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Few mainstream automobiles in the past 20 years have stirred controversy to the extent that BMW's ambitious 7 Series has. The BMW 7 Series still sparks debate three years after it was introduced, but we can assure you this: BMW's largest car is a luxury sedan in the truest sense, and it's impressive to drive. Its responsive engine and six-speed automatic transmission, its magic-carpet ride quality, excellent handling and awesomely powerful brakes deliver the ultimate in big-sedan driver control.
Whichever 7 Series you choose, starting with the standard 745i, you'll get a sedan that's big, smooth, fast and inspiring. It's also equipped with the latest safety technology. No matter where you sit, you'll experience a cabin that's beautiful and wonderfully comfortable. The 745Li and 760Li (L for long) offer even greater legroom in the back seats. All the 7 Series models are exceptionally powerful and responsive, and if the V12-powered 760i and 760Li don't stir something inside you, you may as well call a cab.
The 7 Series has stirred controversy as well as enthusiasm that revolves around two issues: styling and its iDrive interface. Known for brilliant high-performance sedans with conservative styling and straightforward interiors, BMW stepped out of the box with the introduction of this latest-generation 7 Series. The three years since the 7 Series launch have tempered controversy over its stunning styling only a little, and the styling direction introduced on 7 can now be seen on the 5 Series sedan, 6 Series coupe, Z3 sports car, as well as the 2006 3 Series models. One thing is for sure, the 7 Series has presence, something that cannot be said of the previous-generation models.
Virtually everything in the cabin is controlled through a single mouse-like interface called iDrive. BMW's controversial system controls the heater, the radio, the navigation system, and it demands some study to master. Once that's accomplished, however, driving the 7 Series cars is easy and quite satisfying. It will achieve your wishes quickly and efficiently, occasionally bending the laws of physics in the process. BMW says its goal with the 7 Series was building the safest car in the world.
The whisper-quiet cabin is a great place for quiet conversation or magnificent solitude. The 7 Series has a superb-sounding stereo, so it's an insulated sound studio where you can hear Mozart concertos, crystal clear vocals or crisp acoustic guitar notes. And the level of technology the 7 Series offers is mind boggling. Silent, hidden fans and heating elements cool or warm your rear end or your soft drink; microchips can instantaneously detect a skidding tire or apply the brakes full force just in case you were distracted by a phone call; power sunshades keep the sun off your rear passengers. Adaptive headlights turn with the car.
Among the big luxury sedans, the BMW 7 Series is indeed the ultimate driving machine.
BMW stepped out of the box and produced a revolutionary blueprint with its 7 Series sedans. The objectives were to create a luxury sedan with presence and curb appeal. Indeed, the current 7 Series look more agile and muscular than the previous-generation models, which looked bland. Though the trademark twin-kidney grille and long hood make it clear that this is a BMW, the 7 Series is a dramatic departure from BMWs past in nearly every respect.
The 7's styling has not pleased everyone, however. The overall design, and particularly the rear half, have generated controversy among design critics and automotive media. BMW claims its buyers love it. With time in the car and detailed explanations from BMW as to why it looks like it does, we can tell you that the 7 Series styling is based on rational objectives.
Underneath the styling are a number of hard parameters: This 7 Series is substantially taller than its predecessor (by 2.2 inches), giving its occupants more head room, more rear-seat roominess and a larger trunk. The greatest increase in height is along the outer edges of the roof, increasing head room and improving safety for occupants. The 7 Series is also slightly longer (1.8 inches) and wider (1.6 inches), and its wheelbase is significantly longer (2.3 inches) than before. It's a much bigger car than before. With these dimensional changes, BMW had to re-work the proportions and redesign the surface details. In other words, the styling had to be changed.
To maintain good proportions, the 7 Series was given a fast greenhouse with a very fast C-pillar (All of the roof pillars are much thicker for enhanced safety in the event of a rollover). Bigger wheels were fitted on all models. The rear-wheel-drive BMW 7 Series uses a long hood and a swept rear glass, intended to create a sporty, coupe look.
The rear end has been the focus of the controversy. Much of its design can be traced back to an attempt to handle the substantially raised rear deck height. Because the roof was raised dramatically, the rear deck needed to be raised to help the 7 Series achieve its excellent aerodynamics, which is crucial in reducing wind noise, improving fuel efficiency and increasing stability at high speed. Because the tail needed to be raised so high, a sculptured appearance was used to maintain the lines of the car.
The back end does not look like previous BMWs, and that's a big reason people have been talking about it. The L-shaped taillights extending across the trunk lid are a departure: They're intended to draw the eye across the back, making the car look wider. The lights themselves are a technological marvel, employing a feature BMW calls adaptive brake lighting. Under normal braking, the outboard and third brake lights illuminate as usual. Under hard braking or when ABS is activated, the taillights join the brake lights for a significant increase in visibility of the brake lights. The distinction is designed to signal following drivers that you are stopping very quickly. A monitoring system indicates when a bulb is burned out. And while waiting for you to have it replaced, the system will commandeer other bulbs in the taillamps to use as brake lights.
Up front, the outer edges of the 7 Series headlamp clusters sweep up, instead of down as they've traditionally done on BMWs. (All of the latest BMWs have adapted this styling cue.) Set relatively low, the headlamps are trimmed by turn signals above them, looking like the eyebrows of a hawk. High-intensity discharge headlamps are used for both low and high beams on the outboard lamps; the inboard lamps are conventional halogen high beams. The Adaptive Headlight option allows the outboard lights to turn with the car, focusing their beams into a curve, rather than off the edge of the road.
The exterior mirrors can be retracted inward with the touch of a button, reducing the parking width more than a foot. It's a great convenience for drivers with nar
High-quality materials and elegant design make the 7 Series cabin an exceedingly pleasant place in which to conduct the business of driving. The dash looks particularly clean and elegant because the iDrive system eliminates so many switches and knobs. Beautiful, buttery leather trim is used throughout, and a variety of materials create interest without making the interior look busy. Wood trim is spread tastefully on the dash, center console and elsewhere. BMW offers light- or dark-stained Black Cherry with a matte finish, or light or dark high-gloss Ash. I loved the light Black Cherry for its timeless elegance. (I did not care for the optional strip of wood on the back dash, however.)
The two cup holders up front are handsome, high-tech and practical. The standard roof liner in the 745i reminds us of fine suit material, something you might encounter on a woman's business jacket, and BMW says many of the interior materials were inspired by the fashion industry. The 760Li's roof is lined with suede-like alcantara. The sun visors do not appear to live up to the quality of the rest of the interior, though.
The front seats are supportive and comfortable, and by that we mean all of them. The standard seats in the 745i adjust 14 ways. The available Comfort Seats adjust in 20 directions. Some adjustments are automatic, including the headrests, which change height according to the position of the seat. The sport package seats have bolstering on par with those in a sports car. Active Seat Ventilation cools the front and rear seats in the summer by blowing air through micro-perforations in the leather; the system includes a vibrating feature and comes with complementary perforated leather trim elsewhere inside the cabin.
All 7 Series sedans feature dual-zone temperature and airflow adjustment for the front passengers; the 760Li adds separate temperature adjustments for each side of the rear seat. The climate controls were improved in 2004 with an automatic humidity control that maintains relative humidity near an optimal 40 percent. A new rain sensor detects misting on the windshield and automatically wipes it off.
The rear seats are roomy and comfortable. The long-wheelbase L models provide as much rear legroom as you'll find this side of a stretch limo. Waterfall LED atmosphere lighting inside the C-pillars adds to the evening elegance of the rear seats. For bright days, the 760Li includes power sunshades for the rear windscreen and rear side windows. Comfort Seats for the rear come standard on the 760Li and are available for the 745Li. Rear Comfort Seats include electric heating and 14-way power adjustments, with a control that allows rear-seat passengers to move the front passenger seat forward, a great feature. Having a skilled professional drive you around while you luxuriate in back is not the worst way to travel. Rear Comfort Seats make the BMW 7 Series the ultimate riding machine.
Under power, the 7 Series cabin remains whisper quiet. The only sound we could hear while driving the 745i over San Antonio's busy freeways was the tires whacking over expansion joints or humming across grooved concrete. Ambient noise is wonderfully deadened inside, making conversation easy and pleasant.
The quiet cabin provides a perfect environment for a superb stereo that delivers crisp highs, sharp bass, and clear mid-range tones. BMW's Premium Sound Package, developed by Harman Kardon's Lexicon, is truly sensational. Unless you have a state-of-the-art stereo at home, you'll hear things in your favorite songs you've barely noticed before. The premium package delivers seven channels of surround sound through 13 speakers, including a pair of subwoofers ingeniously integrated into the chassis itself; it includes a CD changer.
Sirius Satellite Radio offers 60 commercial-free channels of music and 40 of news, sports and talk. It's great for tuning into FoxNews or CNN or a myriad of sports channel
In terms of driving dynamics, there's no controversy here. BMW's 7 Series has been widely lauded for its outstanding performance and ride. It's hard to rave about a vehicle that drives so well. There are only so many ways you can say great, and the 7 Series does everything extremely well.
The first thing we noticed about the BMW 745i was its wonderful, magic-carpet ride. This car smoothes out bumps, even speed bumps, to a point of astonishment. It's incredibly comfortable, yet the driver does not feel completely isolated from the road. The 745i senses when it's being driven hard, retuning the suspension appropriately for improved handling.
BMW's Active Roll Stabilization, a system of computer-controlled active anti-roll bars, increases roll resistance in hard cornering to keep the body flat in turns. At the same time, the system maintains enough suspension compliance to keep the tires planted on the road. Bumps in the middle of a high-speed corner do not upset the handling balance one whit. Several factors are at work here: a near-perfect weight distribution of 50 percent front and rear, which means neither end of the car is more prone to slide than the other; a highly rigid chassis that allows precise suspension tuning; and minimal unsprung weight, thanks to lightweight aluminum wheels, brake calipers and aluminum suspension components.
Remember: weighing up to 4900 pounds, depending on equipment, the 7 Series is not a small, lightweight car. But in some respects it feels smaller than it is. Anti-skid technology makes adjustments to maintain handling balance whenever grip is lost to any one tire. By applying braking force to individual wheels, it almost seems to bend the laws of physics. Just steer this thing where you want to go and the 7 Series takes you there. I felt this on a fast, greasy corner over a sharp crest that un-weighted the suspension. All four wheels lost grip, but we simply motored around the corner, drifting just slightly wide of the intended line. I never lifted my foot off the accelerator pedal nor made any adjustments in the steering. No special action on my part was needed. The 745i did all of that for me. The anti-skid system is transparent, in that you can't feel it kick in and out. BMW's system is less obtrusive and more performance-oriented than similar systems found in Mercedes and Lexus automobiles.
Steering the 7 Series cars is a joy. The rack-and-pinion steering is super sharp and precise. It's very light at low speeds for parking lots, but firms up at higher speeds for improved driver feel. It also steps up response by 10 percent as the wheel is turned off center, which means that the more you turn the wheel, the faster the car responds. With this steering system, it's easy to drive with extreme precision on winding roads at high speeds, placing the tires exactly where you want them. When hitting bumps, there's little or no kickback to the steering.
The drivetrains, V8 and V12, are absolutely silky when cruising around. The new six-speed automatic transmission is extremely smooth, yet it's among the most responsive we have ever experienced. Hit the accelerator pedal and the transmission drops a gear or two without any of that hesitation found in so many automatics. The additional gearing of the six-speed allows a lower first gear for quicker performance off the line, closer ratios in the middle gears for better mid-range response, and taller top gears for improved fuel economy. The 745i has a feature allowing the driver to downshift manually using a pair of buttons on the steering wheel, but I found that feature to be superfluous. With a transmission as responsive as this one, manual shifting seems more of a toy than anything else. Even on a racetrack, I'd probably put it in Drive and leave it there.
The 4.4-liter V8 engine is superb. It's very smooth when cruising. Combine the smooth drive train with the smooth ride and
The 7 Series is so smooth that full days behind the wheel are not taxing, and it's very comfortable in heavy commuter traffic. It's easy to drive this car well and few luxury sedans can keep up with it at high speeds. And the interior is sumptuous.
The 7 Series models are soaked with cutting-edge automotive technology, and with it all there's a steep learning curve. Dynamically, this may be the best car in the class. And that's no small feat, given that the competition includes some of the best cars in the world.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough is based in Los Angeles.
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