BMW insists that the current 7-series is the most successful 7 ever, but we're not sure we believe it. With awkward styling (and that's being very nice) and a dreadful user interface that was inscrutable to twenty-year-old IT geniuses, much less the sixty-year-olds the 7-series was supposed to appeal to, the current 7-series had some big problems.
And despite the company's continued, arrogant insistence that it had done nothing wrong, BMW has fixed the 7-series. Introducing the all-new 2009 7-series (known within BMW as the F01). It will be sold in the United States with only one engine, the twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8 that debuted this summer in the X6. With 400 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque, the blown V-8 renders the old 6.0-liter V-12 obsolete. The V-12 made only marginally more power -- 438 hp - and about the same torque, at 444 lb-ft. If BMW does introduce a V-12, we can be sure it'll be twin-turbocharged, just like the V-12s found in the Mercedes-Benz S-class, the biggest competitor to the 7-series.
And though the 750i and the 750Li don't appeal to our eyes, visually, the way that the S-class does, the new 7-series has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. With more gadgets, gizmos, bells, and whistles than your average electronics megastore, the 7-series is as much about its electronics as it is about driving. The dreaded iDrive is gone at last, replaced by an all-new system that will let the 7-series driver actually concentrate on driving his or her Ultimate Driving Machine.
We had the chance to spend a day with a pre-production, engineering mule of the new 7-series at BMW's testing facility in France. Click through the next few pages to find out what we learned about BMW's new flagship sedan.
Bye Bye Bangle Butt
You'd think that a preview of BMW's new luxury sedan would concentrate first and foremost on how the car drives. It is, after all, the Ultimate Driving Machine. If you can't stand the suspense, just skip ahead to the last page. Here's a teaser: we're pretty confident that the 7-series will be, dynamically, the best in its class. The last 7-series was pretty good in that regard. What the last-generation car needed badly, and what it got, was a makeover.
Personally, I consider the 2002 745i to be one of the homeliest sedans on the planet. The 2006 facelift did wonders for its face and for its sales numbers-according to BMW, it was the company's most successful facelift ever, in terms of additional sales generated-but the changes were a Band-Aid over a bullet wound.
The new car takes what was right about its predecessor-its stunning proportions-and rids it of the ugly details. No one will pull out cell-phone cameras when the new 7-series first rolls down your town's High Street-but they won't pull out sick bags, either. The first thing you notice is a startlingly large and vertical grille. The rest of the car, though, looks somehow familiar. The bull-nosed front end reminds us a little of the Lexus IS-F, and the exhaust diffusers (they're not exhaust tips) in the rear are vaguely like the ones in the Lexus LS. But the rest of the design isn't derivative.
The more you look at the 750i, the more details become apparent. In the photographs, the headlights look nondescript, if boring. But from straight on, when a 7-series is coming toward you, you'll notice the illuminated eyebrows, which instantly recall the stunning CS concept. The hood is devoid of ribs or detailing, save the wide power bulge that's typical of BMW. The sides of the 7-series are adorned with only two character lines-one very dramatic one that neatly incorporates the door handles, and another that flows gently from the chromed side-marker lights in the fender to the bottom of the doors. The roofline on the long-wheelbase 750Li differs from that of the short-wheelbase model to help eliminate the artificially stretched look that other cars suffer from (the long-wheelbase Jaguar XJ8, for example).
From the side view, the taillights look a little like the Toyota Camry's - or worse, like the new Toyota Venza's - but the side view is clean, modern, and inoffensive. The dog-leg Hofmeister kink behind the rear side window is there, of course, but it receives a subtle character line repeating its form. From the rear, there's something about the new 750i that subtly hints at the old (and still stunning) 850i coupe. It's likely the fact that the 7's styling elements are nearly all horizontal, for the purpose of calling attention to the car's width.
As with the rest of the car, it's the 7-series' detailing-which you don't see in photos-that's the most impressive. Long, flowing trails of LED lighting within the taillight are elegant and modern-and are totally lost in photos. For as much as the new 7 blends in with the landscape during the day, it'll stand out from everything at night.
Though the engineers pointed out repeatedly that the 7-series' center stack is canted at an angle of 7.2 degrees toward the driver, the interior is typical of modern BMWs, which means it's a little stark, dominated by horizontal elements on the dashboard. In this regard, it certainly looks like a successor to the current 7-series, but with vastly improved ergonomics and even better-feeling materials. Like the exterior, the interior doesn't have the visual impact or sumptuous elegance of the Mercedes S-class, but it's also completely inoffensive.
The shifter has moved back to the center console, the seat controls have moved back to the outboard positions, and the climate controls have, thankfully, moved out of iDrive. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The centerpiece of the 7-series' user interface is, of course, its iDrive controller. Thankfully, the old iDrive's menu structures have been ditched completely, replaced by a new, much more user-friendly menu structure. First and foremost, the new iDrive's menu structures are consistent-they all look the same and work the same.
The iDrive controller is smaller than the old one, and no longer uses force-feedback, but it doesn't really need to. It can be moved in all the same directions as the old controller (twisted, pressed, or shoved in any direction).
The main menu is no longer a north/south/east/west affair - it's a logical list of the iDrive's functions, organized circularly. You select a function by, for example, twisting the controller to the correct spot and then pressing it in. The submenus are clear, concise, and easy to figure out - and more important, they are stacked on top of one another visually on the screen. At any time, pressing the controller to the left accesses the previous menu. To the right, the next. It reminds us of a TiVo in its user-friendliness. You enter names in the navigation system by using a circular speller on the display, which is much easier and faster. As a bonus, a preview of the destination is displayed as you're typing, so in case there are multiple destinations with similar names, you're sure you've entered the correct one.
The direct-access buttons arranged around the iDrive controller are another bonus. Made in different sizes and shapes to help the user find the right button without needing to take his or her eyes off the road, they allow a quick jump to specific functions-such as going back to the radio controls or to the navigation map. There are two other function buttons that are key-one is labeled BACK, which mimics the eponymous button on your Internet browser, going back one step. The other is a button labeled OPTION, which gives a context-sensitive menu of functions like the right-click button on a PC mouse.
The unusually bright and clear screen is enlarged to 10.2 inches on the 7-series, with a resolution of 1280 x 480 pixels. There are eight favorite buttons located on the dash, and they can be programmed to operate almost any functions-from something simple as "play 92.7 FM" to "navigate home" to something as complicated as storing your favorite map display orientation and scale. As before, the iDrive screen can be split into two displays, with a larger display on the left and a smaller section on the right. However, unlike before, the smaller screen can simultaneously display a map with a different scale or orientation, or even music information, leaving the bigger, widescreen portion of the display for the navigation map.
The infotainment system also has a hard drive to store your music-and it can rip songs directly off of CDs. You can update the system's internal Gracenote system using one of two USB ports. The port in the glovebox can be used for software updates or to copy or play music from a memory stick. The USB port in the center console is used only to play music from a memory stick or USB-compatible device, like your iPod.
Thankfully, HVAC controls are now no longer part of iDrive-and all climate control functions are operated within a dash panel. The rear passengers also receive two separate zones of climate control, and their footwells are electrically heated. All climate controls are well-thought-out and easy to use, and the display uses BMW's new Black Panel technology.
The Black Panel is also found in the center console, and it refers to a new visual trick whereby a matte black panel covers LCD displays. The cover blacks out the edges of the LCD display below, so you don't see where the display starts and ends, and the contents of the display seem to come out of nowhere.
The 750i's gauges use this technology. With the engine switched off, you see only the chrome rings of the circular gauges. Once the ignition is turned on, however, the numbers and needles glow from below the surface. It's a pretty cool effect. Then, below the gauges is a rectangular LCD panel that displays all sorts of information-trip computer functions like fuel economy and navigation instructions, for example-that seems to rise from nowhere. In fact, the bottom quarter of each of the big circular gauges (the speedometer and tachometer) are rendered digitally to provide virtual fuel economy and range gauges. The instrument panel is simple and elegant as well as easy to read-and it lights up white during the day, and BMW's trademark orange at night.
BMW chose to move its steering-wheel-mounted volume control from the left side of the wheel to the right. This might upset a few traditionalists, but the reasoning for this change is anything but arbitrary. BMW wanted to move all driver-only functions to the left of the steering wheel, and all multimedia functions to the right. Hence, the cruise control is now controlled by buttons on the left spoke of the steering wheel (and is, for the first time, no longer on a separate stalk). The shifter, of course, remains on the right side of the wheel despite being a driver-only function, but at least is back on the center console instead of on the steering column.
The 7's new sunroof, which we were unable to use, also features a new and innovative built-in wind deflector. Unlike conventional deflectors, which pop up to one height when the sunroof is open, the 7's has multiple positions depending on vehicle speed, so that it can reduce wind buffeting in the cabin at lower speeds but then lower slightly to prevent excess wind noise at high speeds. The 7-series offers other technologies, of course. Read more about it in the Electronic Driver Aids section, next.
Electronic Driver Aids
BMW recognizes that the 750i and 750Li are much more likely to be driven by people who don't want-or even understand-the adjustability of the M3 and the M5. The M cars give their drivers almost endless combinations of adjustments to various electronically controlled chassis systems-which is great. But give someone enough rope, and he'll probably hang himself. So rather than allow the 7-series driver to choose an unwise combination of chassis settings, BMW gives the driver the choice of five pre-programmed settings, accessed through Dynamic Driving Control (DDC). DDC takes advantage of BMW's Integrated Chassis Management (ICM) system, which uses a Flexray data transmission system that lets up to 16 chassis control units talk to one another. Sounds complicated, but its job is to make life simpler for you, the driver.
The F01's five pre-programmed modes, in order of increasing "sportiness,"are Comfort, Normal, Sport, Sport Plus, or DSC off. The 7-series will start out in whatever mode it was previously left in, as long as that's either Comfort or Normal. Because the higher modes increase fuel consumption (by putting the transmission in sport mode), the 7-series will revert to Normal on re-start.
As you move up through the modes, the DDC will gradually change the function of, among other things, the following systems:
* Electronic Damping Control. This system gives a computer control over the suspension's shock absorbers and can vary the stiffness of each shock absorber continuously and independently of the others. Additionally, it can also vary the shock's tuning in compression and rebound independently. Going to a sportier mode in DDC will stiffen the suspension accordingly.
* Six-speed automatic transmission. The transmission's shift patterns become gradually more aggressive in the higher modes, leading to increased response but decreased fuel economy. Shoving the transmission selector to the "sport" mode (as on other BMW automatics) accomplishes the same thing independently of the DDC mode.* Electronic throttle control: The higher modes quicken up the accelerator pedal mapping for quicker responses. We're not usually a fan of these systems because they don't actually increase power output, just make it more difficult to drive smoothly.
* Dynamic Drive Control (which is optional, as part of the Sport Package). This system, known from other BMWs, uses computer-controlled actuators to stiffen or loosen the anti-roll bars. Stiff anti-roll bars help reduce body roll in corners but contribute to a rough ride; so when the car isn't cornering, the computer can reduce the preload on the bars, smoothing out the ride. Higher levels in the DDC stiffen up body roll earlier.
* Integral Active Steering (also optional as part of the Sport Package). This system takes BMW's Dynamic Steering to a new level. Dynamic Steering gives the computer control of the steering ratio-the amount you need to turn the steering wheel in order to get a certain response from the front wheels. We've used the system in the past and liked that it allows you to park easily (by reducing the steering ratio at low speeds), but have felt the varying ratios hard to get used to. BMW has taken the system to a new level by adding active rear steering - a system that can electrically turn the rear wheels up to 3' in either direction, also altering the steering ratio. Like other such systems, it turns the rear wheels in the opposite direction of the front at parking speeds (impressively reducing the turning radius by almost three feet), and in the same direction at high speeds (increasing vehicle stability, and also increasing rear-seat comfort by changing yaw-angle forces into lateral forces for the passengers back there). It can also supply small corrective forces during slides, reducing the need for stability control to intervene. Not only can the system change the steering angle, but it can also change the steering effort. And as you select higher modes, the system quickens the steering and reduces assist, giving a more sporty feeling. It's probably the most dramatic change through the DDC modes.
* Dynamic Stability Control (DSC). The 7-series' DSC includes a huge amount of sub-functions, including ABS (anti-lock brakes), ASC (stability control, including a separate mode for stabilizing a trailer), CBC (cornering brake control), DBC (Dynamic Brake Control, which recognizes panic situations and helps the driver to effect a full-braking panic stop with less pedal pressure), Brake Fade Compensation, Brake Drying (which applies the brakes slightly in wet conditions to keep the pads dry and thus ready for use), Brake Standby (which applies slight brake pressure in the event of a sudden lift from the gas, moving the brake pads up against the rotor for quicker response in a panic stop), Startoff Assistant (which prevents the 750i from rolling backwards down a hill as you start out), ACC Active Cruise Control (see below), and automatic brake hold (which holds the car at a stop even with the transmission in gear). And last but not least, the DSC system provides electronic rear limited-slip functionality by braking a spinning rear wheel. DSC is engaged in all modes, except the two most aggressive. In Sport Plus, a special DTC mode is engaged, where the threshold of stability control intervention is raised to allow more spirited driving without intervention. Stability control (but not ABS or the electronic diff functionality) is switched off completely in DSC-off mode (which is selected by holding down the DSC button for several seconds).
Unlike in the M cars, none of the DDC modes are adjustable except one: Sport. In iDrive, you have the option of changing each of the chassis systems individually for your own favorite chassis setting.
The long-wheelbase 750Li also has self-leveling rear air suspension standard. Other optional technology is as follows:
* Active Blind Spot Detection and Lane Change Warning uses radar sensors in the rear bumpers to see around two hundred feet behind the vehicle to determine if a vehicle is in, or is approaching, the 7-series from behind in a neighboring lane. A triangle in the appropriate outside rear-view mirror illuminates if the system detects that a vehicle is in the driver's blind spot - or is approaching it rapidly. Should the driver turn the signal on to indicate that he or she will be turning into that lane, LEDs in the mirror housing will flash brightly at the driver, and the steering wheel will vibrate.
* Lane Departure Warning: A camera in the windshield rear-view mirror monitors lane markings ahead and will signal the driver if she or he is about to wander out of their lane without signaling.
* Highbeam Assist will automatically dim the high-beam lights when an oncoming car is visible, and then re-activate them after the car has passed.
* Sideview Cameras: Thanks to small cameras mounted in the front fenders, the driver of the 7-series can see to the left and right from a vantage point well in front of the seat when, for example, creeping out from a side street when visibility is restricted. Of course, the 7-series also has the requisite reverse camera, but the sideview cameras are options.
* Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection: The 7-series uses an infrared camera to detect animals, pedestrians, and other living objects up to 1600 feet in front of the car-well in advance of the headlight's illumination. A new system can recognize pedestrians (and, later, will be able to recognize other animals) and will warn the driver. If the pedestrian is in the path of the vehicle, a second, stronger warning will be given.
* Active Cruise Control (ACC) with Stop-and-Go Function. The new version of BMW's radar-guided cruise control can bring the 7-series to a stop, and then manage stop-and-go traffic so long as the car isn't stopped for more than 3 seconds.
* BMW Assist will automatically call a call center in the event that the 7-series is involved in a crash where the airbags were triggered. In addition to the location of the car, the 750i will transmit data about the severity of the crash so that emergency response workers can dispatch the appropriate amount of help.
With all of these technologies, how does the 7-series drive? Your answer-finally-on the next page.
2009 BMW 750i and 750iL Driving Impressions
So how does it drive? Well, brilliantly. Of course, we had the opportunity to drive the new 7-series only on BMW's proving grounds-and only for a very limited time. The twin-turbo V-8 exhibits some very noticeable lag off the line, but this is a seriously fast sedan-one that will likely outrun (or at least match the performance of) last year's V-12 760Li.
From behind the wheel, the 7-series feels much smaller than it is. The electronic systems help in this regard, but pushing a long-wheelbase 750Li around the dry handling track, we were very impressed with its neutral balance, prodigious cornering grip, and strong brakes. Put DDC in the higher modes (like Sport Plus) and the steering ratio is quick, effort is high, and the big 7 turns in sharply and with no noticeable body control. It's no exaggeration to think you're driving something the size of a 5-series-or even a 3-series-when the road turns curvy.
That sentiment was no less apparent on the wet handling course in a short-wheelbase 750i. A perfectly neutral chassis setup combined with the thrust of 450 lb-ft of torque makes it very easy to be sideways in the 7-series (with the stability control disabled, of course). Noticeable turbo lag and jumpy accelerator pedal response in the sportier DDC modes made holding drifts a bit difficult. This 7-series dances so well, you'll be tempted to drift it.
Thanks to extensive use of aluminum (in the roof, front fenders, doors, and front spring towers) the 7-series gains only a few pounds over its predecessor.
The ride quality seemed fantastic (especially in the softer modes), soft but always well controlled. This is the first non-crossover BMW to use a multi-link front suspension (all previous sedans used a strut-type front suspension). As we said in the introduction, there's little doubt that the new 7-series will remain at the top of its class, dynamically.
Whether 100-mph drifts are what its target audience cares about, however, is another story. We suspect not - but if the last 7-series was BMW's best-selling 7-series ever, there's little doubt that this one will do even better. After all, it's vastly better looking and infinitely easier to use. All I kept thinking was "this new 7-series is going to make a hell of a platform for the car that BMW's going to build off the Concept CS show car." With this car's dance moves and improved interface and the CS's good looks, that will be the luxury car to beat. Until then, we can heave a sigh of relief that BMW has finally admitted-without admitting anything at all-that the old 7-series was deeply flawed. And fixed the new one.