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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 2)

Thanks to the iDrive, the interior of the new 7 Series is incredibly simple and decidedly elegant, taking the concept of lavishness to a new level. There's far less to distract the eye, though there's been a rich attention to detail. One of the more unusual yet handsome features is the optional matte wood finish. Ironically, the wood in some of today's luxury cars is so glossy it can resemble plastic. The look here is more one of Scandinavian simplicity, belying the complexity quite literally at hand when one grips the iDrive knob.

Anyone following the luxury car market knows that audio is a big selling point these days. Lexus has made much of its affiliation with specialty supplier Mark Levinson. BMW hopes to go one better with the new Logic 7 system supplied by Levinson's sister division, Harman Kardon. The sound of the seven-channel system is overwhelming.

It's crystal clear and transforms the passenger compartment into a philharmonic hall. It's easy to find yourself simply sitting in the car, parked, with your eyes closed, listening to a selection of tunes. The only anachronistic note is the use of awkward CD cartridges rather than the state-of-the-art six-CD changers found in so many other cars at far lower prices these days.

Like any BMW at any price point, performance is the bottom-line selling proposition, and here there's no mistaking the new 7 Series' credentials. The sedan is powered by a 325-horsepower, 4.4-liter V-8. That's 15 percent more power than the old 740i, and enough to propel the big sedan from 0 to 60 in just 5.9 seconds. At the same time, the 745i delivers 13 percent better fuel efficiency than the old car. That seeming contradiction results from several factors, including the surprising statistic that the new car is lighter by almost 100 pounds than the one it replaces. But give primary credit to some incredible technology under the hood.

The new throttleless fuel injection system is more efficient and smoother at idle. Then there's the stepless variable intake manifold. While multilength intake runners have become the norm, the 745i's manifold is an electronically regulated maze that can instantly adjust the airflow path anywhere from 8.5 to nearly 24 inches, according to engine speed. In lay terms, the engine is always breathing at its most efficient. Valve timing is infinitely variable. And the engine has been mated to the first-ever six-speed automatic in relatively high-volume production. The transmission's lower gears have been tuned for takeoff, a nod to the realities of American roadways, while the top two are overdrive gears for better mileage.

Huge 13.7-inch front and 13.6-inch rear brake rotors are more than capable of scrubbing off autobahn speeds. These are the biggest ever on a 7 Series model, and the second largest ever on any BMW.

For the first time, BMW offers a V-8 with rack-and-pinion steering. Add to that a trick electronic roll control system. The front and rear sway bars have been sliced in half, then mated to a "smart" motor system that instantly senses road forces. In a corner, it torques the sway bars to minimize roll. Then there's BMW's stability control system. The result is a big sedan with sports car road manners. Steering is precise and confidence-inspiring. The 745i flies through the tight-and-twisties with only the slightest hint of roll.

Should you get in trouble, there's virtually every conceivable safety feature onboard, from active ride control to passive airbag systems, including a novel knee bag that adds another measure of protection during a frontal crash.

While it's naive to dismiss the hullabaloo over the new car's design, it certainly hasn't led to the decline and fall of the BMW empire. Overall, U.S. sales surged to a record 213,500 last year, up an impressive 12.5 percent. True, skeptics might note, that was before the new 7-er hit the market, but in Europe, where the sedan was available during the final quarter of 2001, sales were equally strong. Global volumes hit a record 905,000 last year, up 10 percent. Of course, the new 7 isn't all that BMW has been bringing to market in recent months. It's added all-wheel-drive to the 3 Series lineup. There's a new, high-performance M3 model, new cabrios and bigger engines across the product range. "All these things generated glitter dust," says Purves.

The X5, the so-called Sport-Activity Vehicle, has certainly boosted BMW's momentum, especially in the United States, where light trucks, in all their flavors, now account for half the market. And there's plenty more coming, from the reborn 6 Series coupe to a modern-day version of the 2 Series, which hits the road later this year. A downsized SAV, based off the 3 Series, is also in the works. But there's no escaping the import of the new 7 Series. The sedan defines the identity and aspirations of BMW as much as it does its buyers'. And if early trends hold, the controversy over the iDrive and bustleback are likely to bring more potential customers than ever into BMW showrooms. The new 745 is going to take many of them by surprise, while some will be turned off by its unusual shape. But on the whole, it's a competent and luxurious vehicle that will command a first—and if necessary, a second—look.

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