Car Reviews First Drives

2020 BMW 745e Plug-In Hybrid First Drive: Big Grille Bimmer

Behind the wheel of BMW’s updated flagship sedan

Behind the wheel of BMW’s updated flagship sedan

No matter what Tesla claims, only one full-size luxury sedan rivalry matters in the North America—Mercedes-Benz S-Class versus BMW 7 Series. The Audi A8? It barely outsold the Jaguar XJ last year and lost out to the Genesis G90. Regardless of how good a car it is, the other two are in a different league sales-wise.

Unfortunately for BMW, over the last several years, the 7 Series’ longstanding rivalry with the S-Class has been more UGA-Georgia Tech than UGA-Bama—year after year, the S-Class keeps winning. Now that there’s a new 7 Series, will BMW be able to close the gap?

First of all, know that the 2020 BMW 7 Series received a midcycle refresh, not a full redesign. A completely different car won’t arrive for another couple years. Second, don’t judge the updated styling until you actually see it in person. I was skeptical of the larger grille when we started seeing spy shots of camouflaged prototypes, and the official images reinforced my opinion that the massive grille was more twin-lung than twin-kidney. But I was wrong.

The 2020 7 Series still isn’t as beautiful as the Jaguar XJ. When viewed from a more normal angle, though, the grille doesn’t look nearly as out of place. Maybe the jet lag was messing with my eyes, but I think I like the design better than the current one. It adds road presence without being as in your face as the Lexus LS.

In profile, the refreshed BMW is more sculpted, making the 7 Series’ look a bit more athletic. As for the vents behind the front wheels, they’re now vertical, which should put a stop to Jonny Lieberman’s hockey-stick comparisons. Around back, it’s more of the same, just styled a little differently.

Inside, you’ll have to hunt to find any changes. An updated version of iDrive includes a cloud-connected digital assistant for better voice recognition and a redesigned digital gauge cluster, but that’s about it. Those updates probably won’t win over any new fans, but they will make the ownership experience more enjoyable.

Perhaps the most notable change BMW made was to the version I drove—the 745e xDrive plug-in hybrid. The old four-cylinder engine was dropped in favor of an inline-six that boosts total system output to 389 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque, 67 hp and 73 lb-ft more than before. BMW says that’s enough to hit 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. For the plug-in hybrid version of a luxury flagship, that’s pretty quick.

If you punch it with the car in Sport mode, it does feel quick. But unless you’re getting out of someone’s way or passing someone who’s in your way, why bother? You’re in a 17-foot-long luxury flagship. Relax and enjoy those gorgeous mocha-brown Nappa leather seats. You can always take your M2 Competition out for a spirited drive later.

Speaking of relaxing, that’s one area where the plug-in hybrid really shines. Even in a traffic jam, there’s something calming about driving a car in electric mode. Added sound insulation definitely helps, as well. The EPA hasn’t rated the 745e’s electric-only range yet, but it will probably be between 15 and 20 miles (24 to 32 km). That’s still relatively short, but it should be enough to cover a short commute or get you through a short traffic jam.

At least for now, BMW has modest goals for plug-in hybrid (PHEV) sales. It expects the 745e to account for a little less than 20 percent of 7 Series sales worldwide. Unless gas prices spike sometime soon, it may be a while before sales of hybrid flagship sedans take off. In states where PHEVs get access to the HOV lane, though, the 745e could be much more popular.

One thing I’m still not sure about, however, is whether the updates BMW has made to the 7 Series are significant enough to attract more buyers. The powertrains have been improved, the driving experience feels a bit more refined, and it’s still remarkably agile for its size. But as important as those factors are in smaller cars such as the 3 Series, if BMW wants to improve North American sales, I can’t help wondering if the next-generation 7 Series needs to emphasize luxury over sportiness.

It would certainly be a risk. After all, if a BMW isn’t sporty, is it really a BMW? But on the other hand, do full-size luxury flagship buyers still value handling and a simple, driver-oriented cabin layout?

If you’re still one of those buyers who does, then BMW has the perfect car for you. Especially if you want access to the HOV lane.

The 750Li model is pictured in this review