Fiuggi, Italy - The new 7-series is a huge gamble for BMW. The company has launched a car that completely defies conventional thinking on interior and exterior design into one of the most conventional segments of the market. Predictably, BMW disagrees about whether the Seven is a risk. Burkhard Gschel, the board of management member in charge of research, engineering, and purchasing, says that widespread acceptance of the new 7-series and its high technologies will be only a matter of time: "If you want to set new standards, you must be prepared to break new ground. We felt that a radically different shape and a radically different ergonomic concept were compulsory to leapfrog the competition. It may take a little time to get used to the iDrive system's one-knob-does-it-all approach, but once you get the hang of it, the system is more rewarding than a zillion buttons."
BMW gave its outspoken chief designer, Chris Bangle, carte blanche with the new 7-series, and the results are mixed. The exterior styling is let down by a nondescript grille and strange, teardrop-shaped headlamps, as well as a series of odd curves and cutlines at the rear and a coffin-style lid for the trunk. There is nothing wrong with developing a new design language, but we wonder: Does it really have to be this controversial?
The new body does score in objective ways. Both the standard-wheelbase 745i and the extended-wheelbase 745Li models are taller and wider than the outgoing 740i and 740iL. The passenger compartment is marginally larger, and the trunk volume grows from thirteen to eighteen cubic feet. As well as being more generously proportioned, the structure is significantly more rigid than that of the previous car.
Unlike base 7-series models for the European market, which feature seventeen-inch wheels, cloth-covered seats, and less-than-glamorous interior trim, all U.S.-spec cars will be thoroughly laden with sybaritic goodies, including a power moonroof, matte-finish cherry wood cabin trim, and micro-perforated leather upholstery on power-adjustable seats (fourteen-way for the driver, twelve-way for the front-seat passenger). Dual front air bags are standard, as are front-seat side air bags (rear-seat side air bags are optional), knee-level air bags for the front-seat occupants, and front and rear side curtain air bags.
Among the many optional features are a thirteen-speaker premium audio system with dual subwoofers, soft-close doors, an auto-open/auto-close trunk lid, and twenty-way "comfort" seats. Unfortunately, the seat controls are complicated, consisting of a single rotary knob and as many as ten tiny buttons. To make matters worse, the controls are positioned at thigh level on the transmission tunnel, where they are difficult to reach and even more difficult to see.
Although it is possible to drive the new 7-series without using BMW's complex iDrive system, it won't be long before your hand begins playing with the bright-metal iDrive controller, which resides between the front seats--the traditional home of the gear shifter, which has been relocated to a stalk on the right-hand side of the steering column. Pushing and turning the fist-size knob provides access to some 700 different functions--not counting the 270 actions that can be prompted using voice commands.
Although the iDrive controller is intended to operate much like a computer mouse, the maneuvers tend to be hit-and- miss, partly because watching what's going on out the windshield has (or at least should have) priority over the wizardry happening on the display in the center of the dashboard. Selecting one of the four main programs (communication, navigation, entertainment, and climate) is easy, but accessing the secondary levels is not, because the controller needs to be nudged away from its center position at odd angles--45 degrees, 135 degrees, 225 degrees, and 315 degrees. It typically takes two or three attempts to succeed. The color display is too busy, and it's annoying that fine-tuning important functions such as stability control, electronic damping control, and dynamic traction control requires a visit to hard-to-find submenus.
The new 7-series reaches American dealerships in January with a 325-horsepower, 4.4-liter DOHC V-8. Later in the year, BMW will introduce the awesome 760Li, powered by a gasoline-direct-injection V-12 displacing 6.0 liters, followed by the "entry-level" 735i, employing a 272-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-8.
The 4.4-liter engine features variable intake and exhaust valve timing (Double VANOS) and variable intake-valve lift (Valvetronic). Although the 745i weighs 209 pounds more than the 740i, it is notably quicker and, at least on paper, more economical. BMW quotes a 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 5.9 seconds, a top speed of 150 mph, and a European-cycle fuel consumption of 22 mpg. Our car returned half that number--the penalty, Gschel explains, "for making full use of the car's extra performance." He adds: "Under normal, part-throttle operating conditions, the 745i is about thirteen percent more frugal than the notably less powerful 740i."
A brand-new, six-speed manu-matic gearbox offers three distinct driving modes: standard, sporty, and manu-matic. A button located on the steering-wheel hub makes switching transmission settings a breeze. In manu-matic mode, shifts are controlled by four buttons on the steering-wheel rim at the ten- and two-o'clock positions. The back-side buttons shift up; the front-side buttons shift down. It sounds like a logical arrangement, but the distance between the pairs of buttons just doesn't feel right to larger hands.
In addition to developing a new body and drivetrain, BMW has engineered an entirely new suspension for the fourth-generation 7-series. Made primarily of aluminum, it consists of a strut-type front end and a multi-link rear. Extra money buys even fatter rubber and a chassis upgrade package. Active Roll Stabilization (ARS)--which uses hydraulic actuators integrated in both anti-roll bars to reduce lateral body movements by up to 80 percent--is standard, but BMW also offers an adaptive ride package, consisting of electronically adjustable dampers and rear air springs that maintain a level attitude.
The 745i is a refined car that covers ground with deceptive speed and with a minimum of fuss, drama, and effort. Road, wind, and engine noise are remarkably hushed; it takes a serious stab of the throttle to bring the growl of the V-8 into the cabin. The car rides well, remaining stable and composed at all times. It holds the road with aplomb, and it handles with poise and balance. But to make the new 7-series feel and act like a true BMW, the optional adaptive ride package is a must. The setup puts the wheels even more firmly in contact with the ground, sharpens the chassis reflexes, and makes the engine shine by providing much quicker throttle response and letting it rev more freely, holding each gear a bit longer. Even with the tires screaming for mercy, the 745i remains totally committed and in charge. This is a car that is the master of any road surface it surveys, although a tighter turning circle and sharper brakes would be appreciated.
In the end, we come away from the 2002 7-series thinking that BMW's upper management could have made life a lot easier for itself. The decision makers in Munich could have opted for a more evolutionary shape, improved the ergonomics in small increments, and concentrated on traditional virtues such as power and performance. Instead, they created a car that provokes and polarizes. The new 7-series is neither love at first sight nor love at first drive. The iDrive system is a great idea, but it can be a true test of one's patience, and the car's styling doesn't exactly scream "status symbol." That's a shame, because behind the debatable makeup hides an incredibly competent and honest car, a friend you can trust.