatic, manual and sport modes.

Rectangular buttons — at the ten- and two o'clock positions on the front of the steering wheel rim and at nine and three o'clock on the reverse of the steering wheel 'T' bar — let you manually change gear while in Manual mode. The front buttons are for downshifts; the back buttons for upshifts. Like the iDrive, these call for a little acclimatis-ation before you're working them without thinking. However, use them every day and it all quickly becomes second nature.

Which brings us neatly to the question of dynamic ability. Making a big car handle and ride with composure is a tricky business. Yet BMW has managed it with the 730Ld. As well as riding serenely it can hit the benchmark 62mph in under 8 seconds and, in spite of its physical size and near 2-tonne weight, it feels agile on twisty B-roads.

True to its luxury limousine persona, the 730 is content to waft around town or lope up the motorway — 75mph at just 1,750rpm in sixth — soaking up the bumps and cosseting passengers in the lap of luxury, surrounded by top-notch safety and entertainment equipment, and all the while remaining uncannily smooth and quiet. But, given half a chance, it can play sporty saloon with surprising conviction. Use the iDrive to adjust the damper settings: the Comfort setting allows the most suspension travel, while Sport provides sharper handling and tighter body control without sacrificing ride comfort. Then take full control at the helm with the sequential finger-shifting buttons.

You'll be shocked. The 730Ld belies its size, its polished chassis blend-ing a smooth ride with responsive and rewarding roadholding that lets
it flow fluently through bends with real composure. Our test car was fitted with the optional ten-spoke 19-inch 'Star-Spoke' pattern alloy wheels shod with 275/40 Michelin Pilot Primacy tyres. Not only do they provide excellent physical grip but, remarkably, generate minimal road noise.

The speed-sensitive steering is as accurate as you'd expect of a BMW and the feedback enables you to place the long-wheelbase car's not insignificant bulk accurately on the road. The leather rim is comfortably slim, with neat cut-outs just below the shifting buttons where your thumbs rest — and makes for tireless steering. In spite of its length, the 730Ld even managed a painless three-point turn in the country lane outside my home.

The prospect of long journeys in the 730Ld is more than welcoming. Partly this is down to the 730d's core characteristics: a soothing ride, high-speed body composure and the bottomless well of torque from
the diesel unit. But it also owes much to the on-board entertainment that includes a top-grade audio system with MP3 compatibility — in conjunction with the six-disc CD changer, this offers a near 1,000
song catalogue. Back seat passengers not only enjoy self-levelling suspension (standard fitment at the rear on long-wheelbase cars) and generous leg room (approximately 17 inches between the front seat back and the forward edge of the rear seat with a footrest provided) but, if the £2,450 rear entertainment package is fitted, they can enjoy DVDs and digital TV on their own dedicated rearward-facing iDrive screen mounted between the front seats. They can even check on their journey's progress by consulting the driver's SatNav map.

If you're lucky enough to be sitting in the back of a 730Ld, you'll appreciate the sense of occasion. Take it for granted, too, that as a rear passenger you'll not only have masses of space, but also have your own personal seat adjustment and heating and air-conditioning controls, as well as a powered rear screen sunblind. Getting from
A to B doesn't get much easier than this. BMW says the boot will accommodate four golf bags — crossways. We didn't get to try it, but it certainly looks big enough.

The 7 Series comes with a full quota of passive and active safety equipment. There are driver and passenger airbags (dual stage, impact dependent) with head and side airbags front and rear plus deformation zones fore and aft. Bumpers regenerate to their original shape after impacts of up to 4mph. In addition there are force limiters for all belts along with a full complement of hi-tech stability-, traction- and braking systems. The brakes, by the way, have good 'feel' and deliver truly impressive stopping, hauling the 730 back down from high speed with real authority.

SE specification and above 7 Series cars get two unique features: Breakdown Call and Emergency Call. In the event of a breakdown
or accident you press a button and the car dials a call centre that responds to the incident. If there's an accident that deploys the airbags and none of the occupants can press the roof-mounted SOS button, the intelligent system automatically dials the emergency services and send the car's location via the SatNav system. Other useful safety-slanted equipment includes front and rear Park Distance Control, brake lights with LED technology, automatic anti-dazzle rear-view and side door mirrors, rain sensing wipers with automatic head-light activation, headlight wash and heated screen washers, multi-level cruise control and Xenon lights.

Few cars at any price give you as much as the long-wheelbase Seven. It's got class, it's got style, it's beautifully built, is lavishly fitted
out, comfortable to travel in, damn quick and satisfying to drive. And
it comes with all the high-tech kit you could ever want — much of it impressively advanced. True, there are faster four-seater luxury expresses — you need look no further than the rest of the 7 Series range. But, and especially for the money, the 730Ld is the pick of the bunch.

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BMW 730Ld SE
| £53,475
Maximum speed: 149mph | 0-62mph: 7.8 seconds
Overall test MPG: 31mpg | Power: 231bhp | Torque: 384lb ft

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