To describe our year with the BMW 745Li is to strive to reconcile a basic conflict: How can a car be "the very best sedan in the world" (as one of us gushed) when its logbook contains quite a few entries that fairly seethe with anger and hostility?
The ranting was all directed at iDrive, BMW's driver-interface system. It's the first thing a driver of the 7-series grapples with, so let's deal with it right up front. BMW describes iDrive as the solution to the contemporary design challenge of "how to accommodate the extensive functions that modern technology offers without overwhelming the driver and creating a driving environment cluttered with controls." Oh, really?
From the plug-in key/remote to the start/stop button to the teensy PRND stalk and the shift buttons on the steering wheel, what BMW refers to as "the Driving Zone" seemed devised to disorient-and, indeed, overwhelm-the first-time iDriver (as well as many of us who kept coming back for more). As for what BMW calls "the Comfort Zone," it was hard to feel warm and fuzzy about a system of menus and submenus and sub-submenus hidden within eight "compass points" around the center-console knob to dial in settings for communication, navigation, entertainment, climate, and assistance ("Help!"). Despite the stated aim of integrating functions, redundant controls for audio and HVAC appear separately from the main controller. Clusters of clutter.
The logbook entries for our 745Li called its iDrive frustrating, counterintuitive, goofy, clumsy, silly, PITA, convoluted, iGnorant, and-worst of all-distracting. That is, it distracted us from the supreme pleasures of actually driving this powerful, sharp, smooth, bold sedan. That is a sin we cannot easily forgive.
But we will try, because the 745Li rewarded us richly for our patience with iDrive. It carried one of us in glamorous luxury to a twenty-year high school reunion. It transported another of us and fellow members of a classical choir in silence (pianissimo) and speed (molto allegro) to an out-of-town performance.
The cabin was spacious and comfortable, trimmed in leather, brushed aluminum, and wood-and, as one writer put it, "all materials do justice to the grandiose sticker price" ($83,145 as tested). The automatic trunk opener was "a neat party trick," and the electric window shades tickled teenage nephews and six-year-old twins. Yes, it had all the goodies, and the ignition chime even sang "Blinnng! Blinnng!" to welcome us. (Listen for yourself; we swear that's what it's saying.)
And the driving-oh, the driving! Not long after the start of our time with the BMW, for our September 2003 issue, we obtained numbers that encouraged our high expectations for the car's performance. In a test comparing the 745Li with three of its rivals-an Audi A8L, a Jaguar XJ8, and a Mercedes-Benz S430-the 7-series outran all from 0 to 60 mph (taking 6.5 seconds), from 0 to 100 mph (16.3 seconds), and through the quarter-mile (14.9 seconds at 97 mph). It outbraked them all, too, using 155 feet of pavement to stop from 70 mph. So, iDrive aside, we knew what we were getting into-and we got into it most gladly.
Wrote executive editor Mark Gillies early on: "The autobox is magical, whichever mode you choose, and it goes like a demon. The brakes, too, are terrific." After throwing the 745 hard onto a freeway ramp, editor-in-chief Jean Jennings pronounced it "fast, settled, composed, unflappable." Senior editor Joe DeMatio-whose "very best sedan in the world" quote opens this story-deemed the 7-series "an absolutely spectacular long-distance cruiser." Adding to the chorus was managing editor Amy Skogstrom: "I just love BMW's 4.4-liter V-8-very smooth power delivery and gobs of horsepower (325) when you need it."
Senior editor Joe Lorio hated the car's iDrive so much and so eloquently that we devoted an entire Four Seasons Logbook update to his tirade back in March 2004. But even he had nothing but praise for the ultimateness of the driving experience: "The 745Li is a fantastic driving machine. More so when you're really pushing it over challenging roads, but even on the long interstate slog, it's really nice. The engine is very responsive, and the automatic transmission is a paragon of muted servility. The steering feels just right, and the brakes suffer none of Mercedes-Benz's electrohydraulic weirdness."
There was rather a lot of electronic weirdness, though, during this otherwise trouble-free year. On six separate and annoying occasions, warning lights and messages had us calling for roadside assistance and/or scurrying to the dealership for service. Once it was "an emissions-related error" requiring a Valvetronic lift adjustment. Five times (five!), the coolant thermostat had to be replaced. The worst was a problem with an active cruise control sensor, which led to dire iDrive announcements of "Transmission Fault!" "Dynamic Drive Inactive!" "Brake/ Drive Failure!" and admonishments to "Drive moderately," "Avoid high cornering speeds," and "Avoid hard braking" (in other words, stop having fun). These were accompanied by nonfunctioning tach and speedometer, stiff steering, and an involuntary two-gear downshift at highway speed (nope, no fun at all). All was fixed, at no cost-except, of course, for the inconvenience.
So, the 745Li had us at hello, lost us in the labyrinth of iDrive, won us back behind the wheel, and then peeved us with electronic glitches. But there was more. Another ambivalence-inspiring aspect of this car was its exterior design. Readers may remember the slings and arrows of outrage flung by the press at BMW design director Chris Bangle and his new car-the fourth-generation 7-series-when it was introduced in 2002. For one thing, its rear end got more ink than that of Jennifer Lopez (and for similar reasons). Our September '03 story cited, in kinder terms than many, "the awkward and bulky backpack that it carries just above its rump."
Speaking more generally, Lorio wrote in the logbook that the 745 looked "lumpen and heavy," and the best Gillies could say was that the styling was "sort of" growing on him: "But I suspect black is one of the better choices." And this backhanded compliment came from U.K. bureau chief Phil Llewellin, who drove our 745 for two weeks through New England and Canada: "I find the styling less objectionable than most of Mr. Bangle's grotesque efforts."
Let's recap: iDrive bad, performance good, electronics bad, performance good, looks so-so, performance good. For us, it does come down to performance, and the 745Li more than satisfied. Despite the gripes and the gremlins, the keys to the BMW were grabbed up eagerly every evening and every weekend, especially for long highway treks-more so than has been the case for most steeds in our Four Seasons stable. In one appalling incident, a staffer was actually busted in the act of erasing another person's name from the 745's square on the car board and replacing it with his own (you know who you are). Underneath the frustrations of the iMpossible iDrive and the malfunctions of all that electronic frippery is an amazing car that we just had to be awed by, that we just had to covet.
DeMatio opened this story, and he can help close it, with sentiments we all should be able to agree with: "The controls and the error messages were highly annoying, but the fact remains that the 7-series is extraordinarily rewarding to drive hard, belying its size with remarkable chassis composure and superb powertrain performance at all speeds, with a beautifully crafted, sybaritic cabin marred only by the iDrive experience. I can't imagine wanting much more in the way of a large sedan in terms of performance, luxury, and prestige."
After all, electronics like iDrive do not make up the most important driver-interface system in a car. The most important driver-interface system involves the steering wheel, the pedals, and the seat of your pants.