Motoring / Road Test: Even more room at the top: It looks the same, but the BMW 7-series is an improved car, with the emphasis on space and luxury accessories, says James May

Luxury cars evolve slowly, and the new BMW 7-series is no exception. At first sight the model looks exactly like its predecessor, even though this is a completely new car save for the engine and transmission.

Close inspection begins to reveal the differences. The new car is more rakish at the front, stumpier at the back, and the wheels are an inch fatter, giving a more muscular look. The impression is that it is smaller, but in fact it is 1in taller and wider, 3in longer, and 4in more in the wheelbase.

The old model was considered the drivers' choice among luxury cars, and its buyers didn't seem to mind the paucity of standard accessories or the poor rear space. Now, apparently, they place more emphasis on luxury. Those extra inches in the wheelbase mean that there's now decent room in the back: a BMW man admitted to me that the firm's own executives were not keen to be chauffeured in the old model, not only because space was tight but because the rear suspension was a bit noisy. That has been solved with a subframe-mounted system developed from that of the 8-series coupe.

Leather is now standard across the range. Twin airbags are also standard, and you can opt for double glazing and 'comfort' seats featuring a horizontally split backrest for extra adjustment. There's gadgetry aplenty, including BMW's notoriously irksome trip computer. If you decide to have BMW's own phone fitted, it can, like the radio and cruise control, be operated from steering-wheel buttons. Another button on the helm operates the recirculation setting for the air-conditioning. There's even a little motor to pull the boot lid shut for you.

For now there is a choice of two fine V8 engines (the enlarged V12 will be available next February along with long-wheelbase versions). The four-litre 740i is a genuinely quick car whose engine sacrifices some low-end grunt for high-rev vivacity. To my senses, though, the three-litre 730i makes a nicer noise and is plenty fast enough. There's also an excellent five-speed automatic gearbox or five-speed (730i) and six-speed (740i) manual options.

BMW enthusiasts may by now be worried that the 7 has gone soft. I did when first I experienced its steering, which is far too light for my liking. Yet the firmness of the low-speed ride reveals just what you'd expect of a big BMW - that its suspension keeps it remarkably composed on winding, undulating roads and that this is a car you can enjoy driving hard and fast.

BMW's uncharacteristic generosity in equipment seems unnecessary - I could do without the parking radar and the bewildering multifunction remote-control central locking, and I don't believe any executive's time is so valuable that he needs to employ a motor to move the headrest up and down. But the 7-series remains what it always was: an exciting drive and a nice place to be - only better.

COMPARISONS

Audi A8 2.8, pounds 34,499

Revolutionary aluminium body and chassis give light weight and great handling, although this cheaper V6-powered machine is nothing like as good to drive as the V8-powered, four-wheel-drive Quattro A8 - pounds 46,699. V6 A8 is sportier than 730i, but not as well honed.

Jaguar XJ6 4.0 Sovereign, pounds 41,400

Wait another couple of weeks and you will be able to buy a new, and much better, XJ6 - codenamed the X300. It is prettier and better built than the current XJ6 and goes better, too. The current model is not as good to drive as the BMW, but feels more luxurious.

Lexus LS400, pounds 42,863

Bland-looking but still the most mechanically refined car in the world. Pity the cabin is so plasticky. New, improved model comes out early next year.

Mercedes-Benz S280, pounds 38,050

Little-engined version of big Benz: underpowered but superbly made, sublimely comfortable and vastly roomy. Not the sporty(ish) drive that the BMW is, but it's a better car if luxury is your thing.

SPECIFICATIONS

BMW 730i pounds 39,800

3.0-litre V8 engine, 218bhp, five-speed auto or five-speed manual gearbox. Top speed 147mph,

0-60mph 8.3sec. Average fuel consumption 26.9mpg.

(Photograph omitted)

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