D. John Booth, Contributor
BMW is rolling the dice with its new 7 Series. The existing car, one that looks devastatingly handsome even after seven years on the market, is a favorite of BMW loyalists and the motoring press. Will BMW hit seven with the new Seven?
The styling is already taking heat from critics. Not sure what to make of this new look? Get used to it. Future Bimmers will take cues from this car.
Otherwise, the 745i is likely to enjoy years of success. It possesses incredible power, handling and sophistication. Of course, the price will be equally incredible, but those shopping for the ultimate super-luxury sedan hardly worry about such trivialities.
All that sophistication comes bundled with some equally incredible complexity. And though it's the new iDrive computerized convenience management system that BMW's marketing mavens are touting, the mechanical hardware, not the confusing software, is what impresses.
Boasting 333 horsepower (compared with the outgoing version's 286), the 745i's new V8 engine displaces 4.4 liters, the same as last year. Despite the infusion of power, BMW claims "at least 10 percent better fuel economy under driving conditions typically encountered by the customer." More horsepower and better fuel economy? Pretty soon BMW will take credit for discovering the fountain of youth.
But it's true, all because of something BMW calls Valvetronic. This high-tech induction system has allowed the company to eliminate the throttle completely and continuously adjust the intake valves, thus achieving improved fuel economy numbers and better engine responsiveness.
Valvetronic's secret lies with the intake camshaft. Taking the operation of modern variable valve timing to another level, Valvetronic can adjust the opening and closing of the intake valves to such an extent that a traditional throttle system is no longer needed. The 745's gas pedal literally controls the intake camshaft, replacing the inefficient throttle plate in the intake manifold, thereby making the engine more responsive.
And how responsive it is. Last year's motor was world-class. This new one raises the bar. It's as smooth as any Lexus, as lusty as a blown Jaguar and makes more than sufficient power. BMW claims that 0 to 60 mph takes about 6.2 seconds.
Power delivery is managed by the segment's first six-speed automatic transmission, and as much as the extra ratio helps acceleration and fuel economy, it's biggest boon is its smooth shifts. In its Steptronic automanual mode, shifts are often imperceptible. On more than one occasion, it seemed the system had not responded to the steering wheel-mounted controls, but a glance at the dashboard indicator proved that the transmission really had changed gears.
The 745 we drove, which had the optional 19-inch wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Primacy tires (it's also available with Pirelli P Zeros) and BMW's Dynamic Drive active roll stabilization system, is the best-handling BMW this side of an M3. Steering, despite the new car's longer wheelbase, is also more precise than ever. By way of boasting, BMW claims the 745 is as adept on a twisty road as its ultimate sports car, the Z8.
Much of the credit for its handling prowess goes to the Dynamic Drive system. A short spin in the 745 reveals that there's something radically new controlling body motion. Below 0.3g's, lateral acceleration (moderate cornering), body roll is completely eliminated. Up to 0.6g's (we're starting to get playful here), roll is reduced by 80 percent. It's absolutely uncanny to toss around such a large car while experiencing so little body roll. Because Dynamic Drive hydraulically stiffens the antiroll bars and not the suspension, the 745's ride remains as compliant as ever, despite its impressive cornering. Mercedes-Benz offers a similar system, called Active Body Control (ABC), on the S-Class sedan, a direct competitor to the BMW Seven, but the Bavarians have done a better job by a significant margin.
When we first viewed the new Seven at the 2001 Frankfurt Motor Show, we wondered whether the company known for creating ultimate driving machines had lost focus and wanted now to create ultimate distraction machines. The source of our concern is called iDrive, and according to inside sources, it sets the direction of all future BMW interiors.
Now that we've had an opportunity to drive the 745i, we think they might want to wait on that. While its execution is better than many other telematics systems, iDrive is ultimately too complex, causing distraction because it doesn't allow quick and easy access to rudimentary everyday functions.
iDrive consists of a computer that controls 270 functions (including basic climate and stereo settings), a center-mounted LCD screen and a console-mounted rotary pushbutton knob that works as the system's "mouse." It's an amazingly powerful system that BMW sees taking over almost all vehicle functions, from navigation to setting the smart cruise control's automatic speed increments. Ditto for the audio functions, which require a PhD in Astrophysics to implement. And setting a new radio station is an overly complex procedure far removed from the old press-and-hold buttons of a regular system.
The good news is that while you can program innumerable functions for the climate system using the iDrive mouse, you still have simple control knobs in the dashboard to make basic adjustments. Unfortunately, the same provision hasn't been made for the audio system, making simple tasks far too difficult. If you're an inveterate channel-hopper (like several of our staffers), the iDrive system might be a major irritant compared to a simple tuning knob and a few buttons. Our advice to BMW (and every other manufacturer creating such systems) is to provide the power of customization through digital power, but retain basic manual controls for functions that are used every day.
A few other convenience items work more effortlessly. There's now an electronically actuated parking brake that eliminates the need for a retractable lever. It even serves as an emergency brake if the normal braking system fails. Even more impressive is the Automatic Hold function that, when the Seven is stopped at a stoplight, uses the brakes to hold the car still until the throttle is depressed. There's no need to keep your foot on the brake to keep from moving forward. And lastly, the selector for the automatic transmission has moved from the center console to the steering column. But instead of a protruding stalk, the 745's selector is a cute little arm that shifts the transmission electronically.
The rest of the 745's interior deserves compliment. The leather is, of course, first-rate. Optionally available are comfortable seats, for both front and rear occupants, and there's more interior room, especially in the rear. Those needing even more space will have to wait a few months after the 745i arrives until the long-wheelbase 745Li comes to the United States. And if 333 horsepower isn't enough for you, BMW has a 760Li waiting in the wings, with 12 cylinders of motor and 408 horsepower. It's due a year after the 745's launch.
Unquestionably, the redesigned BMW 745i represents the most modern and technologically advanced production automobile in the world. Innovations like Valvetronic and Dynamic Drive are significant, and they raise the bar for other super-luxury sedan manufacturers. But iDrive, which might possibly take "most-confusing-telematics" laurels from Mercedes' COMAND system, isn't what buyers of the ultimate driving machines want. Luxury and elegance are as much about simplicity as they are aesthetics, and iDrive is not simple, no matter how clean it looks to the naked eye.
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