7th Heaven for Techies; Luddites Look Elsewhere
No one would deny that BMW has taken a bold move with its 2002 7 Series, but beyond that rather simple-minded statement, you'd be hard-pressed to find agreement over the company's latest luxury sedan. For the mainstream automotive press, the general consensus is that the 7 is, well, controversial.
Ask BMW representatives for their take on the industry's response to the 2002 version and they'll likely tell you that the 7 Series was not meant to please everyone. After all, BMW prides itself on setting trends, not following them, and many of today's premium vehicles portray obvious BMW styling and design cues.
Does this mean that in three years luxury sedans will look like the one pictured here? Probably not. Recent glimpses at BMW's next 5 Series prove that even the folks in Munich aren't completely ready to stake the company's future on this flagship.
Thankfully, whether one adores or abhors the 2002 7 Series from a visual standpoint, it only takes a few minutes behind the wheel to confirm that the car's basic BMW genes are intact.
Actually, it might take more than a few minutes, depending on how quickly you grasp the functioning of the ignition "key" and start procedure. The key is similar in shape to what an Audi or Volkswagen key looks like when the toothed metal portion is folded into the roughly rectangular plastic fob. But instead of deploying a metal rod, inserting it into an ignition switch and rotating the key fob, the 7 Series offers a large, vertical dash-mounted slot that almost completely swallows the entire key fob. Once the key is pressed into place, a second press shuts down the vehicle and ejects the key when it's time to exit the vehicle.
With the key inserted, a start button, much like the one in Honda's S2000 or BMW's own Z8, is used to fire the 4.4-liter dual-overhead cam V8 engine. The drivetrain features all of BMW's latest techno-wizardry, including Valvetronic Double-VANOS variable valve timing and a variable intake manifold. This system replaces the traditional throttle system because it can control the engine's power by simply adjusting the intake valve timing. The result is improved horsepower, improved gas mileage and superior throttle response, imbuing the V8 with a healthy 325 horsepower and offering fuel mileage of 18 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.
Part of that high-mileage figure is due to the vehicle's advanced six-speed automatic transmission. An "adaptive" feature in the transmission allows it to adjust shift behavior for specific driving styles, though we sometimes felt it was a bit slow to downshift. Far more annoying was the "manual" mode that isn't really manual at all. By pressing a button on the steering wheel hub you can put the transmission into "L" mode, which apparently stands for "Low." In this mode, either chrome steering wheel button (one each located at the "10" and "2" positions just inside the steering wheel rim) allows the driver to downshift from his current gear. The buttons do not allow for manual upshifting. After reading through the owner's manual, it was apparent that, in some countries, these buttons perform as they should, meaning one button works to downshift the transmission while the other is used to upshift. Why Americans were given the "lite" version of an automanual mode makes little sense. BMW says a real automanual is destined for U.S.-bound cars "in the future."
We can report that when the transmission up- or downshifts, it does so with a refined elegance and positive engagement rarely experienced in a four-wheeled conveyance. Under full throttle, the 4.4-liter's broad powerband, combined with the transmission's six forward gears, effortlessly allows the car to reach speed. Zero to 60 mph occurs in 6 seconds flat, with the quarter-mile coming in 14.5 seconds at 97 mph.
While these numbers are impressive for a 2-ton luxury car, they can only be appreciated in the context of the 7's cabin, where even a near-100-mph test run at a private facility feels like a walk in the park. Wind noise is almost non-existent at such speeds, though anything over 40 mph will produce varying amounts of tire rumble (depending on the driving surface) from the car's optional 19-inch wheels and low-profile Michelin Pilot tires.
Handling and braking dynamics are similarly sublime, with 60-to-0-mph stopping distances at 110 feet and average 600-foot slalom speeds staying above 63 mph. But again, as with the acceleration numbers, you can't get the whole story from simply glancing at a spec sheet. Where the 7 Series excels is not in pure performance but in the stately manner maintained throughout its luxury mission. Steering feel is standard-issue BMW with relatively high weighting and excellent feedback. Several staffers found the car a sheer delight to drive. And while it may be a stretch to call the 745i nimble, words like confident and dynamic are perfectly suited to the sedan.
Much of the 7's handling prowess comes via two active suspension systems called Active Roll Stabilization and Electronic Damping Control; both are standard on all 7 Series models. Active Roll Stabilization uses hydraulics to stiffen the sedan's roll bars while the step-less Electronic Damping Control works to smooth the ride over varying road surfaces. Both systems improve ride and handling quality and can be combined with yet a third optional system called Adaptive Ride Package that features a self-leveling rear suspension (our test car did not have this option). It should be noted, however, that medium to large bumps can produce an occasional jarring sensation if you opt for the 19-inch wheel-and-tire package that our test vehicle had.
Never jarring are the supple front and rear seats found inside the 7's cabin. The front seats offer a multitude of adjustments, though the controls (located on the side of the center console) take some getting used to. The front seats are remarkably comfortable, as is the rear seat. The rear seatback contours perfectly support your lower back and shoulders while headroom and legroom are abundant. Go for the 745Li and you'll get 5.6 inches of increased wheelbase, most of it going into rear-seat legroom for those occasional NBA chauffeuring runs.
Our 745i had the optional Cold Weather Package that gave us heated front and rear seats, along with a heated steering wheel and a ski bag pass-through between the trunk and rear seat. It also had the optional power rear window and side window sunshades that can be deployed individually or all at once, depending on your rear passengers' level of UV tolerance.
The primary control mechanism for the 7 Series' numerous luxury features is the much ballyhooed (and pooh-poohed) iDrive system. Despite the swirling controversy, we approached iDrive with an open mind and tried to perform some basic functions without cracking the owner's manual or calling a BMW representative. With minimal fussing, we were able to operate the navigation system, program the radio station memory slots and adjust tonal controls. We also programmed the seat memory and utilized the basic climate controls. We should point out that not all of these items require iDrive interaction. In fact, the basic climate controls are located in the center of the dash and couldn't be more straightforward. Higher level features, such as telling the car to "ventilate" the interior at a pre-determined time (like just before the movie you've gone to see ends and you don't want to get into a hot, stuffy car) requires much spinning and pressing of the iDrive knob located on the center console.
We must acknowledge that we could not operate the higher level functions without referring to the owner's manual. These included displaying the odometer, utilizing the voice commands, understanding the "split-screen" design of the information display and understanding the steering wheel buttons for automanual mode of the transmission.
Despite the potentially complex nature of iDrive, the control mechanism itself is quite ingenious. It utilizes an electronically created tactile feedback system that, when scrolling through menus, gives the user different-feeling "detents." It is bizarre at first, but quickly makes sense. When you consider the level of complex functions that can be controlled through this simple dial/button combination, it almost makes the steep learning curve and inevitable frustrations worth it.
Had the iDrive system performed flawlessly throughout our loan period, we'd have probably given it a qualified thumbs up (the qualification being that it will take some time to master). However, we encountered multiple "glitches" with the system that could not be explained by anyone at BMW.
For instance, at one point we lost volume and on/off control of the audio system, meaning we had to listen to the audio system whether we wanted to or not (thankfully, we could still change radio stations). Because our driver was on a major Los Angeles freeway in rush hour, he couldn't easily pull over and totally concentrate on the problem, though he was convinced it was something he'd caused while playing with iDrive. After about an hour (or about 5 miles in L.A. rush hour time), the central screen briefly went blank, and then came on with the initial message that was displayed every time the 7 Series was started. More puzzled than ever, our driver decided to give the volume knob another try and it worked! He then pressed the knob and the sound system shut off. It seems the computer finally recognized the problem and did the equivalent of a reboot to correct it.
On a different day, we tried utilizing the voice command controls and found the system to be completely non-responsive. It would ask us for commands, but no matter how clearly we spoke, it didn't recognize what we were saying. Acting on our earlier experience with the sound system, we shut the car off completely and restarted it. Sure enough, the voice command now worked perfectly. In fact, except for the brief period when it wasn't working at all, the system proved more capable of understanding voice commands than any other such system we've tried. It could even deal with our lame attempts at various accents, as well as a large amount of background interior noise (like having a window open at mid-range speeds).
Our final iDrive "glitch" involved the radio coming on after the car had been shut off and parked. This happened in our own parking garage and was noted by another editor when he was parking next to the BMW. "Why is the radio on in the 7 Series? I was going to turn it off, but the doors are locked," were the first words out of his mouth when he got into the office. With a grumble, the previous driver, who had parked the silent BMW luxury sedan 30 minutes earlier, got up from behind his desk, grabbed the 7 Series key and schlepped down to the parking garage while sarcastically muttering something about the "great promise of technology." A check with a BMW representative confirmed that "No, the car isn't supposed to randomly turn the radio on after the doors are locked and the key is out of the ignition." Hmmm.
More confounding than iDrive, at least for some editors, were the steering column-mounted stalks for shifting, cruise control, turn signals and wiper functions. All four stalks are precariously close together and nearly identical in look and feel. Like iDrive, these stalks are all about tactility, so if you want to go between park, reverse and drive you have to know just how hard and just how far to push or pull the lever. The same goes for setting cruise control or adjusting wiper speed. On more than one occasion, this writer was trying to execute a quick three-point turn and ended up spraying the windshield washer fluid (always impressive to bystanders wondering who the Homer Simpson-type is driving the new 7 Series). The counter argument would be that with familiarity will come ease of use, but after being the primary 7 Series driver for 10 days, one editor still was spraying washer fluid when it was time to back up.
Glitches aside, the 745i is undeniably a technological tour de force. The park distance control provides both an audible and visual assessment of the surrounding area that should completely eliminate those annoying low-speed "oops" situations in parking lots and tight garages. The navigation system, though still CD-based, updates quickly and displays its instructions in the central screen as well as within the tachometer gauge for clear, easy-to-read directions. The "soft-close" doors and power-opening and -closing trunk lid seem like minor conveniences until you live with them for a week or two, at which point the $1,000 Convenience Package that includes them seems like a bargain. The trunk itself is huge 18 cubic feet and contains a fullsize 19-inch spare. Finally, the Logic 7 audio system is one of the best we've heard and is certainly on par with the Mark Levinson systems found in Lexus products.
For those in the super luxury sedan market, the new 7 offers undeniable performance, unmatched technology and uncompromising luxury. BMW even managed to keep the price competitive despite the all-new design. But it replaces an icon in this category a sleek, refined and straightforward car that many felt couldn't be improved on.
Perhaps they were right.
System Score: 8
Components: As they used to say at the beginning of a Monty Python skit, "And now for something completely different!" The stereo system in the 2002 BMW 745i is, indeed, something different. Operated through a sizable LCD screen that is tucked well into the dash to shield it from the rays of the sun, this system might strike the user as something out of the Jetsons. Still, after a little time playing with the system, we got the hang of it. Whether American consumers, a notoriously low-tech crowd, will take to this design will be revealed in sales charts in a boardroom somewhere in Bavaria.
Most of the functions for the audio system are controlled by iDrive. The controller, when turned, scans through the various functions; when pushed down, it acts as an enter key on a computer. In fact, computer is the operative word here, since this whole system operates like a giant hands-on computer. While we appreciated the ergonomic feel of the dial, a few things bugged us, like: 1) no direct access to desired functions; you must scroll/wade through the clutter onscreen to get to your chosen function; and 2) the display is not a touchscreen, so the dial is the only operable user interface.
The good news: This is a full-featured and very rich-sounding system. Designed by Harman-Kardon, it includes a six-disc cartridge CD changer built into the dash plus a bevy of onboard functions to vary the sound. Other surprise and delight features: "invisible" mid-bass drivers built into the doors and Harman-Kardon's patented Logic 7 DSP circuitry to play psycho-acoustic games with your head and make you think you're in a cathedral when you're snarled in traffic.
Performance: This is a very, very good sounding system the best we've heard from BMW. Lows are tight and richly mellow, highs are velvety warm and silky smooth, and the whole sonic range is stupendously rendered.
Best Feature: Staggering sound quality.
Worst Feature: Have to use iDrive.
Conclusion: If you can live with some strange ergonomic cues, this one has sound quality for the ages. This system once again shows that BMW is getting more serious about its stereo offerings good news for this German automaker which has typically lagged behind its competitors. Scott Memmer
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The year was 1999. This was back in the days when fears of a Y2K meltdown was rampant and the Pets.com dog puppet still had a job. A certain naive young journalist drove her first-ever press vehicle, the BMW 750iL, forever warping her sensibilities about what a car should be.
To me, it was the epitome of class, luxury and nonpareil engineering. Thus it was with great anticipation that I drove the new 7, vowing to disregard the technophobes who were slamming the vehicle for its iDrive system and its, um, distinctive appearance.
The 7 is still one of the most enjoyable cars that I've ever driven. Even with its wide berth and significant mass, it was able to hustle through the tightest of corners with a shrug of the shoulders and a burst of seamless thrust. The steering was stereotypically communicative, its suspension able to alternate between comfort and inspiring "I-bet-I-can-drive-this-faster-than-is-prudent" confidence. Most of the functions of iDrive were easy enough to figure out, although in my time with the car, I never did figure out how to set different stations.
And yet, something seems to have gotten lost in the translation. Little items such as the feel of the turn signal are overengineered just for change's sake. Even though the streets of West Los Angeles are now littered with them, I still haven't gotten used to the styling. The previous 7 Series set the bar on the pinnacle of automotive joyousness; the current 7 can't quite match up to it.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
This 745i was interesting. In some respects, it was a much better vehicle than anticipated, especially when run hard on a twisty road. In most others, however, it failed to impress.
Inside, some cheap bits and poor assembly were in evidence, such as the valence under the gauge cluster that I was able to wiggle with my hand and a driver airbag cover that was mounted off-center. Also, the sun glare reflected into the windshield from the wood trim on the dashboard was obnoxious. And I never quite got perfectly comfortable. Still, the majority of cabin materials appear to be of a premium grade, and the design is aesthetically pleasing if ergonomically challenging.
Surprisingly, it took me longer to figure out how to get the car started and put into gear than it did to learn how to use iDrive. Still, I wish there were a simple set of basic radio controls provided to complement the existing climate knobs and buttons. It would make operating the audio system much easier. And though I learned how to use iDrive relatively quickly, actually employing it to perform functions was a difficult story. For example, I was able to preset stations and dial up new ones without too much effort, but stumbled onto those functions while fiddling around...ask me to duplicate the method and I'm not sure I could without consulting a manual. I was also able to program the navigation system without trouble, but it wasn't clear to me that the system was calculating a new route, and being impatient, I kept trying to get it to reprogram the new route by going through different menus. A message saying "route calculating" would have been helpful here. And, it's worth noting, I drifted out of my lane at one point while fiddling with the system, and almost traded paint with a white Chevy Malibu next to me.
I suppose that buyers of this vehicle will be attracted to all the technology, but I also assume that potential buyers will be turned off and want something more simplistic or traditional. Personally, I think that part of the definition of luxury, whether you're talking cars, homes, clothes, hotels or whatever is simplicity. Whatever is called "luxurious" should help simplify your life. The BMW 7 Series, once learned, will do that, but to someone impatient like me, the car isn't worth the effort.
I'd buy an M5 for the same money. Or last year's 7 Series.
Just purchased this vehicle and having a ball with it. Basically it is awesome. Still learning all the functions. Performs remarkably. This is my 5th BMW and it is definitely the most advanced and best.
Favorite Features: a drivers car. Driver is totally in control. Functions allow the eyes to be kept on the road. I drive is not scary and getting much easier to learn and use.
Suggested Improvements: DVD for the GPS. Remote needs to be too close to the car to function. By Richard (April 3, 2002)
Buying this car is an act of faith that BMW is on the right track. The iDrive gets easier with time, but there is no excuse for the difficulty involved in using and setting the radio (clearly no person who was ever the driver of a car thought this up). I had the "disappearing radio settings" problem that has, for unknown reasons, corrected itself after six days. Car is attention getter - it is much nicer looking in person than it is in pictures, and the extra length of the Li makes it look less stubby in the rear end. By the way, it is much wider than the prior 740, need to watch mirrors.
Favorite Features: Telephone keypad; center bin storage area; the cell phone is great compared to the one that used to come with 740. Ride is great although 19" wheels are a little "solid" on city streets.
Suggested Improvements: Fix the radio so easier to use. Cannot stress enough what a pain this car is for valets and carwash - requires constant waste of time to teach strangers to use the car! By Westchester (May 4, 2002)
I had the car for two days, and then the problems started. I would list them if I didn't have to be under 700 characters. Apparently there are many software bugs that need to be fixed. Of course the dealership doesn't tell you until after you purchase the car. I have been told that my problems have been already documented, and BMW is aware of them. However they are not fixed. It's been at the dealership over a week now. The mechanics don't even know how to fix it, and must rely on BMW NA to help them.
Suggested Improvements: The car is great once the bugs get worked out of it. I think BMW should have waited on its release. By John (April 24, 2002)
I cannot stop smiling while I drive this car. No need for a sports car anymore.
Favorite Features: Engine, handling, acceleration, just about everything.
Suggested Improvements: Need to be able to upshift manually. By DJP (May 2, 2002)