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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

(continued from page 1)

Over the years, 7 Series sales have been solid but never quite up to the automaker's expectations. Perhaps it's been the preponderance of 3 Series models on the road that have hurt the brand's image of exclusivity. By contrast, the S-Class has always been the visual image of that other German marque.

But the basic design of the 7-er hasn't helped, BMW design chief Chris Bangle candidly concedes. Past versions never had the solid and formal stance of the S-Class, traditionally the volume leader of the high-line segment. While there's no mistaking the big "Merc," previous generations of the 7 Series could easily be confused, at first glance, with the smaller and lower-status 5. So, as BMW set out to develop the newest version of the 7 Series, code-named E65, Bangle's team explored a variety of sporty, traditional and avant-garde approaches that would give the new model an unmistakable presence. They settled on a design that was decidedly more formal, commanding and authoritative, a look that would, in Bangle's words, "really exude power, like Michael Jordan in a great-looking suit." But it was a design, Bangle knew, that was also "colored with enormous risk."

From a performance perspective, the 2002 lives up to BMW's boasts. It's significantly more powerful than the old model, with a 4.4-liter V-8 coming just one horsepower short of last year's V-12. Despite its size, the sedan handles like a true performance machine, maneuvering even the most twisted roads with aplomb. Nor is there any reason to question the lavishness of the new 745i sedan. From the sumptuous leather swaddling the interior to the impressive array of creature comforts and sophisticated, onboard technology, the 7 sets new standards.

But there's no escaping the car's design, which seems intended to raise eyebrows from the moment it drives into view. There are, for starters, front headlights that look as if they've been touched up with eyeliner due to the odd positioning of the turn signals. The rear of the roof features an equally unusual appointment. Aptly dubbed the "shark fin," it conceals the satellite navigation and cell phone antennas. And the curious pattern of the taillights is decidedly un-BMW. In every dimension, the new 7 Series is bigger than the sedan it replaces. The hood line is about 4 centimeters taller, making way for all the new technology in the engine compartment. The roofline gains even more height, translating into increased interior space, especially for rear seat passengers. But that also created the sedan's most distinctive—and many will say unsettling—feature, its bustle-back trunk.

The deck lid rises like a Western plateau over the rear fenders, which slope off in relatively traditional fashion. The design harks back to the grand luxury sedans of years past, though the shape has a decidedly modern purpose. "The engineering of the trunk of this car was as complex as doing an entire car," explains Bangle.

Poor aerodynamics can limit top speed, shave fuel economy and impact performance and handling. This is, after all, a sedan designed for German roads, and a more conventional—read lower—trunk would have had a tendency to create lift at autobahn speeds. It's not a pleasant feeling when the tail of your car goes airborne at 100 miles an hour. As with a race car, BMW needed to provide downward force. There were several alternatives, including a spoiler or a trunk roughly a foot longer. BMW opted for the more radical solution.

It's not the first time the automaker has gone this route under the guidance of Bangle. He's taken a fair share of hits for what can be politely called the "quirky" design of the Z3 Coupe, the hardtop version of the popular Z3 roadster. Plenty of less courteous critics have decried the coupe as anything from "awkward" to "bulbous," (though a few diehard fans also recognize it as the more rigid and better handling version of the roadster). But the censure the Z3 Coupe received could only be called tepid compared with the firestorm the new 7 Series has unleashed. The look of the 2002 sedan has been a magnet for critics at such influential automotive publications as Germany's Auto Motor und Sport and America's Car and Driver.

Bangle insists it is a mere "media controversy." It's true that with his explanation of aerodynamic science, the sedan's shape takes on new meaning. But design is a subjective and emotional phenomenon, not an intellectual one, and the controversy is likely to continue as the first of the new sedans hit U.S. showrooms, much as it did when the 745i went on sale in Europe last autumn.

Styling isn't the only matter of debate. As with 7 Series models past, the E65 is a high-tech showpiece with an incredible 72 computers onboard. These control everything from engine operations to audio. The last-generation E32 sedan was already so filled with electronic gadgets that the necessary buttons, knobs and gauges made the cockpit glow like a swarm of angry fireflies. To rein things in, BMW has created the mobile answer to the mouse, a large knob mounted on the forward edge of the center armrest. Dubbed iDrive, it links the driver to virtually every piece of onboard hardware and software. Click it to the right, and the navigation screen pops up. To the left, and you're in climate control mode. Rotate the knob, and you're setting your destination or searching for a new radio station. It's creative. It's also challenging for those who don't have a degree in computer programming. While iDrive eventually becomes as intuitive as checking e-mail, it's likely to require a half-hour or more of learning time for the average 7 Series buyer. That's if he doesn't storm off in frustration during a showroom sales pitch.

The good news is that all key systems, including the radio and heater, can be operated without ever touching the iDrive, as there are redundant knobs and buttons for major functions. There's also a slick voice-control system that can do anything but order you a meal.

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