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SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The long-awaited, much-discussed BMW X7 finally enters the home stretch. Barely four months away from the start of production, BMW brought six early X7 prototypes to the Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant that will build the new crossover, and invited a small group to sample the driving dynamics. Munich's other full-sized SUV hopes to prove itself the lively, luxurious, and laudable answer to the question, "What took so long?"

Company engineers said their two priorities were to avoid simply building a larger X5, and to ensure the husky X7 performed like a BMW. The short answer is that they succeeded on both counts. The slightly longer answer is that they might have scored better on the second count than on the first.

Perhaps it was the optic-distorting effects of camouflage, but the X7 did not look flagrantly larger than the X5. It wasn't until the X5 camera car sidled up to one of the X7 testers on the highway that the slight difference in bulk became apparent, at least from the rear. BMW didn't want to get into specific dimensions; all an engineer would tell us is that the X5 is less than five meters (4.91 to be exact, or roughly 16 feet) whereas the X7 stretches beyond five meters.

BMW X7 PreDrive

Not only does the X7 sit on a longer wheelbase than the X5, the X7's body's been skewed rearward. Comparing the X7 to the current X5, the rear overhangs are proportionally similar, but there's barely any sheetmetal ahead of the X7's front wheels. Every X7 comes with a third row, so the sliding adjustment carves out as much practical room possible for those two extra chairs.

The cabin's more spacious than the X5 in every dimension, especially fore-and-aft, but doesn't deliver 7 Series roominess in the second row. I'm a long-legged 5' 11" and had plenty of knee room, but I apparently wore the wrong shoes to the ball: The toes of my cowboy boots wouldn't fit under the front-row BMW Comfort Seats. That might have been due to the seats or the messy under-seat wiring in the prototypes. We didn't hear a single complaint from colleagues, so it's likely that passengers with less rowdy footwear won't experience any issues.

The X7 doesn't do manually-adjusted seats. Models with a second-row bench get power seatbacks and bolsters, split 60/40. Flipping a switch on the seatback shoulder folds the seatback forward and hinges the seat up off the floor for access to the third row, automatically sliding the front seat forward when more room is needed. The wide rear doors and chair ballet make third-row entry uncomplicated.

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An easier way to the nosebleed seats is to order second-row captain's chairs, making the X7 a six-seater. Offspring can step between the captain's chairs to get to the back, and if the chair armrests intrude, they can be removed and stored in an accessory cargo space under the rear load floor. The captain's chairs can also tilt forward for third-row access when the old-fashioned way is necessary. They're good looking seats that offer more power adjustment and comfort than the bench, but we wished they were wider and had more bolstering. The X7 project manager told us both modifications are on the way for a future prototype.

The third row provided perfectly serviceable contingency seating for an adults-only posse — a day out for polo and dinner won't cause arguments over which pair gets sent to the back of the X7 class. We had an inch or so of extra headroom, and the bench and second-row captain's chairs were unexpectedly more accommodating to boots.

Behind the third row, the cargo area can swallow a few carry-on suitcases and soft-sided bags. Put the third row down and the flat floor handily holds luggage for four road-tripping adults. Lifting the floor reveals surprisingly spacious under-floor stowage, and BMW told us there's a spare tire underneath that. Loading convenience gets a boost from a set of buttons near the hatch opening that can move both the second and third rows. Even better, the split tailgate is entirely power operated; when both halves are open, pressing a button on the upper hatch electronically closes the entire hatch.

BMW X7 PreDrive

At the other end, most of the cockpit remained under black sheets of camouflage, but we still made out BMW's new interior design. The recently teased digital dashboard faces the driver. Refined, crisp graphics look the futuristic part, making the current, orange-hued analogue units — which we love, by the way — seem like relics already. Designers broke the instrument panel into three vertical focal points: a 12.3-inch screen atop the dash and slightly canted toward the driver; a slim, elongated hexagon housing HVAC controls and a small screen between two vents; and an even slimmer hexagon below with audio controls. Beneath the audio buttons, the console slopes to the center tunnel. A large pocket with a sliding cover connects the two, hiding a wireless charging area for a phone, two cupholders, and a traditional Type A USB port. The only other USB ports in the X7 need USB-C plugs.

A reorganized control panel on the center tunnel groups the engine starter button, shifter, suspension mode buttons and iDrive controller into another chrome-trimmed hexagon motif. A stubby shift knob topped by a round-ish ball replaces the oblong paddle. The shifter is made for resting a hand on, or, you know, shifting, so it's surprising to see it introduced on a three-row crossover before a sedan.

Every X7 gets adaptive air suspension on both axles as standard — double wishbones all around, a redesigned five-link system in back. Optional upgrades are BMW's Integral Active Steering, and Dynamic Drive active anti-roll bar system. A new toggle on the lower right of the tunnel control panel adjusts the X7's height through five settings, with 1.6-inch spread between them. Comfort is the default, at Level 0. Levels +1 and +2 raise the X7's height 1.6 and 3.1 inches respectively, for ground clearance. Engineers haven't finalized the X7's underbody, so they couldn't provide a ground clearance number. We'd expect it to be right around the 8.2 inches afforded by the X5, and with 3.15 extra inches at Level +2 height, the X7 would boast clearance numbers close to those of a main rival, the Range Rover. Level -1 drops the X7 down 1.6 inches automatically when the driver chooses Sport mode or achieves a certain highway speed, Level -2 lowers the X7 3.1 inches for loading. The X7 can't be driven at the loading height.

BMW X7 PreDrive

BMW will offer 20-, 21-, and 22-inch wheels; our six test vehicles were fitted with either 21- or 22-inchers. The 21-inchers were shod in 285/45 R-rated Pirelli P Zeros. The 22-inchers get staggered tire sizes, sacrificing a touch of comfort for looks, with R-rated Continental Premium Contact 6 sized 275/40 in front, 315/35 in back.

BMW brought two 3.0-liter diesels, two 3.0-liter inline-sixes and two 4.4-liter V8s to test. The six and the eight will get horsepower bumps over the current units, so the carmaker wouldn't talk numbers.

We drove the diesel first, a Korean-market oddball in that it was fitted with the base suspension — no rear steering nor active roll bars — and the largest wheels. The diesel was the weakest of the three variants we drove, with excessive wind noise, rumbling tires and a coarse ride. An engineer told us that some of the prototypes had been hand-built in Germany, the rest were the very first off the Spartanburg line. That put each prototype at a different point on the spectrum of fit and finish. Another engineer told us the next suspension update was ready to be loaded into the vehicles but couldn't be installed until the other control modules were ready for their updates as well. Hence, we weren't sure how much of the compromised ride and NVH to put down to the inherent nature of any prototype vehicle, the state of the suspension tune, or the big wheels. Oh, but don't expect the diesel to come to the U.S. anyway.

The good news is that the diesel exhibited BMW-appropriate driving responses. Throttle inputs are quick, and linear in response. The steering loads up quickly after a small but noticeable lazy spot on center. There isn't a great deal of feeling through the wheel, but it's a cinch to point the X7's nose where you want it. The body holds steady when pushed through turns even without the additional suspension goodies. The brakes — four-piston in front, single floating piston in back — delivered on all the irrational deceleration demands of a high-speed, heavyweight, seven-car platoon snaking through Southern back roads. The optional M Sport steering wheel sported paddle shifters, but the updated eight-speed transmission downshifts quickly even in Comfort. Our German tour guide in the X6 M lead vehicle practically challenged his X7 ducklings to keep up, and we did. On top of that, we might have had a more relaxed time of it in the comfort-focused X7 than in the growly X6 M.

BMW X7 PreDrive

We drove the V8 next. It rode on 21-inch wheels and had rear steering and active anti-roll bars. It felt like a proper BMW from the start. Muted wind and tire noise, excellent composure on the straights, zero roll around the bends, a constantly rumbling V8 that erupts when given the whip and serious giddy-up. Active Integral Steering quells the slight lateral accelerations during high-speed direction changes — subtle agitations that get exacerbated for passengers in the second and third rows. Only princesses with a profound sensitivity to peas could complain. Active Integral Steering also means a faster rack; about two and a third turns to lock with rear steer and an impressive turning circle, about three turns to lock without.

Sport mode downshifts a gear, tightens up the steering, throttle response, and shift timing, and stiffens the dampers. The X7's input reflexes were clearly snappier in Sport, but the ride didn't move as far away from Comfort as we expected. The X7 didn't put on its sprinter's cleats in Sport. An engineer told us that a wider spread between the two modes is in the works. In truth, we're not sure a wider spread is necessary unless BMW simply wants to brag. The V8-powered X7 likely weighed a little more than 5,000 pounds and already hides its weight when hustling. Furthermore, the dynamic bounds are so broad in Comfort that most drivers will never touch them.

The inline-six was our favorite, though, also riding on 21s and upgraded with the top-tier suspension. Being notably lighter (360 pounds separate the I6 from the V8) and nimbler more than made up for being notably less powerful. It's also more mellow, belting out engine noise only when being punished, as opposed to the perma-growl of the V8. The inline-six also had the nicest interior, with a black Alcantara headliner lording over white, quilted-leather seating. This is the one we'd buy.

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The X7 goes where no production, four-wheeled BMW has gone before off-road. An optional Off-Road Package adds a second toggle on the center tunnel that controls four terrain drive modes: xSand, xRocks, xGravel, and xSnow. The X7 then gets beefed up with an aluminum rather than plastic skid plate, a wider side sill that acts as a step, and a fully variable, electronic limited slip differential on the rear axle — until now the exclusive purview of M cars. Inside, the package adds an infotainment screen of off-road gauges displaying compass direction, incline percent and angle and roll angle.

We did a loop at the Gulches Off-Road Vehicle Park, traversing obstacles and ruts threatening enough that we were told the current X5 doesn't have enough ground clearance to clear them. Knowing that 98 percent of U.S. X7 drivers will never put their charges through such dirt and danger, and 1 percent of those who do are merely lost, we asked what the point was. An engineer told us the feature was for owners who want to take their X7s to their hunting cabins. We are happy to inform all eight of those owners that they'll have no problem reaching their lodges. More relevant we think, the Off-Road Package keeps the X7 au courant with the luxury competition, now that a plush SUV can't make rank if it can't handle having two wheels off the ground simultaneously. Further testament to carry-all possibilities are the factory-installed tow hitch and 7,700-pound tow rating.

Naturally, BMW wouldn't go into specifics about pricing, yet we did learn enough to know that a number in the mid to high $80,000s for the inline-six is a safe bet, and BMW might sneak the V8 in under the $100K mark for launch. The V8 X5 xDrive50i is only $150 more expensive than the 5 Series M550i xDrive.

BMW X7 PreDrive

The X7, even unfinished, does its job well. BMW succeeded in making the BMW of full-sized SUVs a true BMW and a distinctly different proposition than the primary competitors. The X7 is much sportier and more German than the Range Rover, and nicer in every way than the Cadillac Escalade. It's useless to compare the brand new X7 to the ancient and soon-to-be-replaced Mercedes-Benz GLS, but Mercedes' hallmark comfort-forward brand ethos will put ample space between the coming GLS and the X7.

The X7s we drove fly around the world for testing and final tuning before production begins in August. Expect an unveil either at the Frankfurt Motor Show or, more likely, the L.A, Auto Show. Then the X7 arrives at dealers in the first quarter of next year as a 2019 model. After that — unless BMW somehow cocks things up terribly in the next six months — you can expect to see a ton of X7s on the streets.

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