When BMW launched its new 7-series back in 2002, the German automaker was ready to usher in a new era of modern design and technology. Imagining open arms and open checkbooks, BMW executives assumed traditional 7-series clientele would simply embrace radical changes to their quintessential luxury sedan, such as a new iDrive user interface replacing traditional dashboard controls, new "teardrop" headlight design with "eyebrow" turn signals, and the addition of a frump on the trunk, commonly (and wrongfully) referred to as "Bangle Butt."
We, on the other hand, proclaimed the new 7-series "risky enough to be BMW's first box-office disaster."
But after nearly seven years of the current-generation 7-series, it's safe to say neither BMW nor Automobile Magazine accurately predicted how this full-size car would be received.
Although BMW has since refined its turn-and-click (to the tenth power) iDrive in newer models, the 7-series iDrive and its 700 functions remain a frustrating challenge for drivers.
As for the 7-series's polarizing styling, BMW toned it down a bit with a 2006 redesign. Ironically, this happened after the vehicle became the best-selling 7-series ever.
So what's the final verdict on BMW's revolutionary flagship sedan before a new model debuts this fall? We tested a 2008 760Li model to find out.
Design: A nip/tuck does wonders for the rear
As the 7-series aged, original design elements were massaged and refined. The old teardrop headlights seen on the 7-series that debuted in 2002 are gone, replaced in 2006 by more conservative, conventional units. A bigger grille, larger taillights, and a few design tweaks make the 7-series's Sir Mixalot-inspired rear-end appear smaller.
We can't say that we'll miss this old 7-series tail, but the BMW looks almost too conservative now. Original character has been sacrificed for more widespread acceptance. A few quirky pieces remain, such as door handles that pull up and out.
Interior/Equipment: Where iDrive began (and some say it should have ended)
Go ahead. Think of every luxury function a car could possibly be ordered with. The 7-series has it. This luscious sedan is equipped with a 20-way comfort driver's seat, pop-out phone keypad, column-mounted electronic gear selector, intricate climate control, Bluetooth, active cruise control, 6-disc DVD changer, LED atmosphere lights, and more. The Alcantara headliner is extremely soft and the cherry wood trim looks deep and rich. Yet despite these features, the interior is not nearly as intuitive as it could be.
In a 2001 interview, Burkhard Goschel, BMW board of management member, said widespread acceptance of the new 7-series and its technologies would be only a matter of time and that "once you get the hang of it, the (iDrive) system is more rewarding than a zillion buttons."
Um, not exactly.
BMW's electronic iDrive computer system, which controls things such as navigation, stereo, and climate functions, was slightly revised to be more user-friendly in 2006, but it still causes headaches (and comes standard with the vehicle). Senior Web editor Phil Floraday had issues with the 7-series iDrive controller, which does not follow the same logic as the new-and-improved system to move from one menu to another. Be prepared for frequent missteps when programming the navigation system or finding a radio station - unless, of course, you have been training in the art of iDrive for the past six years. We're hoping BMW takes a more simplistic iDrive approach (perhaps like the Mercedes-Benz S-class COMAND interface) on the next 7-series.
Powertrain: We noticed the gas mileage, not the power
With 438 normally aspirated horsepower at his beck and call, Web producer David Gluckman found the 760Li's 6.0-liter V-12 engine has plenty of quiet power. "With the six-speed ZF automatic transmission, power delivery is so smooth that it hardly seems you're moving quickly," Gluckman said. "I had to check the 0-to-60-mph time this morning (5.8 seconds) to reassure myself of the V-12's capabilities."
However, the V-12 engine only gets 13 mpg in the city, which didn't sit well with managing editor Amy Skogstrom. "I can practically see an oil well running dry and a bank account emptying every time I really put my foot down," she quipped. "Luckily, most of the people who buy the 760Li have plenty of bank accounts and probably own their own oil well."
To address gas mileage concerns, BMW introduced a limited production, hydrogen-powered 7-series in 2006. The car can run on gasoline or hydrogen, however it is not yet available for purchase. The 4.8-liter V-8 engine found in the 750i and 750Li gets slightly better fuel economy (15 mpg city/ 23 mpg highway).
Chassis/Suspension and Driving Dynamics: A pleasant highway cruiser with character
The 7-series steering is precise and the big sedan handles much better than it should. Its nearly 14-inch brakes stop the 5000-lb car with ease - although we'd expect this from a vehicle that starts at just under $125,000. Even though the current 7-series is near the end of its life, it remains one of the best full-size luxury cars to drive. For such a big sedan, body control and steering feel are both superb. Sure, the 7-series rides more firmly than cars like the Lexus LS, but we think that's a good thing. Rolling over cracked, bumpy pavement, passenger comfort is still exemplary.
Conclusion: Not perfect, but it's fast
Putting the 7-series on a short list of today's best premium sedans is a safe bet. Everything inside the car suggests premium luxury. The car's exterior has enough heritage-inspired styling cues that it won't be confused for a Lexus. However, time hasn't been all that kind to the 7-series, and we can't say that we wouldn't rather be driving a newer Mercedes-Benz S-class. Not only does the S-class feature better-looking materials and a cleaner, more ergonomic dash, it feels more solid than the 7-series. Unlike the BMW, the Mercedes also has modern technology that doesn't overwhelm (and annoy) the driver, making it the more pleasant luxury choice. However, if you want (and can afford) a normally aspirated V-12 and all the power that comes with it, head to your local BMW dealer.