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Friday, January 23, 2009

A Worthy Flagship

When you're an eye-catching overachiever, everyone focuses on your looks. So when BMW's current 7 Series debuted in 2001, much of its innovation was overlooked in the controversy caused by its styling.

With the introduction of the all-new 2009 BMW 750i, Bavaria's most famous carmaker deemphasizes the visuals while advancing the car's state of technical innovation further yet. If you've heard the phrase "walk softly and carry a big stick," then you've got the idea behind the 2009 BMW 750i.

Larger and Lighter
Karim Habib's design team has successfully balanced traditional BMW cues with this full-size car's proportions and stance. Europe's pedestrian crash standards have exerted obvious influence on the 750i's upright nose, while the new car's less adventurous styling is easier on the eyes than the self-conscious detailing of its predecessor.

Despite the new car's longer wheelbase and wider track, weight has been pared by some 82 pounds and torsional stiffness has been increased by 20 percent. Credit the strategic use of ultra-high-strength steel in the structure and the use of aluminum for the roof, doors, hood, rear subframe, differential housing and all suspension links.

Whether due to lightness or just hyper-slick grease, the door of the preproduction car we drove glides open, and a light tug of the protruding wood trim inside closes the door with a whump. The interior materials and construction appear to be to a high standard. The ambience does not stray far from other BMW offerings.

At the same time, those familiar with the outgoing 7 Series will notice that the cruise-control paddle is gone, and now it's been relocated to the left-hand spoke of the steering wheel. Likewise BMW has replaced the steering-column-mounted gear selector with the electric razor job on the center console just like in the new BMW X5.

iDrive Is No Longer a Four-Letter Word
Critics of iDrive can rejoice. In an implicit admission that the much-maligned multimedia system needed a rethink, BMW has completely overhauled it. The improvement is commendable. New shortcut buttons to the various functions such as radio and navigation (including a "back" button like an Internet browser) can be operated by feel, and navigating through its various menus is far more intuitive.

A larger, clearer 10.2-inch black panel screen has impressive resolution and doesn't wash out in sunlight. A touchscreen display continues to be eschewed, as BMW contends such a design demands more focal adjustment of your eyes and thus requires too long to take a glance.

The Bavarian automaker's flagship is replete with techno-goodies. In addition to the familiar active antiroll bars, new systems include optional rear-wheel steering and standard multimode dampers that adjust both rebound and compression damping. Versions of the 7 Series sold in Europe will even recognize speed limit signs, a system that is currently under review for U.S.-bound models.

On the safety front, there is a lane departure warning system and an enhanced thermal-imaging night vision system that recognizes pedestrians. A note on corporate philosophy here — these systems only provide warnings. BMW stopped short of allowing these systems to subsequently alter the driver's steering or braking inputs on the philosophical grounds that doing so removes too much control from the driver.

Dynamic Personalities
To the left of the gear selector is a cluster of buttons that command the new "Dynamic Driving Control." This system allows the driver to toggle through four vehicle configurations — Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus. They comprise increasingly aggressive levels of damper control, steering assist and ratio, antiroll bar stiffness, shift calibration of the six-speed autobox, throttle gain and stability control.

It takes more than clever electronics to shape a car's character, however, as an all-new double-wishbone front suspension shows that the fundamentals of suspension geometry have not gone unscrutinized by the engineers. The new front end improves cornering grip by means of a more favorable camber curve, compared to the MacPherson struts typically found on BMWs.

Putting the Pieces Together
BMW orchestrated a battery of ride and handling evaluations at its test center in Miramas, France, to show off the 750i's skill set. This former F1 circuit has bumps and berms and we learned that, indeed, there are meaningful distinctions between the driving modes, yet each mode demonstrates a convincing level of aptitude. There's something here for a wide variety of drivers.

What stands out the most about the technology is its transparency — the driving experience of the 2009 BMW 750i doesn't fall on the sword of its own competence. You can point it at apexes and throttle-balance the cornering attitude because you have a good sense of just how much grip each tire is providing. Sport Plus with DSC on even allows a bit of tail-out driving before intervening to correct the slide. The 750i is (and this came as a bit of a surprise) fun to drive in anger.

Whether at speed or simply maneuvering into a parking stall, the 750i is far more agile than you'd expect this full-size luxo-liner to be. The rear-steering helps here, knocking 28 inches off the turning circle by turning the rear wheels up to 3 degrees in the opposite direction from the fronts at low speeds. At higher speeds, the rear wheels turn in phase with the fronts to facilitate lane changes. In all, BMW's rear steer appears to do its job without the eerie side effects of the system on the Infiniti G37.

Discreet Speed
Part of the 750i's enthusiastic nature can be attributed to the 400-horsepower twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 shared with the X6, which picks up the lighter 750i and hurls it forward with authority. The company claims a 0-100-km/h (62-mph) time of 5.2 seconds.

Between corners, no turbo lag is perceived, nor any vibration and precious little noise. The direct-injection mill's maximum torque of 442 pound-feet is on tap over a plateau from 1,750-4,500 rpm, and the scenery simply blurs past in a seamless rush as velocity heaps ever upward.

It's an effortless feeling more reminiscent of a normally aspirated V12 than a boosted eight-cylinder, an entirely appropriate demeanor for a top-flight luxury sedan. Good thing, too, because the V8 is the only engine that will be available at the launch of the U.S.-spec 750i and extended-wheelbase 750Li in March of next year.

Without having to explain its styling the way its predecessor did, the ample merits of the 2009 BMW 750i emerge in a clearer light. This one promises to make a prominent impact in the full-size luxury sedan segment. Watch for it.