With the worst of the financial meltdown supposedly past us and buyers cautiously examining luxury cars again, we're looking for the future of living large. To recapture the spirit, we're embarking on a driving adventure from Los Angeles to Las Vegas with twelve cylinders and two turbochargers of BMW power. But instead of doubling down on the V-12 760Li, we split our hand and moved six of our allotted twelve cylinders to a two-wheeled BMW.
Both the 740i and the K1600GT are gambles for the Bavarians; one a flagship sedan toned down for the modesty-and-fuel-economy age and the other a massive motorcycle reminiscent of the days when your house was a cash source and the credit flowed like Barolo at the Bellagio. They are also reminders of BMW's admirable commitment to the in-line six. The engine's long proportions pose problems for crashworthiness and packaging, but clearly BMW thinks the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. We couldn't agree more: straight sixes are nearly perfectly balanced, something that can't be said about V-6 engines. In fact, the smoothness of an in-line six is rivaled only by that of a V-12, and so it's fitting that BMW's flagship sedan, which is available with a twelve-cylinder, can also be powered by a straight six. The 740i takes the entry-level spot in the 7-series lineup, but a straight six in a motorcycle is clearly at the opposite end of the spectrum. Quite the pair we have here.
As we make our way out of Los Angeles, first on I-15 and then on I-40, billboards along the interstate offer one last come-on to credit burnouts: "Bankruptcy, $799 payment plans available." We eventually slide off the highway an hour outside Barstow, landing in the Mojave National Preserve. It's not an especially beautiful landscape, but the Mojave inspires awe simply by the sheer scale and desolation of the place.
Straight and fast desert roads don't require a lot of attention in this big sedan, which gives senior web editor Phil Floraday and me plenty of time to contemplate the 7's suspension. Just when we are starting to think that the tuning is too soft -- whether in comfort, normal, or sport mode -- a serious-looking chain of undulations appears in the windshield. We dive into the first one before I realize that I should have scrubbed off more speed. Spine, seat, springs, dampers, and tires all compress as the two-ton sedan reckons with gravity at the bottom of the dip, but the 740i brilliantly shrugs it all off.
Creative director Kelly Murphy is right behind us on the K1600GT. He shifts some of his weight to the foot pegs and relishes the bumps, telling us later: "It was the first time since we left LAX that I actually experienced the freedom of the bike. I loved it!"
At just 22 inches long, the K1600GT's 1.6-liter mill, BMW Motorrad claims, is as compact as a four-cylinder. Its benefits for a large touring bike are clear within a few miles. Big torque -- as much as 129 lb-ft peaking at 5250 rpm -- moves this big bike with ease at any speed, in any gear. At
70 mph, a quick pass in sixth is no sweat and the engine, spinning at just 3250 rpm, hums with the polish and calm of the six in the 7-series. The long (for a motorcycle) 200-mile fuel range doesn't seem so daunting when there's no irritating drone or fatiguing vibrations.
The 740i's larger and more powerful six has similar virtues. Strengthened with two turbochargers, the N54 engine makes the torque even more accessible with 330 lb-ft from 1600 to 4500 rpm. Off-the-line thrust is assertive if not aggressive, and passing power is prodigious. Actually, it's going slow that gives the 740i the most trouble, as the electronic throttle can be frenetic, sometimes bordering on insubordinate. Fortunately, that's not true of the K1600GT, with a three-setting electronic throttle (rain, road, dynamic) that always responds linearly and immediately to small twists of the right grip.
We pass through towns that saw the good times come and go long before the housing market tanked. Kelso, a defunct railroad stop and washed-up mining town, nearly disappeared in the 1980s before a preservation effort was mounted and the crumbling depot, now the welcome center for the Mojave National Preserve, was rebuilt. Cima, a half hour up the road, is a true ghost town, although a ramshackle store claims to be open three days a week. Not today. The only sign of life is a strangely new-looking pay phone with a dial tone. Our photo assistant kicks a tumbleweed into motion to complete the tableau before we move on.
The straight, flat roads through nowhere continue, and the ambient temperature keeps climbing. Our machines are in their element, effortlessly disposing of the miles with relatively miserly fuel consumption. The 740i is rated at 17/25 mpg city/highway, and the K1600GT is showing an indicated average of 38 mpg. The temperature will eventually hit 117 degrees, at which point riding a motorcycle is akin to standing in front of the world's largest hair dryer, and yet all three of us are fighting for seat time on the bike. In many ways, it is as comfortable as the cocoon of the 7-series. When your right wrist flags and the blast furnace sears, just flick on the cruise control, motor the adjustable windscreen to its upright position, and crank up the volume on the satellite radio. The sound quality from the four speakers mounted in the instrument pod diminishes greatly above 70 mph, though, so we're kicking ourselves for not bringing a Bluetooth-equipped helmet.
These roads also leave plenty of time for mastering the K1600GT's iDrive-like multifunction controller, which naturally comes with its own steep learning curve. A plastic ring rotates around the handlebar, just inside the left handgrip. Spin it to scroll up or down and tap the ring sideways to make a selection from one of the many screens managing the Bluetooth, radio, iPod, and suspension. Just as iDrive did ten years ago, the multicontroller dumbfounds us for the first twenty minutes, requires an unreasonable amount of attention for the next two days, and then becomes totally intuitive.
The final leg into Vegas leads us up US-95 where the endless sight lines and 75-mph speed limit beg for big speed, but we chicken out at 100 mph. That's plenty fast compared with the slow crawl we're soon doing along the Vegas Strip. The K1600GT bristles at moving so slowly in the heat. It is nowhere near as agitated, though, as the homeless guy who catches sight of Murphy's helmet -- which has a nude showgirl painted on it -- while we're stopped at a red light. The guy's back hunches over, his neck juts forward, and he squats as if he's fending off a bloodthirsty pit bull. His arms pump like he's driving a stake into the ground with fists clenched and thumbs thrust downward as he condemns Murphy to a fiery afterlife for promoting sex. Being a principled crazy in Vegas must be exhausting work.
Speaking of crazy, get a load of Lake Las Vegas, where we head to escape the Strip. Seventeen miles from Las Vegas Boulevard, some eternal optimist dreamed up a man-made lake surrounded by 9000 homes and luxury resorts. Or, at least, that's what Lake Las Vegas was supposed to be when it was painstakingly planned in the 1990s as a second-home community to rival Palm Springs. It would be glamor to the Strip's glitz, but the gimmicks were no more sophisticated than Elvis impersonators, miniaturized landmarks, and the possibility of winning big. Lake Las Vegas delivered celebrity (Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses), a manufactured sense of place (architecture mimicking Italy's Lake Como), and the life you probably couldn't afford (when credit disappeared, so did the buyers). In the past three years, the 3600-acre community has been dogged with corporate bankruptcies, business closings, and residential foreclosures. The complex is pocked with spreads of dry, gravelly nothingness next to perfectly manicured green grass. It's difficult to imagine a triumphant comeback for Lake Las Vegas, even as we dream of a greener economy. Just keeping things afloat is taxing. The annual water bill to keep the opaque green lake topped up under an unrelenting sun? Two million dollars.
We pay our share with a night at the discount-priced former Ritz-Carlton hotel, and the next morning we're back in the saddle. Northshore Road, which curves and dips through the orange rock formations around Lake Mead, is our first real driver's road since we left LAX. Both the 740i and the K1600GT turn in effortlessly and transition from left to right with predictable progression. At 703 pounds, the K is a porker of a motorcycle, but it defies its mass in much the same way that the 4344-pound sedan does. Like the 7, the K1600 has an electronically adjustable suspension, but we couldn't discern the nuances among the three settings. No matter. In any setting, the ride is planted and the handling sharp. This feeling of control leads to confidence, which leads to a singular mind-set of bike and road, goading us to reach for all 158 hp at 7750 rpm.
As opulent and indulgent as the 740i and the K1600GT are, they're not the end-all of luxury touring machines. Should you find yourself in need of more power or refinement, BMW is eager to help. For a mere $67,380, you can double the cylinder count, stretch the wheelbase by 5.5 inches, and finish the interior in BMW Individual style with a 760Li. You can't improve the K1600GT's power situation at the BMW dealership, but you can add a few thousand to the price by stepping up to the GTL, which trades in some of the sport-tourer credibility with a top-mounted luggage case, a rear-seat backrest, chrome trim, and comfort footrests.
Halving the cylinder count doesn't make the 740i half the car. It is every bit a 7-series. Even though our tester is modestly equipped with only $5600 in options, there is not a single notable feature that's absent. The 740i delivers the essentials -- navigation, heated seats, and a rearview camera -- as well as rich touches like the ceramic iDrive controller and the matte wood trim. If you're looking for restraint without compromise in this new age of redefined priorities, this is your car. There is no need to justify eight and twelve cylinders when six are this good. That's the beauty of a straight six. Stepping into a
V-6 hybrid Mercedes-Benz S-class is stepping down. Stepping into a straight-six BMW 7-series isn't a step down at all -- it's a step into a special club where a company stands by the merits of an engine layout that's continually being threatened with extinction.
Whereas the GT might not be the GTL, it is still a $20,000, six-cylinder motorcycle, and it is still a luxury. Straight-six engines are also a luxury. They're a luxury because you can get them only in luxury cars and on luxury motorcycles, but the sound, the feel, and the experience they provide make them worth it. Like Las Vegas itself, a motorcycle with a straight-six engine is a symbol of no-apologies, conspicuous consumption. It is a reminder of just how good materialism can feel. And even if we're not quite ready to return to that lifestyle, this big BMW bike is something worth having, because when you find a great road, the K1600GT's price and image don't matter. Now go find someone to loan you the money.
Base price $71,875
Price as tested $77,475
Engine 24-valve DOHC twin-turbo I-6
Displacement 3.0 liters (182 cu in)
Power 315 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque 330 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Steering Hydraulically assisted
Suspension, front Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
Brakes Vented discs, ABS
Tires Goodyear Eagle LS2
Tire size 245/50VR-18
L x W x H 199.8 x 74.9 x 58.3 in
Wheelbase 120.9 in
Weight 4344 lb
Base price $21,395
Price as tested $25,035
Engine 24-valve DOHC I-6
Displacement 1.6 liters (101 cu in)
Power 158 hp @ 7750 rpm
Torque 129 lb-ft @ 5250 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Suspension, front Control arms, coil spring
Suspension, rear Parallelogram swing arm, coil spring
Brakes, F/R Dual vented discs/vented disc, ABS
Tires Metzeler Roadtec Z8 Interact
Tire size f, r 120/70WR-17, 190/55WR-17
L x W x H 91.5 x 39.4 x 56.7 in
Wheelbase 63.7 in
Weight 703 lb