Driven: 2009 BMW 7-series Gives Less Bangle, More Bimmer

By Matt Davis

July 28, 2008

Miramas, France –

This was an incredible sensation we have to tell you about first. We’ve melted tires and drifted BMW M3s, M5s, and M6es without any effort whatsoever. We tried getting the 128i or 135i to do these things and it wasn’t easy. We tried the 335i and it’s just too composed to make it easy, though it can be done under certain circumstances. Bottom line is that BMW makes cars that must seize the driver’s heart and soul without much ado. They should goad us to play.

While we certainly have always felt the comfort and excellent build on recent 7-series, what we have never felt is any sense of heart or soul seizure from the experience. It’s this passionate edge that should always separate BMW cars (at least those at the high end of each model line) from Mercedes-Benz or Audi cars, if we’re limiting ourselves here to the Germans.

We just got done drifting effortlessly the almost all-new 750i and 750Li which will start deliveries in North America soon after the 2009 North American International Auto Show next January. This was happening in early pre-production cars from the Dingolfing factory on a heavily watered curve-filled area at the BMW proving grounds in southern France. You could retort that doing this on a wet closed course isn’t legit, but we’d sock you in the nose. When have you ever heard of or thought of a luxury car of this size being able to do this in any controlled manner over any surface at all?

Ask whether this talent is really at all necessary in a 7-series and we can see your point. But, then, why shouldn’t the richest buyers of the sporty BMW brand have the ability at least of setting the car up to do this under the right conditions? We had a stunning time sliding this big beast around and modulating the throttle and wheel spin over the sunny soaked surface. Judging from the reactions of the other three people in the car with us while we were at the wheel, they were as shocked and amazed by this new 7 as we were.

This new 7-series – codenamed “F01” for the normal wheelbase and “F02” for the stretch edition – does almost everything for us that we were hoping for in helping us put the oddly designed E65/66 current 7 Series out of our minds forever. While this has been the best selling 7 in the history of BMW, the design just has never really thrilled anyone we’ve ever spoken to, including ourselves. This, and the fact that the notorious iDrive onboard system was first thrust upon us in the current 7 back in late 2000, has made our admiration for the 7’s strengths strictly conditional.

First, the new car is very handsome and very BMW, with much more Adrian van Hooydonk and sexy California in it than the current car’s Chris Bangle and confused Bavaria. Height, width, and length dimensions are nearly the same as from the outgoing model. Basic big changes include the passenger cabin moving rearward a bit in orientation, the entire tail of the car having more presence and a very pleasant look, while the kidney grill gets augmented to our liking and in profile is upright and the furthest forward point of the car. It’s as though BMW has heard us loud and clear.

Inside, there was never anything glaringly in need of change apart from the awful earlier versions of the iDrive technology. (For another criticism of that, just read our review of the Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe.) BMW has answered this very clearly in time for the launch of the new 7-series. First off, the screen is a whopping 10.2 inches wide and the whole center stack is nicely turned 7.2 degrees toward the driver, which automatically makes way for clarifying every function that may never have been clear until today. Menus still operate via the circular mouse on the center console, but are now vertical and use terminology that works better. In the meantime, entering new addresses is slick and easy as the letters and numbers to enter are presented in a wheel format as we’ve seen on some other manufacturers’ systems. Several of the more banal top-level features we always seek, like a CD change, a quick jump to the Nav screen, or the Back button, are now all intuitively clustered around the mouse wheel. We like and often love this new iDrive, so let the whining cease!

Whether in 750i or 750Li trim, the basically new version of the company 4.4-liter V-8 (also used in the X6 xDrive50i), now fitted with twin turbochargers and capable of 402 horsepower, is a revelation. The first question we ask after having throttled it around at Miramas is: “Why on Earth do you need the 439-hp V-12 in the 760i and Li?” This a forty horsepower climb over the current naturally aspirated 4.8-liter V-8, plus 81 more pound-feet of torque (442 lb-ft total) to bring it dead equal with the V-12 anyway. And, of course, this bi-turbo V-8 750i or Li weighs roughly 350 pounds less than the 760 models. This a smoking combination that definitely threatens the existence of the V-12 engine in the BMW lineup. What we drove was a car that reacts much faster and can be every bit as comfortable and luxurious as the present V-12-equipped car. And your fuel bill will reflect all of this quite handily.

The two big new features technically are standard Dynamic Driving Control and the optional Integral Active Steering. DDC functions via a toggle switch just to the left of the electronic automatic shift joystick, and it changes the Dynamic Stability Control threshold of intervention, alters steering assistance, and recalibrates both gearshift timings and throttle tip-in. In Comfort mode, we felt like potentates en route to a soiree – as though our efficient V-8 were a fuel-spitting V-12. Switch to Normal and you’re good for city duties and the everyday wear and tear. In Sport mode, you get that very typical BMW Euro feel that we have adored for so many years and around so many curvy roads. All that happens in Sport Plus is the DSC threshold is taken just one step away from fully off, but the system will still rescue you readily if your talent expires. DDC presents us honestly with four distinctly different European driving experiences.

The IAS option meanwhile is essentially four-wheel steering that makes the previously odious Active Steering on the front axle acceptable by steering the rear wheels as well by up to three degrees. Below 38 mph (i.e. 60 kmh), the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction from the front wheels in order to assist slower speed maneuverability. Above 38 mph, the rears turn in the same direction as the fronts, something which made our high-speed slaloms and lane changes a composed breeze. You can’t get one without the other technology now on the 7-series, so you’re either fully IAS or fully traditional.

At last to the wet parcours and all the enlightening fun. All you have to do is press the DSC button just forward of the transmission joystick and you are left only with DTC for traction control. But keep the button pressed for three seconds and you are left with your inner ear and your throttle and steering expertise. While it could be made better only with a slightly more responsive throttle in transitions, the mere fact of tossing the big 7 around between weight shifts and drifting perfectly through very long wet sweepers was a surreal thing to behold. The limited-slip differential comes to help a bit, but we were fundamentally in M5/M6 mode out there.

As we said, deliveries start after the January 2009 NAIAS in Detroit. Look for pricing to start at around $84,500 for the 750i and at $87,500 for the 750Li. BMW is also indicating that an ActiveHybrid version – as planned also for the X6 – is being engineered as we speak, while the Hydrogen 7 will indeed experience a new generation version with this new 7-series. The 730d diesel six-cylinder or 740i six-cylinder gas setups will most likely remain Europe-only. In addition, we should expect a new eight-speed ECVT transmission for the 7-series at the midlife facelift point in 2011.

2009 BMW 750i
Engine bi-turbo v8, 4.4 liters, 32v
Output 402 hp / 442 lb-ft
Top Speed 155 mph*
Weight 4453 lbs.
0-62 MPH 5.2 secs.
Price as Tested (EST) $100,000