2009 BMW 750Li – The Subtle Seven

What a hard act to follow. The last all-new 7-series, the 2002 745Li, was welcomed into the automotive world with about as much warmth and adoration as a 41-pound newborn baby girl with sixteen middle fingers and a full beard. And it merited about as much media coverage. Incensed enthusiasts on Internet forums called for BMW design director Chris Bangle’s head. The BMW faithful stumbled around dealerships breathing into paper bags to allay attacks of hyperventilation. Somewhere, someone passed out at the mere sight of the bulbous trunk lid. OK, perhaps not. But even we shockproof editors at Automobile Magazine were perturbed by the styling.

European bureau chief Georg Kacher called the 745Li “a car that completely defies conventional thinking on interior and exterior design.” Design editor Robert Cumberford chimed in, “Ugly? It certainly is not beautiful.” BMW ignored us, and all the other critics of that 7-series (known within the company and by BMW geeks by its chassis code name, E65), and stood by the bold new look. “We felt that a radically different shape and a radically different ergonomic concept were compulsory to leapfrog the competition,” said one BMW board member at the time.

How ironic. Back in 1994, in describing the then-new, third-generation 7-series, Cumberford maintained that he barely could tell it apart from its predecessor. “Apparently the middle-aged buyers,” he wrote, “are thought not to want imaginative styling.”

So who was right? BMW will happily point out that the ugly-duckling E65 matured into a beautiful white swan-becoming the best-selling 7-series of all time. Then again, BMW acknowledges that the 2006 face-lift, which diminished the E65’s bizarre and polarizing looks, was the company’s most successful midcycle freshening ever in generating additional sales. Read between the lines, and it looks like Cumberford’s observation was correct.

Whether it was the face-lift or China’s growing demand for premium large cars that was actually responsible for the E65’s record sales, one thing is for sure: the 2009 750Li marks a return to a conservatively styled 7-series. The new 7 probably will never win any beauty pageants-at least not without a nose job to reduce those enormous nostrils-but it’s not likely to invite the vehement criticism that the last one did. The styling is disappointing to those who expected BMW‘s new flagship sedan to look like the gorgeous, swoopy Concept CS that generated gasps at the 2007 Shanghai auto show. Worry not, CS fans-the 7’s superconservative styling serves as a hint that a production CS is coming. In the meantime, let us say good-bye to the Bangle Butt and welcome back the handsome and understated 7-series.

Beginning this March, you’ll have your choice of two 7s-the 750i and the long-wheelbase 750Li. Both cars, internally designated F01 and F02, respectively, are about an inch and a half longer and 80 pounds heavier than last year’s 750i and 750Li. Although the numbers on the badge haven’t changed, the V-8 under the hood has. Replacing last year’s 360-hp, 4.8-liter V-8 is the 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged and direct-injected V-8 first seen in the X6. The force-fed V-8 produces 400 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque, making the 2009 750Li significantly more powerful than the 2008 750Li-and quicker than even the 6.0-liter, V-12-powered 760Li, which now has been dropped.

According to BMW, the 750Li is only 0.5 second behind the screaming M3 in the sprint to 60 mph. In contrast to the raucous M3, however, the 7 pulls as smoothly as a Gulfstream V from standstill to top speed. Its coddled passengers will feel nothing so undignified as a vibration or a shudder, much less a clumsy shift from the sublimely supple, six-speed ZF automatic transmission. And although the engine is strong and hushed even at speeds nearing its 6800-rpm redline, the 750Li is most spectacular when flexing its muscles in the midrange, where two silent turbochargers endow the V-8 with Herculean torque. Apart from slight turbo lag off idle, which makes the V-8’s power occasionally difficult to meter, neither the driver nor the 750Li’s passengers will be aware of the dual turbos under the hood.

None of them will likely guess the speed at which the 7-series is traveling, either. The 750Li is deceptively fast-despite the howl of wind noise entering the cabin around the A-pillars, the 155-mph speed governor interrupts as unexpectedly as an alarm clock mistakenly set for 4 a.m. After all, the V-8 is virtually inaudible, turning only 4600 rpm in sixth gear at that speed. With seats that are more comfortable than most easy chairs, the 7-especially in long-wheelbase form-is obviously made to cross continents at unholy speeds.

When those cross-continental roads become twisty, its driver will be reminded of the 750Li’s 205-inch length only when he looks in the rearview mirror. The 7’s agility belies its size, thanks in part to Integral Active Steering, an option available with the sport package. IAS combines BMW‘s Active Steering, which varies the steering ratio and assist level based primarily on vehicle speed, with a new rear-wheel-steering system. Using an electric motor, the rear wheels can be steered up to three degrees in either direction, eliminating some of the yaw that long cars experience in corners. Steering the rear wheels at parking-lot speeds also helps shave more than two feet from the big sedan’s turning radius.

Integral Active Steer functions as part of BMW’s driver-adjustable system called Dynamic Driving Control. DDC boils down what would be a dizzying array of customizable chassis settings into five predetermined modes. The more sport-oriented modes sharpen throttle response, select a more aggressive transmission shift map, firm up the dampers, stiffen the antiroll bars, quicken the steering ratio, reduce the power-steering assistance, and raise the stability control’s intervention threshold. DDC makes such significant alterations to so many systems that it creates tangible changes in the way the 7-series responds to inputs-and does so without confronting the driver with three million possible combinations of settings.

This user-friendly philosophy carries over to the all-new, second-generation iDrive. The system is so much more logically organized and intuitive than the much-maligned first-generation setup that one wonders if BMW replaced the old iDrive engineers with a staff poached from Apple. The 10.2-inch, dash-mounted display is ultrabright and uncommonly sharp, with a laptoplike resolution of 1280 by 480 pixels, and it can present highly detailed three-dimensional maps. The biggest improvement is that the menu structure is now consistent, allowing the user to react the same way to each screen. Several buttons next to the controller facilitate quick access to basic main functions, and eight memory buttons on the dashboard serve as shortcuts to any function you choose-radio stations, destinations, or display types. One very important button finally makes its appearance next to the iDrive controller-it’s labeled “BACK” and performs the same function as the back button on your computer’s Web browser.

And speaking of Web browsers, the 7-series has one of those, too-but litigious U.S. customers don’t get it. In its place, U.S.-spec cars get BMW Search, a Google Maps-based system that can find local businesses and input their locations directly into the navigation system. Getting to that hot new restaurant couldn’t be easier, either, thanks to all of the 750Li’s other driver-assistance systems. Active Blind Spot Detection and Lane Change Warning use radar sensors in the rear bumper to determine the presence of other cars. A camera in the front of the car monitors lane markings for Lane Departure Warning and will scold the driver if he drifts out of his lane. The camera also will automatically dim the high-beams if another car is approaching. Night Vision, available on the last 7-series, is now programmed to recognize a human in its field of vision and will warn the driver of such. Active Cruise Control can now bring the 750Li to a complete stop and manage its speed in stop-and-go traffic. Optional cameras mounted in the front fenders allow the 7-series’ driver to peek around corners-a helpful feature on a car with such a long hood.

Although no less loaded with technology, the interior of the 7-series is decidedly less Star Trek in its presentation than the last 7. The shifter has moved back to the center console where it belongs, the seat controls are back to their familiar outboard positions, and the climate controls have been moved out of iDrive and onto their own space on the dash. Hallelujah. A head-up display (available for the first time in the 7-series) presents information in color and wondrous clarity. The switches for all driver-assist systems are located to the left of the driver; multimedia controls are to the right. This necessitated the move of the now-ubiquitous steering-wheel volume controls from the left side of the steering wheel to the right. The cruise control, heretofore controlled by its own stalk, is now adjusted via buttons on the left spoke of the steering wheel. The gauges are backlit (white during the day, reddish at night) and presented behind a panel that fades to black when the ignition is off.

The dashboard itself is lined in a leatherlike material that looks and feels rich-although our early-production cars suffered from some bunching and gathering in the corners and around the vents. The cabin feels expensive and well-built, but with decidedly less sense of occasion than the interior of the glamorous Mercedes-Benz S-class. In fact, the same can be said about the entire 750Li-it doesn’t call much attention to itself.

Indeed, it’s the subtleties of the 7-series that make it such an impressive machine. Like the way the electric seatbelt retractor quietly snugs your shoulder belt a few seconds after you fasten it, or how the seat adjustment motors start out slowly and then increase in speed. Or how, if you pay really close attention, you can just begin to feel the motions of the massive nineteen-inch wheels waltzing across broken pavement below you.

Twenty-or even ten-years ago, we wouldn’t have devoted the majority of a 7-series review to discussing the car’s looks and electronic wizardry-we undoubtedly would have concentrated on the driving experience. For better or worse, we now take for granted that every new BMW will out-handle, out-ride, and out-accelerate the previous version-and this new 7 does all of that. As its peers have caught up dynamically, BMW has turned the 750Li into a rolling electronics showcase. But-and in stark contrast to the outgoing 7-series-it has developed those systems to assist the driver in, and not distract him from, savoring what the 7 has always been about. The way it drives.

Design Analysis
By Robert Cumberford

The last BMW 7-series came in for a heavy load of criticism, both before and after its midlife face-lift. But it sold well and was great to drive, and rivals artlessly copied much of its controversial styling. The newest one is far less provocative, and thus less interesting. Once BMW embraced radical styling, it needed to keep going, no matter what critics said. With its flat sides and straight-line crease below the side windows, the new car actually seems a bit plain. The pure front view is nice, though. Once away from the confines of auto shows, it should still make a positive statement. And be great to drive.

1) Side surfaces swell slightly to meet the wheel openings, a subtle and undramatic effect, as befits a big luxury car.

2) Hard straight line through the door handles, parallel to the ground, is surprising but adds apparent length.

3) The horizontal blade on the front fender and the door is much better than the vertical slots favored by a number of manufacturers.

4) Downward sweep behind the front wheels suggests a classic fender, leads to a light-gathering surface at the bottom of the doors.

5) Longitudinal ribs at the sides of the hood are new, original, and effective in emphasizing the length of the front end, improving the car’s overall proportions.

6) The entire roof is classic, traditional BMW-and the better for it.

7) The mustache over the lower air intake is an interesting new feature, making the car seem longer and lower. But there’s still a battering-ram feel to the front end.

8) The high grille is projected well forward, good for pedestrian safety and for a stately presence. The inclined, backswept headlamps are sporty and aerodynamic.

2009 BMW 750Li

Base price $85,000 (750Li, est.)

engine DOHC 32-valve twin-turbo V-8
displacement 4.4 liters (268 cu in)
horsepower 400 hp @ 5500 rpm
torque 450 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
transmission Type 6-speed automatic
drive Rear-wheel

steering Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
suspension, front Control arms, coil springs
suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
brakes Vented discs, ABS
tires Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT DSST
tire size f, r 245/45YR-19, 275/40YR-19

L x W x H 205.3 x 74.9 x 58.3 in
wheelbase 126.4 in
track f/r 63.4/65.0 in
weight 4640 lb (per manufacturer)
fuel MILEAGE 15/23 mpg (est.)

Helping You Know Your (Speed) Limits
By Lawrence Ulrich

Ignoring the speed limit may be par for the European course, but drivers of the latest BMW 7-series will at least get a friendly electronic nudge to avoid a run-in with the Polizei. The optional camera-based system can actually “read” speed limit signs and flash the results onto the 7-series’ head-up display or instrument cluster. Developed by BMW and Continental, the system combines three complex functions-speed limit monitoring, lane departure warning, and an automatic high-beam dimming feature-on a single digital camera (housed near the rearview mirror) and a single system-on-chip processor.

The unit can read both signposts and the changeable displays typically used on overpasses. It compares speed limit information on the car’s navigation database against what it sees on the road to alert the driver to impending changes and the current limit-the latter might be a boon when roadway signs are sparse, or when a police car looms behind and you have no clue whether you’re going 5 mph under or 10 mph over. The speed limit can be shown alongside the head-up speedometer reading, and the speed monitoring also can be shut off.

For now, Americans are out of the loop, as the system won’t be offered on the U.S.-spec 7-series. A lack of standardized road signs from state to state-including signs with separate limits for cars and trucks-creates technical hurdles that BMW is working to overcome. BMW does expect the technology to trickle down to other models in its lineup.

If the system does arrive on our shores, one thing must change. Asked for the gizmo’s official title, a BMW spokesman struggled before replying “speed limit warning.” Yankee marketing ingenuity clearly calls for a catchier name; we suggest “iSpeed.”

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