Few mainstream automobiles in the past 20 years have captured the world's attention or stirred controversy to the extent that BMW's ambitious 7 Series has. Yes, the 7 Series still sparks debate two 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, for Long, offers even greater legroom in the back seats. If the recently launched, V12-powered 760Li doesn't stir something inside you, you may as well call a cab.
All the 7 Series models are exceptionally powerful and responsive. The level of technology borders on overkill. There are silent, hidden fans and heating elements to cool or warm your rear end, or your soft drink; microchips to instantaneously account for a skidding tire or apply the brakes full force just in case you don't; power-deployed shades to keep the sun off your rear passengers' brows. A single, mouse-like interface, BMW's controversial iDrive, controls virtually everything in the cabin, from the heater to the radio to the navigation system. To be sure, these systems can require serious commitment to master, but most are genuinely useful. The 7 Series has the best-sounding stereo we've experienced in a car. The whisper-quiet cabin is a great place for quiet conversation, ripping electric guitar solos, Mozart concertos, or magnificent solitude.
Known for brilliant high-performance sedans with conservative styling and straightforward interiors, BMW stepped out of the box with this design. The two years since the 7 Series launch have tempered controversy over its stunning styling only a little. Like it or not, the design is based on rational objectives, and we are growing to appreciate it.
BMW filled out the 7 Series line in 2003 with launch of the 438-hp 760Li, but it didn't sit still for 2004. This year, the iDrive has been simplified, er, improved, er, ummm, changed. The already sophisticated climate control has been improved with precise humidity management, and the side mirrors fold in at the touch of a button to squeeze this big sedan into tight parking spots. Adaptive headlights that turn with the car and a Sirius satellite radio receiver are now optional.
This car pushes the limits of driving technology over the horizon. Never mind the density of the owner's manuals (that's plural); owners may get tired of teaching valets how to start the car and put it in gear, to say nothing of the electronic parking brake. 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,: and we don't find much to quibble with there. Comparably equipped, the 7 Series even costs less than its primary competitor, the Mercedes S-Class.
As big luxury sedans go, the BMW 7 Series is indeed the ultimate driving machine.
The 745i rides on a 117.7-inch wheelbase, while the 745Li and 760Li stretch that measurement to 123.5 inches. The long-wheelbase Li models are 5.5 inches longer bumper to bumper, and virtually all of that translates into more rear-seat legroom.
Not surprisingly, all 7 Series sedans come standard with a long list of luxury features, including interiors trimmed in a choice of rich leathers and woods. The 745i has dual-zone automatic climate control with activated-charcoal microfilter ventilation, matte-finish black cherry wood trim, BMW Assist emergency and informational communications, 14-way power seats, a power moonroof, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, a climate-controlled front console compartment, and single-CD audio with 10 speakers. The 745Li adds 20-way power front Comfort Seats with articulated upper backrests, passenger-seat memory and active head restraints. Both 745 models come standard with V-speed-rated 245/50VR18 tires on 18-inch alloy wheels; 19-inch wheels with performance tires (245/45 front, 275/40 rear) are optional ($1,300).
The 760Li has most everything BMW offers, including a government-imposed gas-guzzler tax ($1,300). The base price covers a choice of light or dark high-gloss Ash trim with inlays, and leather on virtually all interior surfaces except the dash, headliner and floor. It includes soft-touch door-closing assists, heated and ventilated seats front and rear, Park Distance Control to keep track of those hard-to-see obstacles and power privacy shades. The only options available on the 760Li are radar-managed Active Cruise Control ($2,200), Adaptive Headlights ($300) that aim around corners when you turn the steering wheel, rear climate control with a cool box ($1,800), and satellite radio prep ($75). Why go to a five-star resort if you're driving one of these? Just stay in the car.
Most of what's offered on the 760Li is available on the 745i and 745Li through individual options or packages. The six option packages for the V8s include: the Sport Package ($3,200) adding 19-inch wheels and tires, sport-tuned suspension, more aggressively bolstered sport seating and specific exterior and interior trim; an Adaptive Ride Package ($1900), with a self-leveling rear suspension and Electronic Damping Control that automatically adjusts shock damping according to conditions; a Cold Weather Package ($1100) that adds a heated steering wheel, heated front and rear seats, and a ski bag; the Convenience Package ($1000), which includes soft-close doors that suck themselves shut and power trunk-lid operation; a Luxury Seating Package ($2500 for the 745i, $1600, for the 745Li) that adds 20-way adjustment to the 745i, front and rear seat heating, fans to blow air through the seating surfaces and an automatic massager; and finally, the Premium Sound Package ($1800) with increased audio power, two subwoofers, Digital Sound Processing and six-CD changer.
BMW's iDrive interface system is standard on all 7 Series models, and can operate virtually everything in the car, from stereo to climate controls to telephone to navigation, with a single mouse-like control.
Ten airbags are available. The standard array includes two frontal airbags, two front passenger side-impact airbags and BMW's Head Protection System, which amounts to a full-length, tube-shaped curtain on both sides of the cabin for front and rear head protection in a side impact. Also standard is BMW's Active Knee Protection, unique inflatable airbags that protect front passengers' knees.
BMW stepped out of the box and produced a revolutionary blueprint for its 7 Series sedans. Design objectives included styling with more presence and greater curb appeal. Indeed, the current 7 Series look more agile and muscular than the previous-generation models, which were relatively bland. Though the trademark twin-kidney grille and long hood make it clear that this is a BMW, the 2004 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 created controversy among design critics and the automotive media alike. BMW claims its buyers love it. With time in the car and a detailed explanation from BMW as to why it looks like it does, we can tell you that the 7 Series styling is based on rational objectives. We're warming up to it , or maybe we're getting used to it.
Underneath the styling sit several important parameters: This 7 Series is substantially taller than its predecessor (2.2 inches taller), 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. 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. While front-wheel-drive Chryslers use a cab-forward design, 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 the top speed. And 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 are a departure, extending across the trunk lid: 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 supposed to signal drivers in vehicles following the 7 Series that the BMW is stopping very quickly. If that isn't impressive enough for you, a monitoring system will indicate that a bulb is burned out. And while you're waiting for an opportunity to have it replaced, the system will commandeer other bulbs in the taillamps to use as brake lights.
In 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 are adapting 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. For 2004, the Adaptive Headlight option allows the outboard lights to turn with the car, focusing their beams
High-quality materials and elegant design make the 7 Series cabin an exceedingly pleasant place to conduct the business of driving. Because the iDrive system eliminates so many switches and knobs, the dash looks particularly clean and elegant. 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.
The two front cup holders are handsome, high-tech, and practical. The sun visors do not appear to live up to the quality of the rest of the interior, though. 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.
Any of the front seats offered are supportive and comfortable. The standard seats in the 745i adjust 14 ways; the upgrade Comfort Seats, standard on the long-wheelbase models and optional on the 745i, adjust in 20 directions. Moreover, some adjustments are automatic, including the headrests, which change height according to the position of the seat. The wide-shoulder seats included in the sport package have bolstering on par with those in a sports car. The V12 760Li includes Active Seat Ventilation (optional on the V8s), which cools the front and rear seats in the summer by blowing air through micro-perforations in the leather, and adds a vibrating feature. Leather trim elsewhere inside is perforated to complement this option.
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. For 2004, the 7's climate controls have been improved with an automatic humidity control that maintains relative humidity near an optimal 40 percent. A new misting sensor detects misting on the windshield and automatically wipes it off.
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 elegance of the rear seats. The 760Li includes power sunshades for the rear and rear side windows, as well as rear Comfort Seats (optional on the 745Li). These include electric heating and 14-way power adjustments, with a control that allows rear seat passengers to move the front passenger seat forward. Having a skilled professional drive you around while you luxuriate in back is not the worst way to travel.
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 optional Premium Sound Package ($1800), 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, and includes a CD changer. The optional Sirius receiver, new for 2004, opens the 7 Series to the joy of satellite radio. The subscription fee includes 60 commercial-free channels of music and 40 of news, sports and talk. It's great for tun
In terms of driving dynamics, there's no controversy. 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 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 explored this on a fast, greasy corner over a 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 far less obtrusive and more performance-oriented than similar systems found in Mercedes-Benz and Lexus automobiles. That means that it probably leaves the driver a bit more room for errors.
Steering the 745i 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 the 7 Series with extreme precision on winding roads at very high speeds, placing the tires exactly where you want them. When hitting bumps, there's little or no kickback to the steering.
Either of the 7 Series drivetrains is absolutely silky when cruising around. The new six-speed automatic transmission is extremely smooth, yet it's the most responsive I have ever experienced. Those are usually mutually exclusive benefits. Hit the accelerator pedal and the transmission drops a gear or two without any of that hesitation found in so many automatics. This six-speed automatic is smaller and lighter than the previous five-speed automatic. The additional gearing gives it quicker performance off the line with a lower first gear, better response in the mid range with ratios that are closer together, and improved fuel economy with taller top gears. The 745i does offer 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 el
The 7 Series is so smooth that full days behind the wheel are not taxing. After spending 350 high-speed miles in a BMW 745i, we were ready for 350 more. Heck, we were ready to take it home. It's very comfortable in heavy traffic. Few luxury sedans can keep up with the 7 Series at high speeds, and it's easy to drive this car well. And the interior is sumptuous.
None of the 7 Series models offer all-wheel drive, which is available on both of its most direct competitors: the Mercedes S-Class and Audi A8. Yet this BMW is soaked with cutting-edge automotive technology, and with it all there's a steep learning curve. Owners should prepare themselves for serious reading time with the owner's manuals. You'll need to explain even the most basic operations (like starting) to anyone else who drives their car. The 7 Series may be ahead of its time, or it may simply be beyond the effort many buyers are willing to invest.
Of course, there's always help from the dealership. Have the BMW store set all the gizmos, sit down and drive, and the annoyances will be reduced. If you embrace its styling, any of the three 7 Series models will do. 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.