Eyebrows are raised among the assembled international journalists in St Petersburg. We’re staying in the swankiest hotel in town, with the names of famous guests from Sting and Madonna to Lenin and Tony Blair listed on the wall next to the elevator. We’ve been flown in from around the world on a specially chartered jet. And the schedule, in between driving, involves speedboat rides, visits to top art museums and a private tour of a Tsar-era palace.
And all this for what, on the surface, looks to be little more than a facelifted version of the BMW 7 Series. OK, it has new headlights. And the bumpers look a little different to the existing model. But that’s about it, from a distance. Isn’t this a little, well, overboard?
Not so, says BMW. The 7 Series is its flagship car across the world, and as well as proving a big hit in the Middle East, it’s also crucial in BMW’s endeavours in major developing markets such as China and, of course, Russia. Although cosmetic enhancements are slight, there are plenty of changes to the 7 Series under its skin, including revised chassis and new and tweaked engines, and BMW wants to make a big song and dance about it.
The crankandpiston experience starts late at night and early in the morning on a Friday, when I hop onto a Lufthansa flight from Dubai to Frankfurt. There’s then another flight to Munich, and followed by a four-hour wait while the rest of the world’s press assemble in Germany. Luckily, BMW has laid on the VIP wing of the airport (above), so we wait in glorious weather with an ample supply of food and drink. Lovely.
After everyone’s turned up from as far afield as Korea and Australia, it’s onto the specially chartered plane to St Petersburg. It’s a three hour hop from Germany and, having slept little on the way from the UAE, I pass out immediately.
We land at St Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport – a remarkably small airport for Russia’s second largest city – and after waiting for nearly an hour for the bags to make the 40 metre journey from plane to carousel, jump into the back of an X5 for the shuttle into town. The landscape is industrial, but as we head down Moskovsky Prospekt, the buildings begin to get more imposing and landmarks start appearing, A large obelisk flanked by heroic statues. A massive triumphal archway celebrating victory in a long forgotten war. Russia, it seems, likes to celebrate an occasion by building something impressive.
My only previous visit to Russia was to Moscow in 2008. There, everyone seemed to be either a squillionaire or a lowly serf, and the cars on the roads reflected this. St Petersburg doesn’t feel quite so dichotomic, but there’s still a steady stream of Porsche Cayennes mixing with battered on Ladas and Volgas outside the X5’s window.