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BMW's 7th Heaven

Bavaria's "ultimate driving machine" takes the next step, but not without some controversy
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

A thick shroud has descended over the Texas hill country, an early morning calm suddenly shattered by the roar of a dark sedan. It bursts through the mist with the poise of a big cat on the prowl. As the sun begins to burn through the gray haze, the driver squeezes down on the accelerator. And despite its size, the 745i confidently grips the narrow, two-lane tarmac, bobbing and weaving past timeworn shacks and fallow farm fields.

The newly updated flagship of Bayerische Motoren Werke, the 2002 7 Series was designed as a showcase for all that makes "the ultimate driving machine" one of those rare advertising slogans that actually comes close to capturing the soul of an automotive brand. The new 745i is roomy and lavish, laden with the latest in electronics, but above all, this big sedan handles with the grace of a sports car. So why has it planted BMW squarely at the center of a trans-Atlantic storm?

In the rarified air of top-end luxury sedans, the rule is simple: don't rock the boat. "Heritage" is the operative word, and few have followed that mantra more effectively than BMW. From the trend- setting 2002tii of 30 years ago to today's popular 3 Series sedans, coupes and cabrios, the BMW look has been and remains unmistakably identifiable at a moment's glance, starting with the trademark kidney grille. But when BMW sent its designers back to the drawing boards to develop an all-new "7-er," they followed the path of revolution over evolution, opting for a look so decidedly out of the norm that for some, it is downright uncomfortable. Add the ingenious, if quirky iDrive, the automotive equivalent of a joystick, and the new 7 has become the most controversial luxury sedan in decades.

Will the 745i position BMW as the benchmark of top-line luxury, or serve as an embarrassing failure? Despite the German automaker's long record of success, it certainly wouldn't be the first time BMW has missed the mark.

Born in Munich in 1916, BMW was little more than a niche player—certainly as far as the American market was concerned—until the last few decades. The legendary 507 sports car of 1956 provided the first glimpse of what the automaker could achieve. But it was the launch of the 2002 in 1968 that began the long transition from cult to mainstream. For many performance-minded baby boomers, the 2002 and turbocharged 2002tii provided a sleek, swift alternative to the heavy metal Detroit was peddling.

But BMW's transformation occurred with the 3 Series during the boom years of the mid-1980s. It was an era, as Hollywood led us to believe, when greed was good, and the 3-er was as much the uniform of the upwardly mobile Yuppie as a blazing yellow power tie. The 3 Series dominated the BMW brand—until a tumbling stock market, insider trading scandals and a recession transformed it overnight into a nearly ludicrous stereotype.

Though the 3 Series came to symbolize that era of overachievement, BMW certainly wasn't the only European import in trouble as the '80s dragged to a close. A new generation of Asian luxury nameplates, led by Toyota's Lexus brand, offered an enticing array of luxury features for a fraction of the price, and promised bulletproof quality to boot. Within a few short years, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Audi sales had also collapsed, and brands like Alfa-Romeo, Sterling and Peugeot pulled up stakes and went home.

Yet the normally stiff Teutonic mindset proved both nimble and malleable. The Germans struck back with a new assortment of products that were even more lavish, powerful and, in keeping with the times, significantly less expensive. Not so coincidentally, shifting exchange rates helped drive up Japanese prices.

But while a reinvigorated 3 Series remained BMW's best-seller, the automaker also shifted emphasis to its higher-line models, including the performance-oriented 5 Series and the top-line 7.

The original 7-er provided an opportunity to showcase Bavarian technology. Introduced in the late 1970s, the car featured the world's first electronic engine controller, as well as an onboard computer system that was "decidedly difficult to operate," concedes Tom Purves, the chief executive officer of BMW North America. The original 7 Series also was clearly underpowered, a problem BMW was quick to address. BMW soon rolled out a V-12, the first from a German automaker since the start of the Second World War.

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