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BMW's 7th Heaven

Bavaria's "ultimate driving machine" takes the next step, but not without some controversy
By Paul A. Eisenstein | From Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02
BMW's 7th Heaven

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.

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.

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.

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an auto magazine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.com.