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.
After half an hour, we arrive at the Hotel Astoria. This is one of St Petersburg’s finest hotels, and plaques on the wall note celebrity guests – most recently Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US Secretary of State. Again, no expense spared by BMW. The view from my room’s not bad either.
After a quick shower and change, we’re off to the press conference and dinner. In style. A short walk from the hotel, we’re led by some impossibly tall local hostesses to one of St Petersburg’s many beautiful canals and onto a boat. Not for nothing is St Petersburg often referred to as the Venice of the North, and we get excellent views of the city before heading out onto the wide Neva River.
Here the skyline of the city is at its most impressive – golden spires and domes poking out over ornate buildings and, opposite our mooring point on the other side of the river, two battleships and a navy submarine.
Our destination is a former stables converted into a function room. We’re given a short talk about the car, and how important it is for the company. And then we’re given a ballet performance…
…accompanied by some cool projection mapping on the walls. Oh, and a slap up meal. BMW has set its charm offensive to stunning.
Over dinner I chat to Albert Maier, the man in charge of tweaking the chassis settings on the new 7 Series. And the changes to the car start to become apparent. The dampers are new, as is the electronic system controlling the roll stiffness. Most interestingly, the old hydraulic power steering system has been ditched in favour of a new electric system. Purists may groan, but that one move alone saves 3% in fuel, which is important for markets where fuel economy is a priority. Maier assures me however that BMW has put plenty of work into keeping road feel in the electric system.
“There are many competitors working with electric power steering where you don’t have that feel of the road,” he says. “This was our main topic, not to reduce the road feel. With a BMW you must feel the road, but it’s very difficult to get feel out of it. However, we think you can feel the road like you did before.”