To fully appreciate all the features in BMW AG’s revamped 7-Series sedan, drivers will need to be good with their hands.
BMW’s top-of-the-line model, which was shown to the public for the first time on Wednesday, will be the first series production car capable of responding to hand gestures such as waving to reject an incoming phone call. The high-margin model can also be controlled with a finger on a touchpad.
The techie gimmicks, which are options in the 81,900-euro ($92,600) luxury sedan, aim to counter increasing pressure from Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen AG’s Audi, which have eroded the sales lead of the world’s largest luxury-car brand in recent months.
“BMW, up until about a year ago, were the technology leader,” said Stuart Pearson, a London-based analyst with Exane BNP Paribas. Now, “they’re in danger of maybe falling behind what Audi and Mercedes are doing.”
The debut of the flagship model, which goes on sale in October, is critical for BMW’s new chief executive officer, Harald Krueger. The brand’s slowing sales growth stems in part from fading demand for the outgoing 7-Series, which competes with the S-Class from Mercedes and Audi’s A8.
The company is pushing for sales to beat those of its predecessor despite a cooldown in China, the most important market for the 7-Series, Chief Financial Officer Friedrich Eichiner said at its unveiling in Munich.
BMW has often used the car to experiment with new features. Not all have been immediately successful. The iDrive controller, which debuted in the 2001 model, is now standard after being initially panned. That car also featured the protruding trunk lid, derisively known as the “Bangle Butt” after former chief designer Chris Bangle.
The revamped BMW sedan is equipped with an in-car infrared camera that tracks hand movements above the center console from the driver or front passenger. The system interprets five different gestures, such as a left-to-right wave to reject a call and pointing an index finger to accept it. Making a circular motion to the left or right turns the radio up or down, and drivers can define a function for pointing two fingers forward.
The goal of operating key functions with hand signals is to avoid the frustrations of voice commands and minimize the distractions of hunting for knobs or reaching for the car’s touch-screen. By rolling out the technology first, BMW aims to shore up its reputation for innovation, which underpins its ability to charge higher prices.
“Top-of-the line models like the BMW 7-Series tend to set trends that define the new benchmark,” Thomas Kirsch, product manager for the 7-Series, said in an interview. “Apart from technology, we wanted to create a new level of comfort,” which extends to a selection of eight in-car scents.
The new model has a sportier look than the current version, with headlights that sweep across to the grille. It will also be able to park itself without anyone at the wheel. To squeeze into tight spaces, drivers can pilot the car with their finger using a separate touch-display key. Still, all these bells and whistles may not do enough to topple the S-Class from its perch atop the luxury-sedan segment.
After sales being on par with the Mercedes flagship model before the S-Class’s 2013 overhaul, the new 7-Series will probably remain a distant second and may not match the levels of the previous generation, according to IHS Automotive. The research firm forecasts 7-Series deliveries next year of 64,400 vehicles, compared with 96,100 for the S-Class, which can drive itself in stop-and-go traffic and offers a back-seat recliner.
That could be a damper for the Munich-based carmaker’s bottom line. Exane BNP Paribas estimates a 10 percent profit margin for the 7-Series. While trailing the S-Class’s 14 percent, that’s still among the most lucrative in BMW’s lineup. The companies don’t disclose profitability levels for individual models.
“It’s an important product, which can positively and negatively impact the whole brand,” said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. “This car needs to set new standards.”
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